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Agile Working in Professional Service Firms: A Case Study

“Agile working” is the buzz phrase that has been doing the rounds for the past few years. To those outside of management, “agile working” means working outside of the office, usually from home. The technology for agile working has been widely available for over 20 years.

Certain groups of lawyers, for example, those with carer responsibilities, have been advocating the benefits of agile working for years. In the past, the traditional rebuff against agile working has included the need for client responsiveness and the intensity of corporate/finance work. Neither of these reasons survive scrutiny.

This was demonstrated during the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong in 2003. Traditionally conservative and resistant to agile working, many offices of large law firms in Hong Kong quickly and successfully implemented agile working strategies in response to the infection threat; with some lawyers working successfully on corporate and finance deals even from outside the country.

The traditional face time culture in large law firms has been a useful and exclusive way for certain lawyers to demonstrate commitment. For those lawyers that do not have the rainmaking skills to back up their partnership bids and where technical expertise is assumed, billable hours has traditionally been the only way of demonstrating value and commitment. However, the face time culture is expensive. It requires large, relatively central offices, equipment and a huge spend on in-house professional and personal support services.

The pressure to maintain profit levels in large firms combined with clients' increasing unwillingness to pay for anything other than pure legal services has meant that all cost cutting measure are now open to scrutiny.

Agile working is a particularly popular way to cut costs because it is relatively easy, the costs savings are significant and the resultant flexibility coincides with millennials' values; allowing large firms to continue to attract the best talent.

How does agile working work in practice? Lex Conscientia, a management consultancy for organisations who work with the law, is entirely virtual with all staff working through a virtual office environment either from home or in other external WIFI enabled work environments. Sangeet Kaur, Managing Director of Lex Conscientia, describes the agile working practices in place.

How do you coordinate all your employees when there's no central geographical base?

Technology is important. We all work from the same virtual office. All of our systems are integrated, so it doesn't matter where we work from. Almost all organisations have the technical capacity to allow their employees to work outside their physical offices. In reality, the way we work isn't so different from working in the same organisation in a different office or on a different floor. Our migration to cloud based Miscrosoft Office 365 Enterprise and its suite of services last year has supported our working practices.

“Water cooler gossip” has been shown to be a very important part of knowledge sharing throughout an organisation. How do you make sure your employees are motivated without that colleague interaction?

Working virtually can sometimes be lonely and “water cooler gossip” does bolster a collegiate spirit. This means that working completely virtually, as we do, is not for everybody. The people who are attracted to working at Lex Conscientia tend to be those who have already had successful and established careers in organisations where face time has been important. They are the ones who really appreciate the flexibility of the way we work and who are motivated to make it work for them. The flexibility option itself is motivation. This is not to say that we never meet up and have fun!

Where do you meet clients?

Our clients understand and very much appreciate that our fees are as low as we can reasonably make them. This means that we don't have lovely offices with meeting rooms. Any work that means that we have to meet in person, usually also means that we have to travel to our clients' premises. If that's necessary, our clients are happy to pay for that. Otherwise, our clients would rather meet in a quiet, public place or chat over skype than pay higher fees so that they can meet in an office leased by us. Moreover, many of our clients are outside the UK, so they understand that we won’t meet in person unless it’s genuinely necessary.

How do you make sure your staff actually work?

I strongly believe that micro management is counter-productive. Trust plays a huge part in working the way we do, which is not for everyone. Our way of working attracts the people it suits. We focus on outcomes not face time, so it would soon become obvious if our clients were unhappy.

What do you clients think of the way you work?

All clients are willing to pay reasonable fees for work that they need. Our clients appreciate that we keep our costs to the bone and like the fact that we live our values. We are very open to our clients about our limitations too, so that they understand what we can and can't do because of the way we work. Some of our clients remember their beginnings as lean start-ups and understand and appreciate our approach.

What advice do you have for people thinking of setting up an agile working environment?

While most law firms move to agile working practices as a method of cost cutting, it is important to make the proper investments to ensure that good practices are established from the very beginning. Depending on the circumstances, this may mean providing

  • the proper equipment including appropriate computers, printers, shredders, stationery, etc;
  • occupational health and safety assessments including noise reduction headphones for confidential teleconferences or if the employee lives in a noisy environment;
  • an appropriate work station including lockable cabinets or drawers; and
  • subsidies, or paying outright, for certain expenses such as electricity, heating, secure internet connection and a dedicated telephone connection.

While these are costs that would be borne by the firm in any event, it is worth keeping in mind that moving to an agile working environment should not mean shifting certain costs to your employees. Agile working requires trust and loyalty on both sides. A good start is to give your employees the tools to work effectively and efficiently outside of the office.

Any final words?

Adopting an agile work environment has benefited Lex Conscientia in many ways. Our low overheads mean our operational costs are low. Our staff find it liberating to be judged on their outcomes rather than on office face time. Our clients are happy because their fees pay for excellence in outcome delivered by motivated and passionate people.