Making flexible work realistic for financial advice practices

Flexible work conditions can be a godsend, especially for new parents in your practice who are juggling the joys of looking after a demanding baby and exacting clients.

Catherine Brooks, Associate Director at Law Squared and author of Let’s Make It Work, Baby! believes it is essential for the senior leadership team of a practice to endorse flexibility if it is to succeed. Here is her advice for owners and managers.

1. Keep policies flexible

Sure, setting some rules and guidelines for flexible work arrangements makes sense, but Brooks makes the point that every staff member’s requirements will vary.

“The policy itself needs to be quite vanilla because each flexible work arrangement will be very different, so each arrangement has to be tailored to individual needs,” she says.

Brooks suggests that practice owners and managers should handle flexible work requests on a case-by-case basis and then trial some common policies if there is sufficient demand within the office. Such policies also need to be fluid, especially for new parents.

“You might implement something that works for a month or two for some employees, but a few months down the track those requirements could be completely irrelevant and will need to be adjusted.”

Be conscious, though, that as a practice leader you have a legal responsibility to either approve or refuse an employee’s request for flexible work conditions in writing within 21 days.

If you want to refuse a request, it must now go through a more rigorous process than in the past because of recent legislative changes. Irrespective of these changes, a discussion has to be had about the reasons for any proposed refusal and evidence should be given as to why the request cannot be met.

2. Clear the lines of communication

When parents are seeking flexibility, Brooks suggests sitting down with them to discuss all options.

“That’s a good starting point,” she says.

While employees are often tempted to simply present a list of demands to an employer, practice owners and managers must ensure that any arrangements will also suit the business and its work flows.

Also preempt any possible issues that could emerge under flexible work arrangements – such as the need for job sharing – to ensure that all necessary planning is on track.

Practice owners and managers should be aware that most new parents do not know what to expect from a newborn.

So, in discussions about flexible work options, such uncertainty should be factored in. In general, a primary carer should negotiate how much time to take off initially, while a secondary caregiver needs to build in some agility.

“For example, it’s great for the primary carer to have the help of a partner during the witching hour,” Brooks says.

“That may mean that flexible arrangements allow them to be home between 5-8pm, but then they could work after those hours to catch up.”

Brooks believes it is important for practices with flexible work practices to also provide parents’ co-workers with some kind of certainty about the flexible hours so they, too, can plan their day and commitments. Also ensure that “shadow” workers understand projects and cases in the event that a parent has to quickly stop work to attend to caring duties.

Flexible work goes two ways; it needs to work for the practice and the employee, so it requires open, honest and transparent communication at all times.

3. Carefully plan the transition back to full-time work

In the chaos of planning for the arrival of a newborn and determining flexible work arrangements, parents often ignore what may happen six months to a year later.

So, managers and employees must clearly understand the existing working conditions and terms of employment and any material effects or changes to an employee’s contract of employment as a result of “flexible working” arrangements.

There could be the case, for example, of a worker who negotiates a three-day work week for after the arrival of her baby and this becomes a three-day-a-week contract.

“There is no automatic right to go back to full-time work unless the employee renegotiates or puts that in the [new] contract of employment,” Brooks says.

The message is clear – open communication is crucial at all times.