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Law firm JMK Solicitors talks to workingmums.co.uk about its innovative approach to working.
Imagine working from a five-star hotel in Lanzarote. It’s pretty appealing, particularly as we enter a grim winter. But it’s not a fantasy for one law firm. JMK Solicitors did in February 2018. They allowed their staff to work for up to a month from the Canary Islands and paid the extra tax so that no member of the team was disadvantaged. Managing director Maurece Hutchinson went in half term, taking her two children and her mum. Others stayed for longer, benefiting from being able to get up early, do a few hours of work and then hang out at the pool or beach.
It wasn’t just a one-off either. The Belfast-based personal injury firm plans to do it again in the near future now that people can travel more easily following the pandemic.< The idea for the work from abroad plan came as a result of founder Jonathan McKeown’s guilt over his own holidays. In 2016, the firm told its employees that if they could make efficiency savings that were equal to half the accommodation and travel costs of going to Lanzarote the firm would stump up the other half. That incentivised each team to look at how they could save money, for instance, on printing files for court. “It was a crazy, fun thing to do,” says Maurece. “The IT team picked 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 so it is all online. People could work their hours in the way that worked best for them and spend time during the day in the pool or on the beach. And they had a five-star buffet. We ended up having the highest turnover in the company’s history that month.”
The work from abroad month isn’t the only initiative the firm has taken to incentivise its workers. In late 2017 it started looking at moving to a four-day working week – becoming the first company in Northern Ireland to do so [they now mentor others] and the first law firm in the world to go the four-day week route. That means doing 100% of the work in 80% of the time for 100% of the wages. The change meant that some lawyers who had previously done a four-day week got a pay rise.
Maurece, who is keen to point out that a four-day week is not the same as working compressed hours, says: “If you incentivise people to find better ways to do things they will do it.” 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 [JMK Solicitors works on a fixed fee so they don’t charge by the minute as other law firms do] and hit their KPIs, without affecting turnover or client satisfaction.
They found that their client recommendation rate increased from 95% to 99% during the trial, which has been going on throughout the pandemic at a time when there were court shutdowns and when dissatisfaction with the system could be expected.
The trial was supposed to last six months from January 2020, beginning with client-facing teams and ending with solicitors to see if there were any teething problems. By the end of January everyone was working a four-day week. Then Covid hit and the firm wondered if they should reverse it. They had always said they would if their KPIs were not being reached. But the extra stress people were under during Covid lockdowns meant that additional family time was vital so they kept it and the trial is now open-ended and subject to a monthly team by team review.
The firm adopts a very flexible approach, given the courts are open five days a week, and people have different days off a week. It is also keen to evaluate the trial – as part of her CPD work, the firm’s HR manager has researched the impact and the firm is working with a university to measure the success of the initiative.
Maurece admits that, despite two years of careful planning and proving a four-day week could be done even before they did it, there have been challenges, for instance, some teams have struggled with getting members in on the same days to have meetings so they are looking at having some degree of core hours. They also had to contend with Covid, which they could not have predicted and which made it difficult to assess the impact. The vast majority of teams were hitting their KPIs, but court delays made it difficult to assess the impact on litigation. Moreover, there were mistakes made, such as not pro-rata’ing holidays, which affected productivity. This has now been addressed.
Maurece says Covid has had a positive impact too, showing employers how innovative and creative they can be. For instance, it showed JMK Solicitors that its admin team could work from home.
She adds that the team has grown by around a third – or 25 people – since the trial began and the efficiency drive has become embedded. Every team has to come up with an innovative idea every month by dropping ideas in a ‘what would you do in my shoes’ shoebox and 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. “People come up with brilliant ideas,” says Maurece, adding that the helpdesk is taking on a new person because it is so overwhelmed with ideas. “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.”