I read somewhere that fifty-somethings are the most flexible workers – and not just in the legal profession.
My fifty-something postman is a retired Royal Marine and the sixty-something Tesco delivery man recently retired from a desk-bound office job.
We are now told that “agile is the new flexible” and people write about it as if it was something new but, in fact, I think that it has been going on for years.
As a newly qualified solicitor in the early 1980s, I was asked to compile a list of documents in the old fashioned way. That is, list every document individually. There were a couple of boxes of papers of different shapes and sizes. I tried doing the job at my office desk but there really wasn’t enough room, so I took the boxes home and wrote out the list on my dining room table. Nobody raised an eyebrow or tried to define what I was doing as “agile”.
More recently, I worked with a group of lawyers in a special room in the office in a way which would now be described as “hot desking”. The room looked like an airport exec lounge, although the seating (which included a couple of sofas) was less dense and there was no alcohol in the bar. Nobody had their own desks (in fact there were only enough desks for half the group) and storage was communal. The firm also encouraged home working and holding meetings in clients’ offices. This worked very well for the volunteers, many of whom spent long periods out of the office at court or meetings, but others felt the need for their own space. We remained a small group.
I am currently working full time on a project that is almost entirely paper-free. I spent nearly three years working at the project site where I had my own desk setup. Now I do the same job but remotely via email and Skype. I can work either from home or in the office.
Some say that the current agility initiative is driven by a desire to reduce office space, thereby saving money. Others say that agility is about offering flexible working conditions to staff so that they can, for example, avoid the daily commute or spread work throughout the day to free up time for other things.
A further aspect of agile working is to offer more flexibility to clients, particularly those in another time zone. I recall once being asked by an Australian client to participate in a conference call at 2 am UK time with a follow-up conference call at 6 am UK time. That was certainly better done from home.
Focus on the work?
The current discussions on agility tend to focus on the organisation or the staff. For me, the focus should be more on the work. Somebody asked me recently what I did for a living and I said that I sat staring at a computer all day including pressing some of the keys. Joking aside, that is what I spend most of my time doing. I make phone calls and go to meetings but at least 90% of my time is spent at the computer. I am pretty well paper-free so I don’t use a printer very often. If I take handwritten notes I scan the paper and email it to myself. So, with good internet access, there is no reason why the work has to be done in the office.
Some things do need to be done in the office. Meetings with new clients are best held in the office, if the clients don’t have good meeting facilities at their own premises. Formal interactions with colleagues, such as departmental meetings, appraisals or interviews are usually best held in the office, although there are occasions where an off-site location is better. Interviews by video-conference to avoid travelling are sometimes useful.
There is also the “water cooler”: chance meetings with colleagues are very useful interactions for all sorts of purposes, particularly for those with management responsibilities.
For some lawyers, working in the office will always be better. There may not be a quiet place to work at home, or the house might be too quiet, leading to “cabin fever”. Going paper-free may not be an option. It may be difficult to be credibly accessible or to supervise junior lawyers by phone or it may just be that some people prefer the office working environment.
Obviously, one size does not fit all. However, it is also true that what works sometimes may not always work. So the idea of calibrating agility by saying that individual lawyers can work x days or x hours per week at home is a bit of a mystery to me.
My example of the list of documents above was a one-off. Just because I spent one day out of the office carrying out that task does not mean that I had a similar task the following week. I think that working remotely on a project would be difficult if there was not an initial period of face to face meetings and interaction.
So my conclusion is that the principle of agility is about delivering better service to clients, making better and leaner use of office premises and responding to the needs and preferences of individuals. However, implementing agility should be driven by the nature of the work being undertaken and the importance of retaining a collegiate relationship with colleagues and the firm/company. Who knows, one day I might even prefer to sit at my office desk with a pile of papers at my side!