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The culture conundrum: Flexible work arrangement hindered by firm attitudes
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The culture conundrum: Flexible work arrangement hindered by firm attitudes

The real stumbling block to flexible work arrangements such as part-time roles has more to do with organisational attitudes than the job itself. Briana Everett reports

The real stumbling block to flexible work arrangements such as part-time roles has more to do with organisational attitudes than the job itself. Briana Everett reports

ORGANSATION KEY TO FLEXIBILITY: Natalie Smith from the Queensland University of Technology's School of Management
Law firms need to closely examine their culture and get more creative when it comes to accommodating part-time arrangements, according to new research on part-time work design.

Due to traditional notions of a lawyer's day-to-day work, including huge workloads and challenging timeframes, the applicability of part-time work structures to the legal profession is often questioned and debated by many within the industry.

As a result of a culture that often goes against alternative work structures such as part-time work or working-from-home arrangements, while Australian professional services firms increasingly offer part-time work arrangements, the stigma associated with part-time work remains, impacting negatively on work/life balance and career progression opportunities.

But according to Natalie Smith from the Queensland University of Technology's School of Management, despite the common characteristics of a lawyer's day-to-day work, the part-time conundrum faced by many professional services firms can be resolved through better job design and improvements in organisational culture.

For her report, Professional part-time work design, Smith interviewed 16 part-time employees from professional services firms as well as eight of their managers. She identified the culture of long working hours that is thriving within professional services organisations and in some cases, the implicit pressure to be physically present in an office, despite the fact aspects of the job could be performed off-site.

And when it comes to transitioning to part-time work, Smith's research revealed that for many participants, remuneration was the only aspect that changed, while workload, performance objectives and the job itself remained the same.

Accordingly, to make part-time arrangements a reality for lawyers, Smith says firms need to "take a long, hard look at their culture" and be prepared to adjust performance objectives and measures, redesign difficult roles, analyse their culture and contextual factors limiting part-time work and explore case studies of what is being done in other industries - otherwise they risk losing their staff.

"For the legal participants I interviewed there was nothing evident about the work itself that should make it particularly difficult on a part-time basis," Smith says. "The main stumbling block in some firms seemed to be the assumption around the way work can be done and a culture of long work hours."

Chief executive of Lipman Karas, Tom Russo, agrees that the transition to part-time work is not only realistic for lawyers, but also that the careers of lawyers working part-time can still flourish.

"Our focus is not on how long people are in the office for, but on what they bring to the table in terms of their skill-set and work product," Russo says. "The reality is that exceptional people are hard to find and so when you do, you need to ensure that when transitioning to a part-time role they are given not only the flexibility and support to continue to work at the highest level, but also the opportunities to continue to achieve their professional goals."

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