Technology has enabled our firms and our people. It has enabled global mobility and international competitiveness. It has eroded the four walls of the workplace as we work flexibly, anywhere, anytime — therein lies the opportunity. It has enabled us to work everywhere, all the time — therein lies the challenge.
We are undergoing a major intergenerational shift. The next generation don’t see flexibility as a nice-to-have but rather a necessary part of their working worlds. They don’t want to be micromanaged and told what to do and when to do it without a broader context. They are altruistic and need to be inspired by purpose and connected through values. They don’t just want instruction on tasks but crave to contextualise why they are doing them. With this foundation they want to work independently, productively and to embrace the technological platforms that give them the autonomy and creative freedom to thrive.
As Gen Z enters the workforce, Boomers are ageing as will “we” Xers who follow them. We are working harder than ever and will be working for longer than all generations that proceeded us as we live longer, our investments are minimal in a tightly held property market and our superannuation funds fail to fill up fast enough to fund our longer life span. Fair to say, our careers are a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to ensure the wellbeing of our people for the long haul.
Melting pot for mental health
The mental health of our people is increasingly compromised. The long hours, the need to account for every moment of our day, the competitive markets we operate in and the need for constant connectivity. We expect to deliver instantly gratifying advice with a zero error rate whilst delivering affable service that provides practical cost-effective solutions and value to clients (big breath no full stop) whilst meeting billable targets of firms that require year-on-year revenue growth for sustainability. Easy, right?
This creates an environment where people are under pressure, and pressure manifests in many and varied toxic ways. We are seeing an increased incidence of alcoholism and substance abuse and frightening suicide rates. The International Bar Association’s #UsToo! global survey has revealed that our profession in Australia ranks the highest in the world for bullying and sexual harassment compared to our global counterparts, and domestically, we recognise the problem but are scrambling to find a solution.
The struggle of the juggle
Women in our profession are starting their careers at the top of their game. They are some of our most impressive graduates and now outnumber their male counterparts. Their contribution to our profession in the early years is commendable and immeasurable, and then something happens. The balance starts to shift, the pay gap grows, the juggle becomes a struggle and slowly they edge towards the door or stagnate as we see the numbers dwindle in partnership ranks.
Despite the widespread recognition of this issue, all the diversity and inclusion policies, initiatives and change champions, the pace of change is glacial.
Conversely, men are still stigmatised for working flexibly or taking leave to care for the children, their relationship with their families suffer as we, Madonna King writes in her book Fathers and Daughters. As the take-up rate for men working flexibly or assisting with family responsibilities is reported to be as low as 5 per cent; women are left trying to “have it all” whilst also doing it all. Juggling the physical and mental load of family responsibilities with all the challenges of billable hours and our fiercely competitive profession.
Is it any wonder we lose our talent? Is it any wonder we are suffering from a mass exodus and brain drain? Is it any wonder we have lost incredibly talented women like Georgina Dent who said at the launch of her apt book, Breaking Badly, that she was looking around at the leaders in her large law firm with a harbour view and simply couldn’t see that was where she wanted to be. Frankly, she says, they didn’t look like they wanted to be there. Sadly, they probably didn’t.
A call to action: It has to be possible
We need to do better. We can do better. With structural and cultural change, we will do better. I don’t advocate for flexible work because I am a mum who wants to work flexibly. I am a mum of two who took very short period of maternity leave because I needed to work full-time and couldn’t work flexibly until this year. I don’t advocate for flexible work because I am hitting a glass ceiling — I made partner a decade ago before the birth of my second son.
I advocate for flexible work because 20 years into work in law firms, I know the current state of play is hard. I advocate for flexible work because I’ve seen too many of our best and brightest colleagues and lawyers leave for reasons that I believe can be fixed. I advocate for flexible work because I see it as the start of the structural change; we need to improve the wellbeing and diversity of our firms to enable our people to achieve balance and thrive. I advocate for flexible work because the marathon is too long to just survive.
I genuinely believe agile firms where flexibility is offered to all employees indiscriminately create the structural foundation for the cultural change our profession needs to create healthy and inclusive workplaces. Our people need to have more to their lives than work, and flexible work enables them to achieve the “work/life balance” that has over the years seemed an aspiration that it has become taboo.
We need both men and women caring for their children and building healthy and enduring connections to their families. We need the next generation to be engaged and inspired to work with us and to look up and aspire to be what they can see. We need to be able to work in our profession and retain the meaning (and money) it brings for longer without living for the wine (or worse) at the end of the weekly (or daily) tunnel.
We need flexibility so our ageing workers can embrace the juvenescence they have rightly earned after decades of working without “gap” years. We need to close the flex pay gap and achieve equal representation of men and women in our boardrooms and at all levels in our professions. We need to address the double jeopardy faced by culturally diverse women. We need to acknowledge that to represent our community, we need to be representative of it.
For all our risk aversion and cynicism as a profession, we must start with a mindset that embracing flexibility and creating healthy, diverse and inclusive workplaces “is possible” before thriving in our profession becomes impossible.
Fay Calderone (pictured, right) is a partner at Hall & Wilcox.