Case Studies on Flexible Work:
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Flexible hours in barristers' chambers

Case study of flexible working time for work-life balance and efficiency


This case study is of a project that has encouraged workers in a highly traditional environment to think differently about their work and how it might be approached. Neither staff nor management had previously believed that flexibility was possible.

Interestingly, although some staff felt that a flexible hours environment would not make a significant difference to their working lives, in practice most have said that it has been a positive thing and that they have taken or will be taking advantage of the additional flexibility it offers. The most junior clerk also expressed considerable satisfaction in that it gave him a sense of responsibility about his work and a motivation to get things dome at different times of day to allow him to ‘flex’ his work at other times of day. This also has a positive effect on service delivery.

Cloisters is a barristers’ chambers providing legal advice and representation primarily in employment, discrimination, personal injury, clinical negligence, public law, commercial media and sport. Barristers are individual practitioners who work in groups of offices known as chambers. Barristers’ chambers are unique organisationally, in that they are a collection of self-employed people with an interest in the reputation and success of their Chambers, but with individual specialisms and aspirations.

Barristers are primarily regulated by the Bar Council. As the law has become more complex, barristers increasingly specialise in particular areas of work. There has been constant growth in the profession over recent years, although this has slowed and in 2000 was 2%. Indicators show a levelling out is likely. There has been a corresponding growth in the size of barristers’ chambers; in1986 the average number was 16, this increased to 28 in 2001. This means that barristers are working in larger units than was historically the case, impacting on their organisation and staffing.

The challenge of larger chambers has been addressed by some practices with the introduction of a Practice Manager – Cloisters introduced such a post in 2001. Other organisational challenges include increased competitiveness with a consequential need for improved marketing and reputation management, making best use of technology, and responding to demographic and social trends which impact on staff and tenants.

Business issues

Cloisters has 40 barristers supported by 10.5 staff and the project was aimed primarily at these staff.

The specific business issues originally identified for the project are:

  • Absenteeism
  • Morale
  • Compliance with employment law and best practice
  • Business improvements

The staff at Cloisters are a mixture of long serving and new staff. Informal discussions with staff have highlighted increasing concerns about work and resources. The work-life balance project is part of an overall strategy to address these. Other initiatives include a review of telephone procedures and a plan to introduce new telephone system in the autumn, and an increase in staffing by one.

Aims of the Project

Cloisters’ aims for the work-life balance project were to:

  • be a progressive and pioneering chambers
  • enhance Cloisters’ corporate reputation
  • ensure best practice and compliance with the law in relation to people policies
  • be an employer of choice for new recruits
  • assist a shift in culture towards devolved responsibility and staff empowerment
  • reduce staff absence
  • introduce more manageable working hours
  • improve time-keeping
  • provide more robust telephone and reception cover
  • improve ability to find time off for training
  • improve staff morale.

A flexible hours framework was drafted by Swiftwork and then developed further to meet Cloisters’ specific needs. This is the basis on which the pilot is proceeding.

Changes implemented

Cloisters’ flexible hours scheme was developed in full consultation with the staff. It is based on other similar schemes but has been tailored to meet Cloisters’ business needs. Following on from a principles based approach, it contains standards and ground rules developed by the team. Staff must work their contractual hours over any four-week period, subject to the scheme’s arrangements for carry over of debit or credit balances.

Development of outline Service Charter –The development of a service charter or agreement has been identified as necessary to the success of the project. An outline framework was developed, based on discussions with staff and barristers and drawing on an existing clerking protocol.

Staff invention and operation of the scheme has been critical to its success. A rota designed by the Clerking team is completed by all one week in advance. This has in-built flexibility, in that individuals may adjust their proposed times only in consultation with colleagues and provided there is adequate cover.

Staff are utilising the scheme in different ways to suit their business and personal circumstances. Some are working flexibly throughout the week creating opportunities to extend lunch breaks, arrive or leave early etc. and others are accruing time towards ‘flexi days’ away from work.

Whilst the changes implemented have been modest in absolute terms, for a traditional profession with significant external and internal barriers, this was a big step.

Examples of impact

Discussions with staff demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of them felt that the flexible hours scheme had had a positive impact on their lives. Even staff who were initially sceptical acknowledged that the scheme had been beneficial, not just to colleagues, but also for themselves. It may be that the ability to improve people’s lives by increasing their ability to control their working day had been underestimated.

All staff have now joined the flexitime scheme; participation remains optional, and some staff took part only after the scheme had been operation for a while, and colleagues were obviously gaining benefits from it.

Some staff had taken initiatives such as joining gyms and adjusting family childcare arrangements. For some the difference it has made is palpable, reinforced by quotes such as:

“When we are busy, I can now stay beyond my normal hours to make sure that everything is completed and up-to-date, and I know that I will be credited for this extra work. Previously, there was no reward for helping in this way”.

“Going to the gym takes longer than an hour, and the scheme allows me to take the extra time needed to go at lunchtime some days, while knowing that colleagues on the rota are providing the necessary cover at the office”

“I feel so much better. The week is no longer never ending.”

“I actually have time now to relax in the evenings and can get ready to go out without rushing around.”

“I don’t have to run down the road anymore when I’m ten minutes late because the tubes are bad. I just make the time up.”

“I feel healthier and less stressed.”

“Last week, I was able to take advantage of half term by coming in earlier and leaving earlier”

“It’s good to know that, in future, I’ll be able to attend some of my children’s daytime school events, such as class assemblies and sports days”.

Before the scheme was introduced, there was no reward for working additional hours, for example, where required because of short-staffing or the need to collect files from a court hearing which had run late. This eroded goodwill relating and was a problem identified at the outset of the project. The flexible hours scheme provides for extra time worked to be recorded and acknowledged through accrual and this had led to an increased inclination to respond to unplanned business demands – in effect a return of some goodwill.

Responsibility for organising a rota for cover has been devolved to the clerks’ team, as mentioned above. This change of responsibility has proved a success.

Late arrival of staff in the morning was a continuing source of complaint by barristers. Equally, staff found the 8.30am start time inflexible, stressful (especially when there were public transport problems), and unnecessary. Now, barristers know that staff on flexitime are paid only for hours worked, while the rota allows for staggered start times.

 

 

Case Study

Here we present a case study of the impact of flexible working in Cloisters Barristers' chambers in London, UK.

 

 

 

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