Case Study: Awareness Raising – Allen and Overy, UK
Company / organisation name
Allen and Overy
Supports for employees with informal care responsibilities
About the company / organisation
Allen and Overy is one of the largest law firms in the world with approximately 5,000 staff and 36 offices worldwide. It primarily employs solicitors. The firm provides leading legal advice in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. Since 2006, it has been headquartered in the Spitalfields area of London, having been previously based, for much of its history, in the City area of London. Allen and Overy advises national and multinational corporations, financial institutions, and governments.
Allen and Overy seeks to attract and retain the most talented people, and to benefit from the varied talents of a diverse workforce. To do this, the firm aims to provide rewarding careers and a supportive working environment, allowing all staff to maximise their potential and fulfil their ambitions. Allen and Overy’s diversity policy has at its core the goal to create a culture of inclusion and respect.
Flexible working policies were introduced in 2001. Since 2006, specific attention has been placed on employees who have caring responsibilities.
Flexible working is available to all employees, as is time off for emergencies. Other working options include: part-time working; job sharing; annualised working days; home-based working; and staggered hours (8.00–16.00, 9.30-17.30 or 10.00-18.00).
A caveat arises here, as working within the law profession can mean that long hours are inevitable for periods of time, such as four to eight weeks. This means that at certain times, employees are so immersed in their work they have to find other ways of looking meeting their caring responsibilities. Currently, the average age of the employees is 31 years, which in practice means that relatively few have caring responsibilities.
In the law profession, the usual employment model is a full-time partnership. In 2010, however, part-time partnerships were introduced as an initiative targeted at individuals who may have other responsibilities, such as caring or parenting.
In 2006, career breaks were introduced. This enables any employee to request a period of long-term leave, which can last up to three years. This was initially aimed at parents, but can be used by working carers as well. A career break plan has to be agreed; this addresses the length of time to be taken, the level contact to be maintained, attendance at away-days (if possible). It also commits the employee to attending meetings at least once every six months. To date, 40 employees have taken career breaks.
Efforts are undertaken to allow employees to keep their technical expertise up to date while they are on leave. This issue particularly applies to those working in information technology (IT) but is also relevant, to a somewhat lesser extent, to lawyers, who need to continue their professional development.
Rationale and background of the initiative
Allen and Overy is continuously looking at ways to improve flexibility around working arrangements. Flexible working policies were introduced in 2001. Today, more than 11% of employees work part-time, with many more taking the opportunity to work flexibly on a full-time basis. Remote working is enabled by the latest computer technology, with about 20% of employees at the London site now working from home at least once per month. These initiatives resulted in Allen and Overy receiving an award for activities on supporting working parents in the 2006 Financial Times Innovation Awards. It also ranked best in sector for the category of law, in a survey on maternity and paternity benefits carried out by the Guardian, a national newspaper, in August 2007.
Since 2006, specific attention has been placed on the needs of working carers. This came about as a response to demographic factors such as increased longevity and a growing incidence of people with concomitant caring responsibilities. Additionally, the HR department became aware of anecdotal evidence that suggested possible issues within the organisation related to caring.
The development of a carers policy originated during a series of lunchtime seminars in 2006. These seminars were initially meant to focus on issues faced by working parents. However, certain comments made at those seminars also made it obvious that Allen and Overy needed to respond to the needs of working carers as well.
In March 2007, the firm held its first diversity week in London. Its aim was ‘to encourage people to think about what diversity and inclusion means at Allen and Overy and to raise awareness in an informative and entertaining way’. Events were run by experts on a wide range of topics.
Both the philosophy and the culture of the organisation support the goals of recruiting and retaining employees, and ensuring that their career is supported despite any home responsibilities. The company has a ‘flat’ structure, whereby the chief executives lead the company, with partners and associates carrying out its core activities. The HR department acts as a business partner. For example, if an issue arises with an employee, the line manager will contact HR, which will then advise on the most appropriate course of action. Company policies are in place, but the their application is not necessarily done through training programmes (law as a profession is focused on doing the law work rather than going on training events about other aspects of employment).
The initiative is also to be seen in the context of internal developments that aim to give stronger support to women within the company.
Results and assessment
Allen and Overy have no figures on the extent to which their employees face informal caring responsibilities. The average age of employees in the company is currently 31 years. This means that the likelihood of this being an issue is still relatively remote. Nonetheless, it is acknowledged that this situation is bound to change.
In the middle of 2008, an employee survey was undertaken, to identify the needs of employees, including any caring responsibilities. It also aimed to highlight challenges that employees face, and, just as importantly, the challenges they may face in the future. One of the objectives of the survey was to find out how the organisation could provide effective support to employees. The findings suggested that employees had little knowledge of the employment assistance programme, which covers all aspects of employment within the organisation, including caring.
In response to the survey results, an intranet service on caring was set up. This includes links to external web sites, such as government web resources that provide information about being a carer (such as entitlements to benefits and allowances).
The three seminars that were held in 2006 used handouts to facilitate discussion, specifically on the themes of parenting and caring. Additionally, the draft reference documents were prepared, for those wishing to find out more about caring issues. Allen and Overy found that working carers prefer a central point within the company that can be accessed for information, advice or other forms of support. Initially, there was ambiguity regarding who they should contact and how, and what their entitlements were. The HR department addressed this by offering one-to-one support.
The organisation does not have a formalised training programme on diversity and inclusion. Instead, managers approach HR for advice on a case by case basis. This enables HR to offer individualised solutions. The HR department has been able to take the lead on any caring issues that have presented. They begin by asking employees. ‘What help do you need?’ They then work on the premise that they will look after the employee’s best interests and that they wish to retain them within the organisation.
Issues, challenges and lessons learned
Experience so far shows that – in contrast to parenting issues found – the issue of working carers needs an individual approach to each case. A one-to-one consultation has emerged as the most appropriate way of approaching any problems.
Caring for a dependent who is older or who has a disability can be complicated. This is not just in terms of logistical issues; it also relates to matters such as applying for benefits and organising care. For this reason, companies should provide readily accessible information and links to enable people to find out more about it. One step in this direction, which can be easily done, is the setting up of an intranet site for working carers. While informal care is not the employer’s responsibility, there are many benefits to helping and enabling employees. Perhaps most importantly, information and support can help individuals to better juggle work and private life.
Anecdotal evidence shows that people who are engaged in giving support to dependents at home often do not consider themselves to be a ‘carer’. This makes it more difficult to set up support schemes that target this particular group of employees. For example, Allen and Overy have tried to start up a ‘buddy’ scheme. The aim here was to allow working carers to get in touch with other staff members in a similar position, in order to exchange experience and to support each other. Despite attempts to initiate the scheme, however, nobody has come forward to ‘buddy up’ yet. The company is currently exploring other ways to enable working carers in the company to get in touch with each other.
Allen and Overy have successfully striven for consistency in policy, and for its equal application to all employees, with the organisation actively supporting the employee. Experience so far shows that it is of major importance to have clear policies that are easily assessed, and that are communicated effectively between all stakeholders. At Allen and Overy, cooperation between HR and other departments has proven essential.
Case study author:
- Dr Paula Byrne, Division Primary Care, University Liverpool.
- Jane Masey, Human Resources Policy and Diversity Manager, Allen and Overy.