Is agile working – the new strategic advantage?
In this guide to agile working, also known as flexible working, we draw upon decades of experience from across the Calico Group, and explore the different facets to ‘Agile Working in the legal sector’. Is flexible working really a new strategic advantage to your law firm or more of a staff perk and HR headache? Read on for all the answers.
If we are looking at agile working, then let’s first all get on the same page, with this formal definition, courtesy of The Agile Organisation:
“Agile working is about bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).”
Agile has been a focus for law firms for a while and the most obvious evidence has been the growth in flexible working, empowering and enabling staff to work where, when and how they want – and to benefit from those choices – just as long as they can still get the job done in a timely manner and to the required standard.
But keeping the movement to the dimensions of time and space has resulted in law firms typically seeing agile through the prism of technology, laptops, hosted desktops and wifi connections. But agile shouldn’t start life as a tech project, it needs to start as a business strategy – and that way you have a much better chance of leveraging maximum returns from your investment.
Why do you want to pursue agile working?
Give that some serious and robust thought. Those who have already embraced flexible working will typically cite the need to attract and retain talent, or to build stronger people cultures by addressing work/life balance issues and knocking down the physical, 9-5 barriers of the traditional workplace. Some may also align it to a property strategy, where remote working and hot-desking can drive down future office footprints – with potential huge savings. We explore these themes in some depth later on in this guide.
But what about the customer?
What you hear much less of, however, is the impact of agile on the customer. You don’t tend to have people answering the question ‘why’ with a customer-driven rationale – and that is a big opportunity missed. Agile working is often synonymous with smart working – making clever, innovative changes to normal working practice that create more responsive, efficient and effective organisations. So what about extending opening hours, putting on an evening shift until, say, 9pm, so that your legal team is available when your enquiring customers are? Or going paperless – embracing electronic communications, automatic updates, digital signatures and online bill payment to transform efficiency, convenience and service delivery? Or using specialist apps to help with lead capture or quote generation? Or relocating to a lower cost, higher tech out-of-town-office but maintaining a small, stylish High Street customer service hub?
Agile for Customers and Staff
All of these can sit legitimately under the agile banner. Clients are consumers and consumers have seen old worlds reinvent themselves – just think about banking and insurance. Sure, legal has made some strides in recent years in modernising but there is more ground to make up. When you are taking your agile steps, just ensure that it’s a path that delivers for your customers as well as your staff. And while technology will help you achieve your strategy, the technology has to follow, not lead.
Is flexible working now essential in recruiting and retaining legal talent?
“Having worked for a firm that first offered agile working over a decade ago I simply could not contemplate having to work within brick-wall boundaries with fixed hours again.”
It’s a quote that will resonate with many, and distils one of the challenges facing law firms as they seek to acquire and retain the right talent. Gone is the 9-5 at your desk, the new normal is a far more flexible approach, driven in part by work/life balance considerations.
We’ve written about the rising popularity of the ‘platform law firm’ the remote legal model which now employs over 1000 lawyers in the UK, and how flexible working, and the technology that goes hand in hand with it, is empowering women in the legal workplace.
It should be no surprise then that one of the top Google search terms that came up in the research for this guide was “best law firms for flexible working”.
But that balance can be quickly thrown off when agile working doesn’t work; when instead of unshackling you from your desk and freeing you to be productive from home or from a client’s site, it actually traps you in a technical nightmare.
No lawyer is going to feel well-disposed when they are compromised in this way. Moving from office to home to client, it should all be seamless, fluid, slick. Everything that’s easy in the office should be easy on the move. Staff have to be confident that they are not going to get a second-class experience the moment they step away from their desk; and no-one is going to embrace an alternative working culture if it makes them less happy and less productive and more stressed and inconvenienced.
The good news is that the maturity of fully managed IT services has made it a lot easier for law firms to put the right technology in play. Hosted desktop solutions, for example, exist to deliver a fast, robust and responsive digital workspace that can be securely accessed from anywhere, whilst offering the same functionality as a traditional PC.
For the user, that means that where they go, their files go, their emails go, their critical applications go – and theoretically it should be quick, safe and compliant. Firms just need to take care to partner with the right provider – one who understands legal, its systems, its culture, its processes, and that has the supporting infrastructure and skillsets – to ensure that what is delivered to it ‘agile’ user base is a consistently first-class experience.
Your teams won’t thank you for offering up the prospect of agile working and a more flexible approach, and then compromising the whole thing through poor technical execution. Your talent wants to give you their best – quality work, high productivity, top-notch client service. If they’re struggling to connect and get what they need, or do what they need to do in a timely fashion, what are they more likely to give you? Their best or their notice?
So what’s stopping law firms progressing with more agile working policies?
Strategies, technologies, services – these aren’t the barriers to agile working. The biggest single hurdle to overcome is fear of losing control. There’s a misconception amongst executive teams that giving staff the freedom for anytime, anywhere working will lead to a loss of control and the safety blanket of the ‘all-seeing eye’ that comes with being physically grouped together. That in turn encourages dismissing ‘agile working’ as a fad and pushing it down the practice agenda….when you should be pushing it up.
The reality is somewhat different. Enabling true agile working has allowed law firms to save tens of thousands of pounds on reducing premium office space to either cut annual rental leases or create an income from letting floor space not required.
There’s a new model in town
Law firms are using agile working to create ‘hubs’ or ‘pods’: small group of desks that a team working on projects can gravitate to. Rather than an empty office floor that can be quite bleak with little company culture being built, agile working allows a thriving ‘buzzing’ atmosphere full of energy to work in.
And rather than think in terms of your control over the moving parts of a firm, how about looking at the potential unlocked by your staff having control over their work? If you can make that shift supported by a comprehensive ‘work from home’ policy, the good news is that today’s technology can support agile end-to-end. This article has already explored hosted desktop, so let’s take a quick run through telephony.
Away from their desk – and sometimes even at it – people will turn to their smartphones for fast communication through any media, whether voice conversations, social media apps, email or text. But no-one wants to be juggling different numbers and some would prefer not to expose their private mobile number; and so the first thing is to set up a single landline number tagged to that individual, and a bespoke inbound ‘call-routing’ plan set up. Callers dialling that number will reach the fee earner on their mobile, or be directed according to the pre-set call routing plan – but it will all be presented seamlessly to the caller. As far as they are aware, they are calling you at your desk.
The smartphone is fully integrated at the same level as a laptop, providing access to the firm’s entire global phone address book and client records. This is all retained within an ultra-secure and encrypted ‘container’ on the smartphone. Arriving in their law firm practice, any desk can be chosen to work from in a ‘hot-desking’ fashion, if that’s the office strategy that’s been adopted. Entering a passcode onto the desktop phone enables both desktop phone and smartphone to be ‘twinned’: all inbound calls follow their pre-set call routing plan, and either phone can be chosen to answer.
‘Tag team’ the IT and communications
If the fee earner needs to leave the office while on the call, it can be automatically ‘handed-off’ across to their mobile phone without any interruption. Encrypted call recording tags the entire call across both devices as one and attaches it to the relevant case file where required. The firm’s time and billing platform can also be integrated to ensure no billable talk time is missed. When making outbound calls, the ‘one number’ is presented to the caller regardless of device and location used.
In a further scenario, where a fee earner may stay on to work after a case conference at a client’s office, they can enter their log-on details at that location, and all inbound calls will automatically find them, with the ‘one number’ presented to callers when dialling out. If work has to continue later from the train, alternative practice location or from home, the same seamless experience is continued. And remember, this is super-simple for the user – the underlying technology is complex and clever, but for staff it’s Amazon-like in its ease of use and immediacy, and that’s what will help drive adoption.
Joining it all up
So you have a technology wrap – hosted desktop, seamless telephony, all geared towards a slick user experience – that will let you deploy agile successfully. Stop thinking about the loss of control; focus instead on what you have to gain when it comes to delivering for your staff, your clients, your business, even your carbon footprint.
A view from the inside
– Grant Sanders, Practice Manager, Stephen Rimmer LLP
Agile working appears to be on most people’s agenda these days, albeit in different positions, and there seem to be three dimensions to the trend. The first and most obvious is firms’ desire to give fee earners more freedom and flexibility as to when and where they do their job. The old 9-5 has gone, the office boundaries are disappearing, and that invidious culture of presenteeism is slowly eroding away. More and more the firm view is that we’ve got the technology and the trust to give our staff what they want while ensuring we get the work product that we need. And if that helps attract and retain the best talent, even better. It’s not unusual for potential new joiners to quiz firms on the provisions they’re making for, and the attitudes they have around, agile working – and if that firm isn’t geared up for it, perhaps the next firm on the interview round is, and that might be decisive.
Clients too are driving agile.
They are all consumers who have quickly become used to the instant gratification of online self-service tools and 7 day a week service centres. Why can’t I contact a lawyer on Sunday? Why can’t I discuss a matter at seven in the evening when I’m home from work? Why does it take so long to receive a document and why on earth are you posting it to me? Law firms need to be attuned to this. Who knows how much business is lost because a law firm isn’t operating on the same wavelength as its customers, and isn’t responding to their needs?
I think we are agreed that agile is as much a mindset as it is about technology. If we apply that to actual business strategy, where might being responsive, smart and nimble take you? One example might be rethinking property – can you rationalize office space? Does it have to be one big central office anymore – maybe one smaller office with more local hubs? And in a related idea, what about breaking into a new geographical market? Instead of investing heavily in physically establishing yourself in an area and then trying to get to grips with the market, why not hire local talent who can open up the market for you, working primarily from home but with the fallback of a small serviced office somewhere for client meetings? There’s plenty of upside, very little downside.
The key is not to see agile in one-dimensional terms. It offers a great deal more than being able to access your case system from a beach in the Bahamas. Everyone’s journey will be different but it’s worth taking the time to map a route and identify the prizes at the end of the road.
‘Agile working’ isn’t actually a new concept
Roll back a few years to when agile was not yet a ‘thing’ in the legal sector and the traditional method of operating was for firms doing the classic 9 to 5, with everyone office based, and no hint of remote working. And yet even in some of those firms you could find examples of agile practice. How so? Because they were using outsourced specialists to handle key tasks such as document production and reception services.
The point has already been made that agile is a mindset, defined by the ‘how’ you work rather than the ‘where’. But the more recent focus on place with the growth in flexible working has rather blurred the agile picture and made people forget that some law firms got there way ahead of the rest.
A chance to challenge “the way we have always done it”
Agile comes down to being responsive and anticipatory and thinking of a better way to do the things you have always done. Those firms who sent their digital voice files out for transcription or reengineered how their incoming calls would be handled were looking for process efficiencies, service enhancements, staff ratio improvements, cost savings – all solid returns for thinking differently, being more nimble and progressive. And all ways that were of mutual benefit to fee earners and clients alike.
Fast forward to the present and we have agile in full swing. There are hugely successful so-named virtual firms who have predicated their whole business on agile. Bricks and mortar firms are downsizing and promoting hot-desking, working in communal hubs or from home. Flexi is almost the new normal, underpinned by technology that’s done a great job of creating an office without walls. And outsourced services have become an even more embedded part of the practice support ecosystem.
Earlier in this article we’ve highlighted the need for any agile strategy to deliver for the business, for clients and for staff. Services like third-party transcription intersect and integrate perfectly with all three, so ensure they’re in your planning.
Consider the law firm that wants to take client service to the next level in terms of turnaround and responsiveness. It has fee earners happy to work into the evening providing they can be location-independent. Calls are made, files dictated and then what happens? Typically, those digital voice files would be picked up the next working day, if capacity allows, by the team in the office, and returned to the fee earner possibly the same day but not necessarily. Either way, it’s a frustrating level of latency but typical when, in a 24-hour period, you only have a third of that time period – normal office hours – available to you for production. So isn’t the smart, agile thing to use all of those 24 hours instead? To treble your capacity? To be in a position to dictate your file and send it at 10pm and to have it back ready waiting for you when you go online the next day? And to be able to do that right across the board, hundreds of files flowing in at any time of day with that rapid turnaround guarantee?
That’s agile at work – supporting the fee earner in their role, delivering a significant client outcome, and ensuring the business benefits from happier staff, more satisfied clients, operational efficiencies and some really positive differentiation. So in your planning, don’t forget that frictionless delivery and integration of the services that support the tech are vital. Make sure you join the dots of staff and clients – and then you will catch up with those that have led the way.