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THE MAGAZINE      September 2002
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Implementing Flextime Scheduling

Lisa M. Frame

Flexible scheduling programs can help law firms retain their top talent. But the program must achieve client service and business goals, while still enabling employees to better balance their work and personal lives. To really get past the full-time, overtime Monday through Friday mind-set, you must work closely, and creatively, with the employees who want a modified workweek.

 

Lawyers aren’t the only ones who feel a growing inability to balance their busy workdays with their personal lives. Staff members want more from their lives, too. They want to be there for their young children and aging parents. They yearn for time to pursue activities outside of the office. They don’t know how they can better manage their time when they’re already working at top efficiency. They are simply tired of being tired.

Everyone who works in the legal arena faces enormous pressures. The daily lists of critical tasks and incessant deadlines can, in fact, make it difficult for firms to attract and retain top talent across the board. But what kind of schedule can simultaneously meet client demands, firm requirements and employee needs?

At my firm, Bowman and Brooke LLP, I have focused on ways to retain existing talent. Challenged to think outside of the proverbial box for creative solutions, here’s how I tackled developing a flextime program for one core staff group.

Establishing the Flex Schedule

Four of the twenty secretaries in the office wanted a four-day workweek. They also wanted to keep their pay and benefits in tact, and did not want a reduction in their total work hours. The solution was a workweek comprised of four 10-hour days, instead of the traditional five 8-hour days.

Yet how would we ensure ongoing support for these secretaries’ timekeepers—the partners, associates, trial assistants and paralegals to whom the four were assigned? I charged the secretaries to develop a proposal that provided full backup coverage for their flex days, under the following guidelines and parameters:

• Floater assistance would not be part of the arrangement.

• No more than one person could be off on any given day out of the four days in the flex program.

• During holiday weeks, everyone would have to work the firm’s standard, non-flex schedule.

• The timekeepers would have to buy in to the plan.

• The plan would face a three-month trial period.

• During the trial period, each secretary would periodically check with the others to see how the program was working and if the arrangement was presenting challenges for timekeepers.

Using these guidelines, the secretaries developed a flex calendar. Each selected their first and second choices for days off, and then they set up a schedule with a Week One and a Week Two—alternating so that each had an opportunity to receive their first and second preferences.

For their days off, secretaries reallocated timekeepers (one each) to the other three secretaries who were working that day. Timekeepers had the same backup person when their secretary was off, regardless of whether it was Week One or Week Two. First thing in the morning, the backup secretaries checked in with their added timekeepers to remind them that they would support them on that day. Direct communication regarding what was happening on the calendar that day was critical to ensuring seamless client service.

Facing the Challenges

Initially, some timekeepers wondered how a backup secretary would meet their needs one day a week, given that each backup already had three timekeepers of her own. For their part, the secretaries had to become familiar with yet another timekeeper’s work style and preferences for handling assignments.

In addition, timekeepers would sometimes ask other secretaries to run a fax, type an envelope or draft a letter, just because that staff member was situated close to them. Those who chose not to be on flextime felt the added work was unfair, especially when they were already hopping to serve their own timekeepers.

Within a few weeks, however, things were running smoothly. The keys were communication and commitment by all involved.

The secretaries had regular "huddles" to talk about how things went during a day off and what needed to be modified. Timekeepers were gently reminded to whom they should go for service on the days their secretary was out of the office.

Everyone learned to be clearer about actual deadlines and timeframes for completing tasks, thus equipping the secretaries with the ability to prioritize what truly had to go out during a given day.

Reaping the Benefits

Once these initial problems were resolved, it became quite clear that the new program provided benefits beyond satisfying the secretaries’ need for flexible scheduling.

Timekeepers benefitted from the fact that they now received an extra hour of support every workday, with coverage from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Those who worked late, for example, would come in the next morning to find that their tapes had already been transcribed by a secretary who’d arrived at 7 a.m.

Flextime secretaries also found that starting earlier afforded them some quiet time before everyone else arrived, allowing them to address some of the administrative tasks that otherwise always seemed to fall lower on the priority list.

As for the benefits to the firm, it was able to retain four talented staff members—and it increased the individuals’ loyalty to the firm. Each would think at least five times before entertaining other employment offers.

Remember, it’s the whole package—not just the pay—that most employees think of when they consider workplaces. If you treat your employees as the valuable assets that they are, you will reduce attrition and increase quality, productivity and loyalty.

Advocating for a First-rate Cause

Anyone who works in a law firm faces many demands. The burnout rate is high at all levels. The challenges, however, can be counteracted by strong leaders who are willing to accomplish three things:

• Work with all team members to articulate expectations

• Hold people accountable for delivering on those expectations

• Reward team members for their efforts

Rewards need to include a market-competitive compensation package, open and honest communication, challenging work, visible leadership, timely feedback and a culture that values work-and-life balance.

Flex scheduling is a growing trend in the legal profession. And it can be applied to any position, if the firm gets creative and first determines what everyone can expect from the program. The firm needs to determine the "what" and give the employees some freedom to define the "how." In addition, all participants must be open to the reality that any plan might require a few attempts. You can’t be ready to scrap a new idea the first day something goes wrong. Forge on. Keeping your good people is worth serious effort.

Why not consider flex scheduling in your firm? Approach it on a trial basis. Work with the kinks and find creative solutions that suit your needs. Commit yourself to being a change agent and employee advocate in a demanding profession.

Lisa M. Frame (lframe@bowman-brooke.com) is the Human Resources Manager for Bowman and Brooke LLP, a nationwide defense firm that specializes in complex litigation. She writes a monthly column, "The Leadership Coach," for the Minnesota Legal Administrator Association’s newsletter. Contact her at (612) 672-3211.