The Structure of Flexibility

In today’s market, in order to recruit new and retain existing employees, offering a flexible work environment is a great way. When your employees have flexibility in their schedule to achieve a work life balance they are happier and more productive. In today’s episode I am going to teach you how to create systems for you to implement flexibility into your work environment. 


In this episode we discuss:

  • How to structure a flexible work environment that will make your employees happier.
  • 3-step query to ask of yourself to create a structure of flexibility in your workplace.
  • Effective communication is necessary to make clear the goals that need to be achieved.
  • How to manage your business by metrics.



Allison Williams: [00:00:05] Hi, everybody. It’s Allison Williams here, your host of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. Law Firm Mentor is a business coaching service for solo and small law firm attorneys. We help you to grow your revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money.


Allison Williams: [00:00:26] Hi, everybody. It’s Allison Williams here, your Law Firm Mentor and welcome to another episode of The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast, where today we’re going to talk about the structure of flexibility. So I know that that sounds like a little bit of an oxymoron. And it was designed to be because I was thinking about this, this is like perfect. This thought came to my mind last night as I was watching one of my favorite movies of all time, 9 to 5.


Allison Williams: [00:00:52] Now, for some of you youngsters out there or some of you that were born in the, in the late eighties or nineties, I know we have some, some youths out there that watch the podcast, but you probably have heard of this movie, maybe even have seen this movie, but a lot of you may not have even heard of it before. So it’s one of my favorite movies because it’s hilarious. It features Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda with Dabney Coleman. And it’s basically three secretaries in their of, their escapades, if you will, with their boss. They, they believe that they have accidentally poisoned their boss, their boy, their boss believes they tried to kill him. And as a result, this very funny story evolves over a really great movie. But the punch line of the movie is that these workers in this oppressive workplace are able to make some structural changes that really increase productivity, make it a much happier workplace.


Allison Williams: [00:01:54] So the question becomes, why didn’t the boss do that? And it was typically because of some of the things that a lot of our clients here at Law Firm Mentor and a lot of lawyers that I talked to deal with, which is namely that as soon as you start instituting some flexibility, things that tend to increase employee morale, things that tend to make the workplace better, people are happier. You also get the downside of that. You get the lack of control or feeling of lack of control that comes with having more structured rules and systems in place. And you also tend to have the opportunity for abuse. And I say the opportunity for abuse because there are plenty of people who instituted flexibility when they went into business and it worked out fine and they never saw the downside of it because they maybe only had one or two employees. But as soon as you start growing that opportunity for abuses there and people don’t want to deal with it.


Allison Williams: [00:02:50] So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about how to structure a flexible work environment so that you can actually constitute your workplace in a way that will make your employees happier. Because we know this is a challenging marketplace right now for finding legal talent. And we want to not only attract great talent, but we also want to keep them once they’re here.


Allison Williams: [00:03:10] So I want to first give you a couple of anecdotes about this. One of the, one of the things that comes to mind with me, in particular, is my own personal experience. And as you guys know, I draw a lot on my personal experience because, one, I know I have universal right to use my personal experience. I give myself permission for that. But two, I know that a lot of the things that people see now in my workplace, we have a nine lawyer team, we have almost 20 employees here at the law firm. We’re about to acquire another law firm. And so people know that I have a successful business and they think, Oh, okay, well, you must run it a certain way.


Allison Williams: [00:03:45] And when I talk about systems, a lot of people have a little bit of aversion because they think, Oh my God, I could never enforce all those rules. I can never create all that structure. And believe it or not, the structure actually allows for greater flexibility. You know, and this is one of the things that people don’t quite understand. They think a system and a structure means that it’s rigid and it’s enforced and every single nanosecond is counted for. And that’s not exactly true. Right. There’s a lot of trust that I place in the people that I hire because I fundamentally believe that when you hire great people and you get out of their way, when you let them to, when you let them be great, that’s when you get a better outcome. But I do recognize and I have personally gone through the struggle of creating that in a workplace without all of the pitfalls that come with having a law practice that does require systems and rules where people are going to meet their deadlines, serve their clients, not get me super malpractice, right. To throw that in there. You know where we’re going to create that, but also have the freedom that people desire. So we’re going to talk today about how to do it. But first, I want to give you a little story.


Allison Williams: [00:04:55] So once upon a time, I was a smaller workplace. We had two paralegals functionally, we had an office manager, and we had four attorneys. And I remember during that phase of my law firm, one of the things that came up pretty frequently was that people likened us to the olden days, right? People that had come in later in the growth of the firm were hearing about some of the good old days where we were a relatively structured. Also very loosely structured work environment, you know, Fridays, it was me and my two associates, we were all friends. We would kind of talk shop about the week and if one of us had a bad day in court, we would eat pizza for lunch. Well, one of my attorneys is gluten-free, so we would eat for lunch. She would not have pizza, but we would, you know, pile around and then, like kick off at 2:00 and go get our nails done, you know? And at that time, I had an all female workplace, so that kind of worked for us and it was great, right? It was, It was really a great way to bond. It was a great way to decompress at the end of the week and the productivity was always made up in some other way. But I knew that because I knew the people there.


Allison Williams: [00:06:06] When we started to grow, when we started to add people, I didn’t know the people quite as well because I wasn’t working step by step, side by side alongside them, because we had outgrown the 1-to-1 relationship. Right? There was one lawyer, two lawyers for every one paralegal. And then you also had kind of administrative activity that I wasn’t personally involved in. I started to, wasn’t really good at it at first, but I started to loosen the reins a little bit and get myself out of doing all the stuff. So what ended up happening was as we added more people, I had less intuitive trust in them, not because they were not trustworthy, but because I didn’t personally experience them.


Allison Williams: [00:06:47] So I just said, All right, well, the way that we function is, you know, you come in, you generally have a 9 to 5 workday, but if you need to leave a little early, come in a little early, you know, or cut your lunch hour, or if you need to run out in the middle of the day and use your lunch hour for a doctor’s appointment, I’m not going to be in count the moment that you get back in the office, but just make up that time some other way. And that had always worked when we were a much smaller office because my first office manager lived all of 5 minutes away from the office. Like literally I would come in when it snowed and she would come in when it snowed because she’d say, You know, I can gauge when the roads are going to be good versus bad just based on looking outside. And it takes me 5 minutes to get home. So it might take me ten or 15 minutes in the snow, but it’s fine. Right. And so she had gotten used to kind of if she had things to do in the day, she needed to run home for furniture delivery, she needed to go to the doctor. I was like, go, you know, make up your work whenever. And she’d come in on the weekends sometimes. And it was a very loosey-goosey sort of arrangement because I always knew I trusted that she would give me the quote-unquote, 40 hours a week or whatever that we had agreed upon.


Allison Williams: [00:07:59] Well, when I started adding people and I had that same general attitude, right, you give to me, I give to you, this is a relationship. I want you to be happy. I want your life to fit with your work and share that ethos pretty freely with people. We had one paralegal that just didn’t work that way. This person would ask to come in late or leave early, and by this time I had gotten very clear guidance from an employment attorney that we needed to be keeping time records. So we were maintaining time records. And consistently this person would ebb and flow in a way that short of the time and even though I didn’t feel the urge to short the compensation to the person, it started to create dissension in the ranks because people would look around and say, Oh, wait a minute, you know, I’m putting in my time, right? Whether that time is 9 to 5 or 8 to 4 or whatever, but someone else is not. And then it would breed malcontent in the workplace.


Allison Williams: [00:08:58] Now you might be saying, well, why is someone looking at what another person is doing? Well, I don’t know that that’s really a fair statement, because, frankly, when you’re working very closely with people and your work is interdependent with someone else, it really is impossible for you not to notice when that person is not available. Because if that person is not available at times where let’s say you’re going to be covering lunch schedules, or you may even be, you might be called upon to cover the administrative work or the paralegal work of another desk. It’s really hard to do that if the person is not there when you expect them to be there.


Allison Williams: [00:09:33] Now, there was never any rampant abuse, but there was definitely little cultural challenges, little chips in the armor, if you will, that were caused by having this flexibility. And then over time, the problem got worse because, you know, when you started to try to be even more flexible, to try to work around personal life challenges of your team members, then their circumstances led them to be less available. And then that did affect the possibility of at least at that time, of infecting up, affecting compensation.


Allison Williams: [00:10:07] So I always my attitude was, okay, well if we can’t be flexible, then we have to be structured and those two are polar opposites. And then I really started thinking about it. I started looking at it from the perspective of how do we achieve as much flexibility as is possible to run an effective work? And give people the I trust you. You’re a professional. Get your work done. Freedom. While at the same time giving over to the productivity, goals, and requirements that we needed to meet and making sure that we met those.


Allison Williams: [00:10:40] So I actually thought this through and created a little three-step query that you should ask of yourself in order to create a structure of flexibility in your workplace. Okay. So first thing you have to ask yourself, have I communicated effectively the purpose of flexibility and the expectations? So effective communication we know is at the pollstar of just about every relationship that you are ever going to have, whether it is parent, child, friend, friends, spouse to spouse, employer to employee, you need to be clear in your communication in order to achieve an objective and get everyone on the same page. So when you want to create a flexible work environment, you can’t just let someone come in late, or let someone leave early, or let someone skip their lunch hour. And you notice it after the fact and say, Yeah, well, they’re giving it me, they’re giving it to me in some other way, right? You have to have a conversation about that.


Allison Williams: [00:11:35] So my recommendation would be that you start out with some general parameters. Generally speaking, we’re starting at this time, we’re ending at that time, and we want to allow flexibility. Here are the expectations of flexibility, right? You’re going to document how much time you’re going to be out. You’re going to make up that time in some other way. Or if you don’t want to have that type of system, you don’t want your system to be about documentation. You’re going to communicate when you’re leaving. You’re going to communicate when you’re coming back, right? It’s clarity so that the person knows that even though they have the freedom to do what they need to do, the freedom doesn’t mean do whatever you want to do. It means do what’s necessary for both the business and for the self.


Allison Williams: [00:12:20] And you can actually give examples of that, right? If you’re writing an employee manual or if you follow our master class, you’re actually having your team involved in the process of documenting your systems. Then you’re going to have examples of what is good flexibility and what is not so good flexibility, what works for your workplace and what doesn’t. The communication piece of this is really about making sure that your team understands what the goals are to be achieved, right? That you want them to feel respected. You want them to have autonomy as much as humanly possible. You want them to be able to work cohesively with others in a way that others are giving 100% and they’re giving 100%. You want to respect that they have lives outside of the office, but you also want to make sure that you’re meeting your productivity goals because that is how you are ultimately going to have the profit that’s necessary to run the business effectively, to compensate everyone fairly, and to achieve your vision as a business owner.


Allison Williams: [00:13:23] Number two, when we talk about what’s required in order to have a structure of flexibility in your workplace, you have to ask yourself, Am I managing my business by the metrics? Managing by metrics sounds very easy. It sounds like great. I get a report and I look at it and I check to see that the numbers are what I want them to be. That’s not exactly the case. Managing biometrics is communicating key performance indicators, also known as KPIs, communicating those to every person in the office. Everyone should have a standard against which they can personally measure their performance.


Allison Williams: [00:14:01] Now, this is not just you measuring their performance. This is them measuring their own performance. So if a person knows that what they have to produce in the course of a day is a certain volume of work, a certain number of cases, a certain number of hours built, a certain number of client touches that is something quantifiable that they can actually look at. I either did it or I didn’t.


Allison Williams: [00:14:24] On the flip side, if your attitude is come to work every day and get your work done. Well, getting your work done could mean they’ve got 40 files on their desk and you clearly don’t expect them to get all of that done. So there’s something less than 40 files and there’s something probably over one file. And as long as they’re in that range, they’re getting their work done, right? So that’s a very loose standard and it’s a standard that really has no qualitative meaning to a person because they can’t necessarily know whether you’re going to be happy with that or not, because it’s not clear, it’s not precise, and they can’t hold themselves accountable to that.


Allison Williams: [00:14:59] So when we talk about managing by numbers and managing my metrics, it really is giving a key performance, key performance indicator to your team. When we talk about managing by metrics, it really is giving a key performance indicator to your team, but it also is ensuring that your team understands it, that they are checking in with themselves to make sure that they’re meeting it, and that you are checking in with them, you or someone on behalf of the firm is checking in with them to see that it’s done. When you do that, time really becomes much more fluid, right? Because as I say to my lawyers all the time, I don’t really care whether you’re billing your hours at the beach, or at your house, or at the office, or in the courthouse. I just want them done right. You have to produce a certain amount in order to generate a certain amount of revenue, a portion of which belongs to you as compensation and a portion of which is required to run the firm.


Allison Williams: [00:15:52] So when we have those kind of clear guidelines for people, it becomes a lot easier for you to know whether or not a person who is taking liberties with time or is flexing their time, if you will, is really able to get the work done or if there needs to be something else.


Allison Williams: [00:16:09] Thinking of something else. That is number three on our hit parade of creating the structure of flexibility. When we talk about having a flexible environment, you must, must, must reserve the right to restrict flexibility and freedom if a person is not meeting their objective standards.


Allison Williams: [00:16:27] Now, I know this is the tough part. This involves conversation and oftentimes terse, difficult conversations for people. but here’s the thing. If you want to have freedom and flexibility, people have to recognize that there is a quid pro quo to that. Right. I give you freedom and flexibility. You give me whatever productivity measure is on the other side of that. So they come to work and get your work done standard very loosely structured. Don’t advise that you have that standard at all. That can work. If it is also attached to the idea that if you don’t get your work done, you will not have the ability to come to work whenever and get your work done as a standard. You will have some other standard put in place in order to ensure that we meet the needs of the business.


Allison Williams: [00:17:11] Now, that can look like you saying people can work outside of the office, right? You might have during COVID transition to a virtual environment and you might like it and you might have said, hey, let’s keep it, right? If you decided to do that, what happens when the people that went home and were less productive are now your, your thought is now I want to bring them back in the office, but I don’t want to bring everyone back. Right. You could be like our company.


[00:17:37] My, my law firm actually became far more productive the first time ever that every single billing professional met their hours without difficulty was when we were all at home. And that’s partly because you had less water cooler time. It’s also lawyers weren’t commuting anymore, so they didn’t have to deal with traffic. People didn’t have the same push and pull in the morning of trying to get their kids to school and then get over to a workplace. And they could be in different directions, right? So there was a lot of freedom and flexibility that came just inherent in having fewer hours to be out of the house and running around. But I know a lot of people that didn’t have that experience right. They didn’t structure their environment to be a truly virtual environment. They just worked at home. And working at home as if you are working in a building together is not a productive way to create a virtual environment.


Allison Williams: [00:18:25] So really challenging part there, people wanted to bring their employees back to work. But for those of you that did not want that, if you wanted to allow people the freedom to choose, you either work at home or you work in the office or you work somewhere else as long as you’re working, I don’t care. Just get the work done. That attitude actually served many people well, right? That gave people a lot of freedom, a lot of flexibility, and they were really happy with it. And it is a competitive advantage in today’s marketplace that you give as much freedom as possible in your workplace. So how do you do that when there could be the possibility that someone falls off their game and stops producing? Right. Maybe the person has some personal challenges and they’re sitting at home watching TV rather than doing the work that they’re supposed to be doing.


Allison Williams: [00:19:07] Well, you own the business, and ultimately the success of the business has to be the standard against which you measure all of the policies and procedures that you have in place. So if you have a system in place that allows people to work from home, you have to communicate and you have to enforce the fact that you reserve the right to bring them back in the office if they ultimately can’t use that flexibility in a way that meets the business’s needs.


Allison Williams: [00:19:33] By the way, by virtue of having that kind of conversation with people, I’m going to trust you with this. This is something that I want to give to you. But ultimately, whether or not we can sustain it is based on you. It’s not based on me, right? It’s not based on whether I like it or not. It’s not based on whether I like to be in an environment with a lot of people or not. It is based on whether or not those who are given the freedom can use it in a way that furthers the business’s needs. Most people intellectually will understand that. They will appreciate that, that they’re being given the autonomy and the authority over their own outcomes. Right. Whether I work, from home or work in the office is based on me, not based on my boss. That shows the ultimate respect to your team and that also gets you the greatest likelihood of the outcome you desire, which is a more productive workplace.


Allison Williams: [00:20:21] All right, everyone, you have been watching The Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. Today we have been talking about the structure of flexibility. I’ll see you on our next episode.


Allison Williams: [00:20:39] Thank you for tuning in to the Crushing Chaos with Law Firm Mentor podcast. To learn more about today’s show and take advantage of the resources mentioned. Check out our show notes. And if you enjoy today’s episode, take a moment to follow the podcast wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating and review. This helps us to reach even more law firm owners from around the country who want to crush chaos in business and make more money. I’m Allison Williams, your Law Firm Mentor, everyone. Have a great day.






Allison Bio:
Allison C. Williams, Esq., is the Founder and Owner of the Williams Law Group, LLC, with offices in Short Hills and Freehold, New Jersey. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, is Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Law Attorney, and is the first attorney in New Jersey to become Board-Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy in the field of Family Law.

Ms. Williams is an accomplished businesswoman. In 2017, the Williams Law Group won the LawFirm500 award, ranking 14th of the fastest-growing law firms in the nation, as Ms. Williams grew the firm by 581% in three years. Ms. Williams won the Silver Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017. In 2018, Ms. Williams was voted as NJBIZ’s Top 50 Women in Business and was designated one of the Top 25 Leading Women Entrepreneurs and Business Owners. In 2019, Ms. Williams won the Seminole 100 Award for founding one of the fastest-growing companies among graduates of Florida State University.


In 2018, Ms. Williams created Law Firm Mentor, a business coaching service for lawyers. She helps solo and small law firm attorneys grow their business revenues, crush chaos in business and make more money. Through multi-day intensive business retreats, group and one-to-one coaching, and strategic planning sessions, Ms. Williams advises lawyers on all aspects of creating, sustaining, and scaling a law firm business – and specifically, she teaches them the core foundational principles of marketing, sales, personnel management, communications, and money management in law firms.

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