Workplace Attitudes Block Hong Kong Legal Sector’s Adoption of Flexible and Agile Working

A report by Women in Law Hong Kong (WILHK), the industry non-profit, shows that Hong Kong’s legal industry has increased the access to flexible and agile working. Half of Hong Kong’s legal employers offer flexible working and a third offer agile working. However, a lack of management support and entrenched attitudes are diluting uptake.

WILHK surveyed Hong Kong’s legal industry between September and November 2018. Nearly 400 men and women responded anonymously, from lawyers to support staff, and across private practice law firms, in-house legal teams and alternative legal service providers “ALSPs”.

For the purpose of the survey, flexible working included flexible start and finish times, condensed work weeks or hours, job sharing, part-time, home working, freelance, etc. Agile working included working from other locations, hot-desking and unlimited annual leave.

Motivations

According to respondents, the top three motivations to work flexibly and/or agilely were:

1. Work-life balance (36 percent)

2. Productivity (18 percent)

3. Feeling more in control (16 percent)

These highlight the competing demands employees face in an increasingly connected world. Hong Kong’s legal profession is characterised by lean teams, fast-paced work, tight deadlines and frequent travel. Flexible and agile working helps employees better balance their commitments, enhances their productivity and gives them more control.

Hesitations

Employees sense the career limiting effect of requesting flexible and/or agile working. The top three reasons holding people back from applying were: fear of being seen as lacking commitment 
(22 percent), cultural stigma (21 percent), and a premium on physical presenteeism (18 percent). These are not gender specific issues, although working women are hit doubly hard. Women are more likely to request flexible and agile working due to being the primary caregiver (95 percent of those identifying as caregivers in the survey were women). With the growing ageing population, new working models are necessary to improve gender parity across the profession and future-proof the work force. “In such a high-pressure industry, this poor uptake prevents improvements in work-life balance, mental health and wellness, and exacerbates the profession’s existing gender imbalance” said Michelle Fung, who led the report for WILHK.

Female Brain Drain

The net effect is that the profession is losing female talent: 60 percent of those entering the profession are women, but only 25 percent progress to partner in private practice. Many female lawyers are seeking different jobs or opting out of work altogether. 90 percent of survey respondents felt strongly that increased flexible and agile working would help women achieve senior positions.

Stephanie Szeto, a core team member at WILHK producing the report, is a senior manager at the ALSP, Peerpoint (Allen & Overy). She commented: “There is an urgent need for improved implementation of flexible and agile working in Hong Kong’s legal market, to avoid further attrition rates and improve gender imbalance across the profession. Our research indicates ALSPs are at the forefront of the flexible and agile working movement, but even so we need to work harder to broaden awareness of how successful careers can be shaped working with ALSPs.”

What is Holding us Back?

The report highlights stigma (real and perceived) to flexible and agile working from management and team members. Respondents identified a lack of support from top management (71 percent) and entrenched negative perceptions (61 percent) as the two greatest barriers to increasing the number of employees adopting flexible and agile working. Mainstream bias based on a preference for physical presenteeism means that working flexibly and agilely can infer a lack of commitment to one’s career.

Societal Factors

In addition, 82 percent felt that the presence of domestic helpers in Hong Kong impacted take up of flexible and agile working in the territory. Survey comments showed employers citing domestic help as a reason not to grant flexible or agile working requests. Another misconception and commonly held view is that Hong Kong commute times are very short and therefore flexible and agile working is unnecessary. According to 2018 data, the average commute time in Hong Kong is in fact one hour 13 minutes. The reality is that very few people live on Hong Kong island. Firms, banks and companies are moving their offices east and south of Central due to high rental costs, and staff are expected to commute longer each day.

Business Case

A key misconception holding employers back is that flexible and agile working is a cost to the business. In fact, the financial upsides of flexible and agile working are clear. WILHK’s research found that it increases employee productivity (82 percent), improves corporate culture (95 percent), and enhances retention (85 percent). This all benefits the bottom line. Firms and professional services businesses that have measured the return on investment have found that flexible and agile working increased billable hours. “We need to dispel the myth that flexible and agile working is bad for business,” said Anita Phillips, WILHK’s co-chair who oversaw the project. “A shift is required from dealing with flexible and agile working from an employee point of view to seeing the organisational value of a flexible and agile workforce.”

What can Employers do?

Actionable steps include management champions, training for deploying flexible and agile working, clearer communication of flexible and agile working policies/expectations, and employees showing it can work.

Implementation requires:

  • Leaders committed to flexible and agile working and willing to publicly role model it
  • Management skills to lead flexible and agile teams
  • Effective technology
  • “Work hygiene” by flexible and agile workers through clear routines, limiting distractions and effective communication

Build buy-in through:

  • Open and simple policies that default to “yes”
  • A (mandatory) trial period to encourage managers and employers to foster flexible and agile work habits
  • Teams developing clarity around when, where and how people will be working
  • Financial metrics and surveys to assess impact/improvements to billable hours, service delivery and satisfaction

The full report can be found at www.wilhk.com/flexible-and-agile-working. This includes case studies on organisations that have successfully implemented flexible and agile working, and financial models to measure its effect. If you would like to run a focus group with WILHK, please contact info@wilhk.com.

WILHK has 1,400 members and encourages a diverse exchange of ideas and collaboration around gender topics. You can join its community via its website.

Jurisdictions: 

Professional Support Consultant, Herbert Smith Freehills (Hong Kong)

Ms. Phillips supports the firm’s leading Alternative Dispute Resolution and Corporate Crime & Investigations practices and has developed a significant market profile for her work on legal support, cross-practice and cross-region projects for these practices.

Co-chair, Flexible and Agile Working Committee of WILHK Canadian qualified lawyer, non-practising