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Legal Talent & Inclusion

How to respond to expanding demands for flexibility across the generations

Phyllis Weiss Haserot  Multigenerational Workplace Change-Agent & Author

Phyllis Weiss Haserot  Multigenerational Workplace Change-Agent & Author

How law firms and tax & accounting firms respond to employees' demands for more flexibility may go a long way in determining the success of these firms' retention efforts

Flexibility can mean different things to different people. Accordingly, the definition in the workplace continues to expand. Definitions across generations also can be quite broad, making it critical for employers to retain lawyers, accountants, affiliated professionals, and staff, especially in this tight labor market.

A generational journey of flexibility

In the 1990s, flexibility became more of an issue as the numbers of women increased in knowledge worker professions and they became more vocal in the desire for flexibility. The request for changes in order to work reduced hours or part-time was generally made in the context of raising children as a working parent or care-giver to older parents. It was not framed in terms of core values or wellness, but rather in terms of number of hours and location.

Thus, flexibility in this context became defined in terms of hours and location. Men were largely silent about it, not wanting to be perceived as less than devoted to demanding work.

Unfortunately, there was very little accommodation by employers for Gen Xers seeking flexibility, because at the time, most of those in management were white men from the Traditionalist generation, (those older than Boomers), with a spouse at home. Often, they didn’t relate to the problem until they witnessed their daughters’ lives.

Around the late 1990s, however, things started slowly changing with employers within the legal and accounting industries beginning to offer policies around part-time work and job-sharing. The definition of flexibility then expanded to include financial flexibility and some rethinking of benefits for people in different life stages. Yet, the idea of people determining for themselves the location of where they worked was still a novelty but slowly growing in the early Internet days.

By the early 2000s, the lines between work and home blurred with the rise of mobile devices (remember, the Blackberry!) and the entry of a large generation of Millennials with a different mindset and expectations into the workforce. With the end of the Great Recession by 2010, both Millennials and Gen Xers became more vocal — which got the attention of employers, who needed to replace the talent they had previously laid off. With longer work hour demands, employees’ needs evolved more quickly after 2010, and this resulted in new offerings of employee benefits around mental health and financial flexibility.

Today, with both hybrid work being mainstreamed during the pandemic and Gen Zers entering the workforce, the concept of flexibility continued to grow rapidly, even among those workers who are choosing not to have kids. Indeed, many more have gotten pandemic pets, especially dogs, that many consider much like children and don’t want to leave at home alone.

As the pandemic crisis has waned in parts of the world, perceptions about flexibility have grown even more to include career paths. Knowledge workers, especially in younger generations, want more variety in their careers along with opportunities to develop new skills. They want to know the specificity of career path options, concepts that Boomers and Gen Xers had not previously been emboldened to ask for from employers.

For employers, the goal is still retaining clients and access to their most profitable work, rather than helping lawyers and accountants to work in different ways. Many lawyers still check emails late at night, and most feel pressure to be available 24/7. They are easily tempted to jump to other employers if they think they will have a more balanced life, or at least more money.

The evolution in how flexibility has been perceived over the last three decades has spurred a massive shift in employees’ expectations. The variety of flexibility requests or demands are no longer one-offs — they have been normalized into expectations about the employee experience. The threat of attrition and employers’ inability to hire new employees in a tight labor market are major reasons why employers are responding now. Hopefully, the long overdue recognition of family and other human needs by employers and co-workers will bring positive, long-term changes.

Benefits & complications from expanded flexibility

While there are many positive aspects to the expansion in the dimensions of flexibility, there are also negative aspects. With expanded choices, such as those that have resulted in multiple career path options, comes a lack of clarity. Add in the extra levels of pandemic-related complexity of increased uncertainty, many workers and managers are struggling, given certain developments, including:

      • isolation has increased;
      • changing rules and concerns around workplace health and safety, such as a willingness to wear masks;
      • threats from new COVID variants and concerns about how even healthy, vaccinated individuals can transmit the virus to immune-comprised family members; and
      • disruptions in childcare and fewer options for parents.

While some of the uncertainty has dissipated, the lingering effects on mental health and stress remain relevant and unabated.

At the same time, Gen Z and Millennials views on gender, the rise in the importance of personal identities, and expectations of progress on workplace diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) continue to broaden. Many Boomers and Gen Xers — even those who have historically viewed themselves as progressive — are finding it hard to adjust to all of the uncertainty and expanded DEI-related expectations.

Now, add in the complications of lack of clarity in employers’ specific guidance to their managers on which employees, performing what roles, should come into the office, when and at what times in response to the workforce demands for flexibility. Unsurprisingly, managers are really struggling. This change, in all of its multifaceted aspects, taxes mental bandwidth and energetic resources, while people try to maintain their performance levels at work and keep up with their commitments outside of work.

Guidance to employers on where to invest

Employers still need to remain focused on how to respond to their needs for talent retention in the future. Here are my recommendations:

      • First and foremost, employers need more focus on how people are treated and what they want and need. The risk of higher-than-normal attrition may remain elevated.
      • Second, employers need to prioritize more specificity in the various options for career development and growth, highlighting developing skills, opportunity, and variety to keep employees engaged.
      • Finally and importantly, legal and accounting organizations need to increase their development of the type of managers who will increase mutual respect and feelings of belonging in their employees. Managers are not typically equipped with the skills necessary to lead with curiosity or how to ask good questions which provide understanding and connection in dialogues with each employee about what respect and belonging mean for them.

Indeed, it always comes back to culture change and psychological safety. A long-term view is necessary — and that involves not just throwing money at people problems, which seems easier but is unsustainable and results in raising salary bars ever higher, greater problems for firms, and resistance from clients who look for other providers.

Those firms that move for the long-term in the direction of work redesign and culture change will win the talent wars and retain more clients.