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According to merit? Rigid no, flexible yes

Every Issue

Cite as: (2009) 83(04) LIJ, p.85

Tough times call for flexibility and cooperation.

The irony is that in these times, work/life balance and flexible work practices may provide one of the answers for law firms wanting to retain quality staff and ride through the hard times.

The current economic crisis is affecting the workplace in a myriad of ways.

In recent weeks, Victorian Premier John Brumby has called for employers to keep employees if at all possible and said that the government would deliver the necessary tax cuts and stimulus to make that possible. 1

The Australian Financial Review has reported that work/life balance has dropped down on candidates’ list of demands2 and the ACTU has softened calls on the government to introduce paid maternity leave in the next budget in light of the financial crisis. 3

In these times, when people are concerned to retain their jobs, there is a sense that you need to be seen to be valued, and that it might be risky to ask for work/life balance if you are worried about your job.

Job security is paramount at the moment, and employers are well aware of this.

Work/life balance though has intrinsic value for both employers and employees. And this is not the time for employers to make those working flexibly feel uncomfortable or for there to be a work culture where employees are hesitant to ask for flexible work practices.

The irony is that in these times, work/life balance and flexible work practices may provide one of the answers for law firms wanting to retain quality staff and ride through the hard times.

Options for retaining staff reported recently in the press4 include offering those in more stagnant practice areas a 12-month leave of absence on a percentage of their salary, and redeploying staff into expanding areas. Also, PILCH CEO Matt Tinkler has urged firms to retain quality staff by building up their pro bono practices (which are much needed in these times).

There are other options for firms interested in finding ways around staffing in the current economic situation.

Telecommuting or working from home in this context could provide the big answer for retaining staff. The distinction of “work as something we do” as opposed to “somewhere we go” needs to be made.

The law is the last bastion in many ways for telecommuting to be effective as a real work solution.

By telecommuting I mean working from home, and working in the office when required, such as for meetings or court. And it can mean doing the bulk of one’s work from home. Obviously this entails collaboration with others via email and phone and requires good organisation and logistics.

Personal computers, internet, mobile phones, blackberries, voicemail or faxes able to be received as an email attachment and instant messaging (enabling managers to know if someone is online, on the phone or in a meeting etc. or what they are working on) mean staff can stay connected to the office by remote access.

Added benefits in these times for this work model include reductions in office space and real estate costs, reductions in overhead expenses, increased productivity and staff retention and satisfaction, job-share arrangements being a realistic option and reduced toll on the environment (fewer commuters driving to work). There is also the benefit of having a decentralised place of work if employees cannot get to their primary place of employment due to emergencies or natural disasters (such as bushfires or floods).

Telecommuting also accommodates part-timers such as quasi retirees or those with young children or elderly relatives to care for, enabling them to job-share or work part-time effectively.

Further, employees may prefer the option of telecommuting on a regular weekly basis rather than a pay rise. It is also a great way to boost morale. [For more on telecommuting, see “Work away from work”, April 2007 LIJ, page 92.]

Allowing staff to telecommute and/or job-share may require some additional coordination by managers, but in these times it is a necessary requirement of being an effective manager.

A program can be coordinated outlining the common hours when employees are available, meeting times and performance expectations. It has been suggested work from home employees devote more time to their employer because of the time and money saved by working from home.

Thinking outside the square and redefining the paradigm of work is necessary.

While there is a resistance to change in conservative quarters, the technology is there, making it all possible.

Expert on crisis communications Dr Peter Sandman5 advises that in times of crisis it is important to share knowledge to build up the feeling that “we’re in this together”.

Among his recommendations are: don’t over-reassure, acknowledge uncertainty, be willing to speculate, err on the alarming side, share dilemmas, legitimise people’s fears, ask more of people, establish your own humanity and acknowledge that no one has all the answers.

As Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in January: 6 “We are all in this together: business, unions, governments, the community sector – and every nation in the world”, and this crisis demands some new cooperative thinking to get us through these tough economic times.

SIMONE JACOBSON is a committee member of the WBA and former WBA convenor.

1. ABC local radio, 26 February 2009,

2. “Stay seated until the music starts”, AFR, 27 February 2009, p55.

3. Leo Shanahan, “Unions ease up on maternity leave calls”, The Age, 3 March 2009, p4.

4. Note 2 above.

5. See

6. “Bad news must be told”, The Age, 20 January 2009.


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