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Mellissa Larkin of Peripheral Blue believes in a flexible workplace and leads by example. Could separating some flexibility myths from facts, help improve your business?
I am a big believer in the value of—and the principles guiding—the establishment of more flexible workplaces.
Modern life is incredibly busy, and the demands placed on people inside and out of their workplaces are varied and complex. Our 24/7 relationship with digital technology has blurred the lines between “work life” and “home life” so much that affording employees at least some flexibility in where, when and how they perform their jobs makes more than just good business sense. It’s a necessity.
Let’s discuss some of the common pressure points that come up when business owners and managers think about workplace flexibility.
Lean into flexibility and reap the rewards
When I founded Peripheral Blue Legal and Peripheral Blue Consulting in 2016, having worked in the legal industry for almost 20 years, I was determined to introduce a fresh approach to the flexible workplace. I envisioned a company which provided staff with genuinely flexible employment opportunities. I wanted to employ people who were excited and inspired by our mission to provide a dynamic new style of legal services, and was determined to provide them with whatever internal or external support they needed to help them perform at their best.
While the introduction of more flexible work practices into the workplace requires both balance and commitment from a company’s leadership team, once the culture and internal policies to support it have been established, the rewards for all parties are plentiful and ongoing.
To many, the traditional notion of a “flexible workplace” involves allowing a small number of individuals (women, mostly) the opportunity to work a reduced number of hours per day, and/or days per week. Unfortunately, however, the career path of the employee who’s taken advantage of the flexibility on offer is often unintentionally stalled, or at least stifled.
Once people’s roles are limited by the number of hours they’re contributing to a business, the negative impacts on their lives start compounding. Often overlooked for promotions or professional development opportunities, part-timers’ earning potential is reduced—and not just in the short term by way of reduced salary. Long-term, part-time work has been shown to have a significant effect on employees’ superannuation and therefore their future livelihoods.
The high price of disengaged employees
A recent Gallup poll found that a staggering 76% of Australian employees are either not engaged or, worse, are actively disengaged while at work, an alarming figure costing industry billions of dollars each year. Yet while employee engagement is obviously paramount from a productivity and financial perspective, the beneficial knock-on effects to the individual and their employer—and society as a whole—are even greater.
In the two years since I launched Peripheral Blue, not only have I successfully created the culture I set out to, but as a business, every day we build on it together. I’ve recruited a team of exceptional talent—legal professionals with top-tier training and professional expertise who display the emotional intelligence (EQ) necessary to align them with our company ethos of providing exceptional, relatable legal advice, with integrity. They’re passionate about our clients, loyal to the business, and bring to their jobs a sense of commitment they mightn’t otherwise.
Teamwork makes the dream work—a matter of trust
Of course, finding and hiring your dream team is one thing. Retaining them is another! In reflecting on my own personal experiences as an employee over a 20-year career, I’ve learned that the key to retaining people is to look at what truly motivates them.
While there are always going to be motivational consistencies, each staff member’s personal drivers are different, and they will change over time. So it’s imperative I invest my own time in trying to understand what my team is looking to achieve personally as well as professionally, and to regularly check in with them to see if their circumstances have changed.
Ensuring staff members have some autonomy over their work, and some flexibility in where and how they perform their jobs, is really important. So, too, is providing them with transparency, and support. Recognising and promoting staff internally, and helping them build their profiles externally—for example, as leaders in their fields—benefits them personally and works to enhance your corporate profile. Ensuring your staff have a degree of flexibility in their jobs shouldn’t mean they abandon their ambition or suffer financially.
Sceptics of the flexible workplace concept often harbour the perception (or misperception!) that the system is a recipe for exploitation. In my view and experience, however, the success of workplace flexibility revolves around a culture of mutual respect. I respect my team’s talent, their work ethic and their individual and collective voices, and they value the balance between freedom and support. It’s empowering for someone to know that they’re in charge of their own career, and that their personal ambitions are endorsed by the company they work for.
By the same token, the trust needs to run both ways. A successful company is also one in which staff have earned the trust of management, and don’t take advantage of its generosity or opportunities like flexibility that are afforded to them.
Use technology to your advantage
At Peripheral Blue we have embraced the use of technology, and it enables staff to work in a variety of flexible ways. From online accounting, workflow and CRM systems, to videoconferencing and Skype, if the technology is there, use it to your advantage.
Any member of our team can work from our office, from home, from clients’ offices or while travelling. As long as they keep our centralised system updated, I and the rest of the team can stay abreast of client and matter activity. This ensures our collective knowledge base continues to grow and that clients are provided with ongoing support, across our team, no matter the whereabouts of particular staff.
On a personal level, when I started the business, I committed to manufacturing a new type of work life myself—one which enabled me to travel to Ireland with my husband and three young children every year. The technology we’ve integrated into the business has afforded me, and my staff, the freedom and flexibility to do just that. It’s been an incredible opportunity to completely redefine my own work-life balance.
Encourage collaborative workspaces
Consider setting up your office as a more collaborative workspace. It might sound obvious, but creating a space with collaborative hubs (indoor/outdoor, for example) allows staff more opportunities for collaboration.
We launched Peripheral Blue with a goal of maintaining a strictly “paperless office”, which means we avoid the clutter you often find in traditional office spaces, so hot-desking makes sense for us. User-friendly, comfortable workspaces engender a sense of equality and collaboration among team members, a culture and dynamic from which our clients’ benefit.
Championing work from home
As I’ve mentioned, one of the simplest ways to keep employees engaged is to enable them to work from wherever they need to, for as little (or as much) time as is necessary. As long as our business and client needs are being met, I fully support giving staff a level of ownership in this area.
Do you have a sick child? Work from home. A pupil-free day or school holiday and an internal meeting you can’t reschedule? Do you need to collaborate with a colleague in person? Kids are welcome in our office. We have toys, games, colouring activities, and treats (yes, treats!) to keep them happily occupied while we get our work done. We’ve created a solution that works for us and our team.
A workplace culture “revolution”
As a business owner, I encourage other business owners and managers to adopt a more progressive—flexible—attitude towards workplace culture. It makes as much financial as it does interpersonal sense. Fostering a flexible workplace helps everyone; staff benefit from being able to provide a broad, flexible range of services built around their clients’ needs, and clients benefit from having their needs catered to by someone who is engaged and flexible in their approach to service provision and problem solving.
Happy employees thrive, which leads to productive, successful workplaces. People do their best work when they’re engaged. A contented staff benefits your clients, your business, and the wider community.
Mark Twain said “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never…work a day in your life.” I love what I do and I’ve worked hard to create an inclusive, flexible workplace for my staff. It’s thriving and busy, but functional and co-operative (as a mum to three young boys—function and co-operation is everything!). As a business owner, I believe that happy employees are more passionate about—and dedicated to—their work, and the business benefits from this. Your staff’s contentment and satisfaction forms an integral part of your organisation’s capital. Make the most of it.
Mellissa Larkin is the Founder and Managing Director of legal and consulting firm Peripheral Blue, a NewLaw firm disrupting the Australian legal and professional services industries by giving clients access to top tier, flexible, responsive legal and advisory services without the top-tier price tag. A graduate of Flinders University, Mellissa completed her Masters in Law at Trinity College, Dublin, and has worked at high profile firms in Australia and internationally. Competing against the biggest names in the business, Mellissa was recently named as a Finalist for the prestigious Partner of the Year Awards 2019 in Australia.