Ian Gray, Head of litigation and dispute management at global law firm Eversheds
A couple of years ago I joined the world of flexible working with Eversheds. I have learnt some lessons along the way and I set out below the top five, which I think will resonate with plenty of others juggling significant childcare responsibilities with a stretching career.
For the first 20 years of my career, I worked in a conventional UK male lawyer way: all usual office weekday hours, an elastic leaving time in the evening and the odd weekend. Now, it is different. Every week I am taking time out from conventional office hours to be with my children, and then putting back those hours at other unconventional times, in order to ensure that I continue to make a full contribution at the firm. In 2013, this resulted in 94 evening work functions and 9 weekends fully at work, mainly overseas.
1) Having principal responsibility for children requires you to “be there”. As the sole person responsible for my children every Wednesday afternoon and every other Friday afternoon to Monday morning, I have to be present. No excuses, no flexibility, nor do I want it to be anything else. That brings stress of itself and I have to make work conform, otherwise I and my children miss out, and we are all unhappy.
2) I have strange feelings of guilt. Every time I walk down Cheapside in the middle of the morning, or leave Wood Street in the middle of the afternoon, I feel guilty. Similarly, every time I leave a management team meeting early (as our CEO allows me to do on a regular basis) I feel uncomfortable. It is not because of a lack of contribution on my part, but it is because I am not conforming and I am leaving behind others who are working in the way that I used to. The unconscious legacy from the early days of my career (where somebody coming in late or leaving early was seen to be taking it easy) does not just disappear, even though it should, as I cover more ground now than I ever have before.
3) You cannot work globally without being flexible. Many have tried – travelling at the weekend, working a conventional UK full week, travelling again at the weekend and so on, but eventually they fall over. Equally, trips to Asia or the Middle East cannot start at 9am on Monday in the UK and finish at 6pm on Friday. If you followed that in relation to Asia, you would arrive on Tuesday evening in Hong Kong or Singapore. In the Middle East, the working week begins on Sunday morning and ends on Thursday evening – conventional UK hours cuts it in half. Also, the most effective time to work with colleagues in Asia often involves sitting at home on the telephone early in the morning, like I did today.
Sometimes, the only thing to do is to leave the office on Friday evening in London and go to Heathrow, so that I can be effective at the start of the Middle East working week. I have realised though that I have to get that time back in order to have any prospect of staying fit and healthy.
4) Working flexibly has helped me be clearer about what my job is. As a leader, I succeed through the performance of others. In trying to enhance that, I absorb information, I think, I form opinions, I give advice and encouragement, and I make decisions. I do this face to face as often as I can, wherever in the world that may be, and otherwise I do it by email and telephone. If I try hard enough, I can in fact spend much of my time working anywhere I want to. Work is always there – 24/7. The trick is how to regulate it, and keep on top of it without it getting on top of me.
5) Working at home is incredibly effective and raises my spirits every time. I achieve things that I otherwise fail to do. Productivity and output is always greater. Equally, I cherish the fact that I get back time that is otherwise spent on the road when I am working at home.
As we continue to globalise our business, I believe that a number of these issues will be addressed by more and more colleagues. Working flexibly is dependent to a degree on a person’s role and responsibilities, and cannot just be applied across the board. I have learnt that it brings additional challenges and stresses, but it has enhanced my life overall, to a material degree.
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