Goodbye job applications, hello dream career
Seize control of your career and design the future you deserve with LW career

‘Flexible work can work’ in 2024

Flexible working has continually evolved since the onset of the pandemic. However, despite many companies pushing for office mandates, this partner remains adamant that working from home will continue in 2024.

user iconLauren Croft 12 March 2024 Big Law
expand image

Fay Calderone is a partner at Hall & Wilcox. Speaking recently on The Lawyers Weekly Show, she discussed the state of affairs in working-from-home (WFH) arrangements within the legal workplace and the evolution of WFH practices since the onset of COVID-19.

The pandemic created a “burning platform for change”, with many employers who would have never considered flexible working previously forced to completely pivot.

However, Calderone said that in 2024, while more chief executives are expecting workers back to the office, employees are still demanding more trust and flexibility amid changing laws and regulations.

 
 

“The Fair Work Act has been amended to broaden flexible work requests and to allow the Fair Work Commission to scrutinise the reasonable business grounds upon which an employee denies a flexible, refuses to approve a flexible work request. So, we’ve got some compliance considerations for employers emerging from what is the evolving law in that respect,” she explained.

“And we also have, nationally, the work, health and safety regulators focused very specifically on psychosocial hazards in the workplace and unreasonable working hours and the expectation that employees are always on, or that they work hours above and beyond what are reasonable additional hours in the Fair Work Act.

“So, we’ve got this interesting intersection between the law compliance regimes industrially from a safety point of view and what is a completely changed operating platform for employers globally, where employees are demanding more trust, autonomy, flexibility. And there is significant evidence to demonstrate that flexible work is a solid foundation for creating diverse, inclusive and high-performance environments, creative environments, innovative environments.”

While multiple partners have previously expressed concerns regarding missed mentoring and learning opportunities in the face of flexible working, many junior lawyers who started their careers in the midst of statewide lockdowns are more reluctant to come into the office, as they are able to perform at home.

“Whatever your policy looks like, it’s really important that we are deliberate about how we engage, particularly with our junior staff, and ensure that mentoring and development. I don’t agree that it needs to always be in the office. I certainly don’t agree with a mandate that everyone be in the office. I don’t think that’s the way the world has evolved, and I don’t think it’s the key to high performance,” Calderone added.

“I do think that FaceTime is good, and you do get a lot of interaction and have those incidental conversations and can pull someone into a conference room with a client or with, even if the client is on a video call, you still have those conversations before and after. And you can, of course, develop and mentor on the go like that.

“But if you have a structured, flexible work arrangement in place, where people are used to interacting online and have networking opportunities in terms of social networking online, and then some days that they are dedicated as team day, or designated as team days, or days where you do have court, or you do have face-to-face conferences, or you do have presentations; it’s not like we’re all working away from the office all of the time. I think the balance can be struck.”

This balance, however, comes from firms being “deliberate”, particularly with the developing subcultures within firms, which Calderone is currently seeing a lot of in the market.

“Where we have people that have traditionally been used to working in the office, although they did work at home during the pandemic and maybe a bit more flexibly in the past or in sort of the recent past, I’ve seen sort of almost a complete return to the office. I think the danger is that there are people that will galvanise around them, especially if they know that it is easy for them to, or better for them to get work while they’re physically present in the office,” she said.

“And the partners or leaders may perceive that it’s easier to delegate work to people that are closest to them in the office. I think the unintended consequence of that is that we will see that [people who] have carers responsibilities, disabilities or that have a requirement to work from home may find themselves not getting the best work, or not getting sufficient work, which means they don’t meet their budget, which means that they don’t then get the bonus or the promotion, or the progression that others who are physically present in the office see.

“So, unless the firms are deliberate in what the strategies look like and what should happen and how people should progress, if you’re allowing that, then you shouldn’t prejudice someone for taking it up.”

And with employers under increased pressure and client expectations ramping up, Calderone said that there’s “so much uncertainty” in the market right now.

“There are so many issues that [employers] are grappling with in a challenging and unstable economy, and they need service and delivery and accessibility and all of the things that you would expect in a fast-paced professional services environment, which is a challenge, while you’re also trying to ensure balance and the health, safety and wellbeing of your lawyers, because they are humans.

“We are all humans, and we need to practise what we preach to our clients. As partners of law firms and as leaders in law firms, the more we are trying to do the right thing and encourage our staff to disconnect, I have found that over the years, it does take a huge toll on the partners and the leaders who then have to fill those gaps. And I think we all need to be looking after ourselves, too,” she said.

Approaching these conversations also should be done as a team rather than putting the onus on the individual who is trying to “assert their rights”, Calderone concluded.

“We’re lawyers, but we really should be looking at the high watermark of what we’re trying to achieve, and that’s service delivery to our clients. Why is it going to be more efficient? What can you work more productively on? You could say, look, I’ve got court and all of these commitments in the office on various days, but I’ve got this one project that I want to work on, or once a week or twice a week, I really could do with that time at home in order to just get through x, y and z that I really don’t need to be in the office. And you sell,” she added.

“It really does depend. But we need to not lose sight of the fact that flexible work can work and has many established benefits in terms of performance, creativity, innovation, [and] productivity. I think we need to be careful to not lose sight of that and pose the question in terms of flexible work for accommodating people that need it.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Fay Calderone, click below: