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A law firm in Northern Ireland has taken a highly innovative approach to flexible working and team motivation.
Imagine working from a five-star hotel in Lanzarote. It’s pretty appealing, especially in the miserable winter months. But it’s not just a fantasy for this law firm.
In February 2018 JMK Solicitors enabled their staff to work for up to a month from the Canary Islands and made sure no member of the team was disadvantaged.
Managing director Maurece Hutchinson spent a week in the sun with her mum and children. Others stayed longer, taking advantage of the chance to do a few hours of work and then hang out at the pool or beach.
The idea for the ‘work from abroad’ plan was inspired by founder Jonathan McKeown’s guilt over his own holidays. In 2016, the firm invited employees to make efficiency savings – and if these equaled half the accommodation and travel costs of the trip to Lanzarote, the firm would fund the other half.
Unsurprisingly, this was a compelling incentive for each team to explore how they could save money. “It was a crazy, fun thing to do,” says Maurece.
“Our IT team chose the hotel to ensure it had good wifi and conference facilities. None of our clients noticed the difference. All our files are paperless and we have a VoIP phone system.
“People could work their hours in a way that worked best for them and spend time during the day in the pool or on the beach. We also enjoyed a daily five-star buffet. We ended up having the highest turnover in the company’s history that month.”
The innovative Work from Abroad month isn’t JMK Solicitors’ only incentive scheme. The company now successfully operates a four-day working week – and was the first company in Northern Ireland to do so. It also became the first law firm in the world to adopt this approach.
A four day week essentially means that 100% of the work is completed in 80% of the time – for 100% of the wages. To ensure fairness, some of JMK’s lawyers who were already working a four-day week received a pay rise.
It took two years to plan, because the firm wanted to get it right. Every team had to work out how they would do things better, save time and hit their KPIs, without affecting turnover or client satisfaction. The firm now adopts a very flexible approach, given the courts are open five days a week, and people have different days off.
The trial was supposed to last six months from January 2020, beginning with client-facing teams to see if there were any teething problems. By the end of January everyone was working a four-day week.
When the pandemic struck, the firm wondered if they should reverse the decision. But in fact, the firm found that the additional family time was even more important during such a stressful event. The approach is now open-ended and subject to a monthly team by team review.
In terms of evaluating the trial – the firm’s HR manager has researched the impact as part of her CPD qualification, and the firm is working with a university to measure the success of the initiative.
They have found that their client recommendation rate increased from 95% to 99%, even though the pandemic was causing court shutdowns and general dissatisfaction with the system.
Maurece admits that, despite two years of careful planning to prove a four-day week could be done, there have been challenges. For instance, some teams have struggled to get members together for meetings, and are therefore looking at some degree of core hours.
Covid also made it difficult to assess the impact. Most teams were hitting their KPIs, but court delays made it difficult to assess the impact on litigation. Moreover, mistakes were made, such as not delivering a pro-rata holiday entitlement, which affected productivity. This has now been addressed.
Maurece says Covid helped drive further innovation and creativity. For instance, it showed JMK Solicitors that its admin team could work from home.
JMK Solicitors’ team has grown by around a third – or 25 people – since the four day week trial began.
Efficiency and innovation has now become embedded in the culture of the firm. Each team is asked to come up with an innovative idea on a monthly basis by dropping ideas in a ‘What would you do in my shoes?’ shoebox. The best idea wins a reward.
The firm has also set up a helpdesk and runs ‘ask me anything’ clinics to gather and promote new ideas.
“If you incentivise people to find better ways to do things they will do it. People come up with brilliant ideas,” says Maurece. She adds that the helpdesk is taking on a new person because it is so overwhelmed with suggestions.
“I cannot describe how wonderful our people are. They give everything they have to each other and to our clients. No-one is coasting or not engaged,” she says.
Maurece adds that she believes most firms will have to consider similar innovative approaches if they want to recruit and retain staff in a challenging labour market. She states: “Most employers will have to do this kind of thing or they will not survive.”