The potential for jobs that don’t conform to the nine-to-five pattern to play havoc with workers’ lives was a key discussion point in a recent Times interview with Richard Atkins QC: newly appointed chief of the Bar.
In the piece – which was re-reported on Legal Cheek  – Atkins noted that the widespread view that lawyers were effectively “on parade 24 hours a day, seven days a week” was “not good for wellbeing, nor for diversity at the Bar”.
He pointed out: “Technology is very good but it does suck us into a 24/7, 365-days-a-year culture. The Bar works at odd hours and I can’t hold it against people that they may want to email at three or four in the morning – if that’s the way they work at rather too late an hour.”
Even so, Atkins said: “I would like to see a protocol along the lines of – if the emails come in after, say, seven o’clock at night, it is deemed that it hasn’t landed until nine the next morning. So you’re under no obligation to wait up until midnight. It doesn’t stop you sending the email and you may want to reply, and it may be that in the commercial world they have to. So, one size may not fit all.”
However, he adds: “If you’re prosecuting or defending a criminal case and running everything and prepping your cross-examination for the next day, the last thing you want is some email coming in at midnight that you’ve immediately got to reply to, or perhaps judges saying expect to have this by four o’clock on Sunday afternoon. I think we need to calm it all down a little bit.”
Irregular hours are far from restricted to the legal sector, affecting doctors, firefighters, journalists, pilots and many people who work night shifts. Indeed, marshalling employees with a host of different, weekly schedules is one of our biggest, current leadership challenges. How can professions in which the hours are never the same from one week to the next – and can suddenly increase according to the demands of the job – preserve wellbeing within their workforces?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Just because you’re getting emails at these ridiculous times doesn’t mean that you have to respond to them. But it’s beholden upon those of us who are in positions where we are able to demand things from people that we are mindful of their right to a reasonable work-life balance. And we actually have to ask ourselves what we should consider reasonable.”
She explains: “To me, it seems simpler to define a minimum standard than the maximum. You don’t want to prevent people from working, if that is what they want to do. But what you don’t want is a situation where they have to work longer and longer hours – thereby affecting their work-life balance – because the demands put upon them are such that they have no choice. For at that point, it’s no longer a balance. It’s just a different sort of tyranny.
“Where flexible working really comes into its own is when workers have a feeling of control and autonomy within the working day. That’s when organisations deliver better results. If workers are merely experiencing a different sort of tyranny, then we are highly unlikely to get that much-needed improvement in productivity that the UK is searching for. Nor are we likely to see improvements in loyalty or engagement. We’ll just be replacing one kind of straitjacket with another.”
Cooper adds: “We don’t know what other people’s flexible-working arrangements are unless we ask them, or they tell us. You may have a client, supplier or colleague whose weekend falls on, say, a Tuesday and Wednesday – so for them, a Saturday or Sunday would be an ideal time to send them an email. You, meanwhile, may be working to a completely different weekly schedule. So you have to appreciate that, somewhere down the line, your flexibility may impose inflexibility upon someone else.
“It’s all about being mindful of colleagues, of the expectations we have of people, and of the requests we make. In other words, it’s very much a matter of empathy.”
For further thoughts on work-life balance, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace
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