Scottish Legal Aid Board: the flexible arm of the law

A Scottish public authority has cut recruitment costs by 75% and sickness absence by 25% with a flexible working scheme that allows all its staff to roster their own time.

Key points

  • The Scottish Legal Aid Board piloted flexible working in 2001, mixing flexible hours and limited homeworking. The pilot was successful, so a second-stage trial extended flexibility to the rest of the organisation in 2003, allowing all teams to decide their working arrangements, provided customer service was not adversely affected.

  • The programme has produced remarkable results, cutting recruitment and agency costs by around 75%, helping reduce self-certified sickness absence by 25% and reducing staff turnover from around 16% to less than 10%, while staff productivity metrics have risen.

  • The scheme has now been formalised, and employees' contracts are being varied to allow them to roster their own working time between 7am and 7.30pm weekdays, and 8am to 1pm on Saturdays. Homeworking has been restricted for the time being, but is being kept under review.

    Neither government bodies nor the legal profession are likely to figure in most HR practitioners' lists of sectors known for their radical employment practices. But the Scottish Legal Aid Board spans both categories, and has taken the bold step of effectively abolishing its fixed contractual working hours to allow its 330 employees to choose their own work patterns.

    The Scottish Legal Aid Board is the non-departmental public body responsible for managing legal aid in Scotland and is responsible to the Scottish Executive. It was set up in 1987 by the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1986. Legal aid offers help with legal problems to people who would not otherwise be able to afford it.

    The board's 330 employees range from solicitors and accountants, to mailroom and security staff, and they handle around 400,000 grants for legal assistance, processing a net spend of more than £150 million every year. Almost all the staff are based at the Edinburgh head office.

    In summer 2001 Moira Williamson, the Scottish Legal Aid Board's personnel manager (development), saw an advertisement for the Department of Trade and Industry's (DTI) Work-Life Balance Challenge Fund, set up to support firms to establish schemes promoting better work-life balance. Williamson put in a speculative bid and won £45,000 worth of consultancy from flexible working specialists Swiftwork.

    She says flexible working had been "on the agenda" for more than a year - although without any concrete results - driven by several different forces. One was the chief executive's belief that the organisation needed to adjust its work patterns to the coming demands for more responsive public services and providing services online.

    Another driver was the over-heated Edinburgh labour market. "We had high staff turnover," Williamson notes. "We couldn't compete on salaries and we weren't big enough to compete on career development for younger staff, which was mostly what we had. We needed to make ourselves an 'employer of choice' using other means."

    The organisation was keen to balance its young workforce with some older employees to give greater stability, improve client service, and better reflect the working population in general. Williamson also notes that the longstanding flexitime system, with core hours between 10am- 12pm and 2-4pm, was not valued by staff because of the bureaucracy surrounding the procedure, and the time-recording system was "creaking".

    The first trial

    Williamson consulted the recognised union, GMB (Scotland), on the proposed scheme, and a trial started at the end of 2001, when Swiftwork convened a series of workshops for managers to allow them to discuss their own work-life balance needs. It also introduced the idea of managing flexibility, rather than simply policing the flexitime system. Williamson says the presence of consultant Anne Dickens was valuable in reassuring managers, because she was "someone from outside who had experience and could say 'no, this really does work'".

    Once the ground was prepared, the organisation issued an open invitation to teams to submit proposals for flexible working pilots that allowed team members to alter their work patterns. Williamson says she expected a handful to come forward but was pleasantly surprised when 19 teams asked to take part. She held a "surgery" for each team with Swiftwork to discuss their proposal and to ensure that service would not be adversely affected, which was the minimum requirement for any pilot to proceed.

    With this in mind, the groups were asked to gather baseline data on their work performance. This information would be used along with the standard HR measures of absence, turnover, recruitment costs and morale - measured by regular employee opinion surveys - to assess the pilots' success.

    The extra local customer service measures varied widely, depending on the work of the team, and included the percentage of faxes answered the same day in some areas, and satisfaction ratings from internal customers in others. Teams were also asked to devise their own measures of satisfaction or indicators of team members' personal benefits from the new patterns. This provided the organisation with a set of hard metrics, including productivity, at both organisational and local level. Such metrics are rare outside the manufacturing industry.

    Flexible patterns

    By March 2002, the board had 16 pilot teams, totalling 154 people, trying out a mixture of flexible work patterns. These consisted of:

  • enhanced flexitime - reducing or removing the core hours requirement;

  • extension of the hours bandwidth to start earlier in the morning and/or finish later in the evening;

  • compressed hours - working extended days for four days a week or nine days a fortnight; and

  • homeworking on an occasional or regular basis.

    Most teams combined more than one option to suit themselves, while maintaining rotas to ensure that there is sufficient cover during "team service" hours - the agreed times that they must be available to customers inside or outside the organisation. Team members who did not want to change their hours were allowed to use the existing flexitime system.

    Public contact times were kept at the old office times: 9am to 5pm, but to accommodate the flexible hours, the board's facilities staff agreed that the offices would be open from 7am to 9pm on weekdays and from 8am to 1pm on Saturdays. Employees could work at any time during these hours with the agreement of their team mates, provided they worked their contracted 35 hours a week on average, and made sure that the service was not adversely affected.

    Williamson says that some people inevitably found it easier to adjust than others to the lack of a set of hard rules and a relaxed attitude to teams setting and changing their patterns. But in cases where there was a reluctance to participate, or where teams could not agree on a method, managers took a light-touch approach. "We were able to say to people, 'it's your choice, nobody has to do this'," she recalls.

    Improved performance

    In general, says Williamson, the surprise was how quickly most people took to the flexible approach. From the organisation's point of view, the trials were a complete success.

    As the table below shows, staff turnover was cut, with a knock-on decrease in recruitment and temporary staff costs. Self-certified sickness absence was reduced by 19.4%, although some of this may have been attributable to other causes: among non-pilot staff absence fell by 13.5% as a result of separate efforts to curb absence levels.

    Staff satisfaction surveys showed that 89% of employees who took part in the trials said they enjoyed working for the organisation - up from 67% in the previous year; and 87% agreed that the board created a good work-life balance for employees - up from 53% in 2001.

    Most significantly, while these measures showed reduced costs and improved morale, Williamson also knew that productivity and performance measures were rising across the board. In a period when the organisation had managed to drive down overtime costs by 45%, customer satisfaction was higher, and more cases were being handled in a shorter time. One team had traditionally suffered from poor morale and not all of its members had been keen to volunteer for the project. "They said, 'why should we have to plan our time?'" Williamson recalls. But the team increased its productivity by 25% and "loved" working flexibly.

    Williamson puts some of this productivity gain down to handing over to teams the responsibility for managing their own workloads, which had brought the board to the elusive Grail of HR: employee empowerment. "People would come up with comments like 'I feel trusted' or 'I feel in control'," she recalls.

    The pilot officially ended after six months in September 2002, although the teams were allowed to continue with their new work patterns. Williamson and Swiftwork's Anne Dickens produced a formal project report in November that year. The report analysed all the measures from the trials. Its main conclusions were that the project had worked well, and that this was because the organisation had been hands-off in letting teams choose flexible arrangements that suited them.

    The outcomes of the first pilots made it almost inevitable that the scheme would be widened. With the approval of the organisation's directors and its board - chief executive Lindsay Montgomery described the programme as an "outstanding success" in a report to the DTI - Williamson planned a second trial phase to include the whole organisation. She says this would allow the company to see if the productivity gains could be sustained for the phase-one teams and replicated across the workforce.

    Phase two

    "The second phase was always going to be more challenging, since we had to open it up to everyone," says Williamson. Although she had kept all staff informed about the project through regular updates in the board's in-house magazine, for some of the teams not involved it was, she says, "something happening elsewhere".

    In January, Williamson held two half-day workshops for the team leaders and one employee represented each team. In the first session, team representatives from the pilots shared their experiences, suggesting lessons learned and revising the agreed "work-life balance principles" (the framework for flexible working). The afternoon session was for those who had not yet participated in pilots, some of whom might need convincing of the benefits.

    Two team leaders from the morning session joined in to answer any queries from first-hand experience, and to pass on advice; explaining, for instance, that people had to learn to not feel guilty about leaving in the middle of the afternoon, even if they had arrived in the early morning. Teams were then asked to develop their own pilot proposals, as in phase one. The take-up was very high across the organisation, with early opening particularly popular - a survey in 2004 found that around half of all staff welcomed the chance to start before 8am.

    The phase two trials started in April 2003, and were formally reviewed a year later. Williamson's formal report on the phase in November 2004 detailed further improvements in business measures (see table) and positive comments from interviews with the teams and separately with their managers. Williamson was able to report: "Flexible working … has helped to shift the culture to one that requires teamwork, and where productivity and job satisfaction have increased."

    Checks and balances

    The report also highlighted issues that needed attention if flexibility was to continue.

    In one area, the light-touch management of hours scheduling, which had been encouraged to promote team empowerment since the first phase, had led to a situation where a minority of employees were taking advantage of the lack of hard rules and their team leaders were not sure of their authority.

    Another problem was the lack of a universal time-planning and time-recording system to allow teams and their managers to roster the various hour patterns, and make sure the customer service requirements were satisfied.

    Some staff felt that part-time employees were not always working in the spirit of the scheme, where all staff took responsibility for making the arrangements work, as they were able to "cherry pick" the hours they wanted to work, without always supporting the necessary cover rotas.

    The final report went to the board's executive team in December 2004 with a recommendation that self-rostering and extended opening hours be put on a formal footing across the organisation from 2005. This was accepted and, in February this year, Williamson held workshops for managers and directors to ensure they were comfortable with the programme. Meanwhile, she was writing the final guidance for all employees, which was eventually issued in April.

    The 33-page guidance document - formally the Flexible working procedures and guidance manual - sets out the principles and policies governing team-based flexibility and self-rostering.

    Responding to the concerns expressed by staff about lack of managerial direction, it gives clear guidance for managers on how to support and channel flexibility to make sure business needs are met. "People still need some rules," says Williamson. "It's about giving the managers confidence about what they can insist on."

    There is a clear requirement for all staff, including part-timers, to cover rotas as part of their hours. The guidance also gives advice on specific issues such as conforming to the Working Time Regulations, enforcing the board's requirement for minimum 30-minute meal breaks, and restricting the use of annual leave to pay off time "debts", all of which had been logged as queries by HR staff during the second phase.

    Occupancy data for the building showed that few staff were working beyond 7pm and only five people were regularly in after 7.30pm. So, from the beginning of April, the weekday office hours - which had already been brought back from 9pm to 8pm at the end of the first phase - were shortened again to 7.30pm. Williamson says that, apart from containing facilities costs such as heating and lighting, the change helps the board recruit and retain security staff who can leave a little earlier.

    Homeworking restricted

    Another change was to rein in homeworking until further developments in technology can properly support it. Williamson explains that this part of the scheme had run away with them a little. In the first phase in 2001 there had seemed to be no harm in allowing team members to opt to work at home informally using their own equipment, to include an element of flexibility of place with the other hours-based choices.

    SLA intranet screen

    "We also thought in two or three years we would have the technology to make remote working easy and we could build up experience while we waited," she says.

    Homeworking continued in the second phase on a similar ad hoc basis, with employees allowed to stay home for a minority of their working time once they had completed a health and safety self-assessment form. But the project review revealed that around 20% of the 270 staff surveyed were teleworking regularly - that is, more than once a month.

    Unlike the hours options, widespread homeworking is difficult to combine with the minimum cover arrangements that are the requirement for allowing teams to schedule their own work patterns and "some areas had left themselves a bit thin on the ground".

    To allow the organisation to recognise routine homeworking as a part of its new working arrangements, Williamson says that there will be a need for further developments in work systems and processes, plus extra support and equipment for employees, so that the organisation can discharge its duty of care. A further project is now to be set up to ensure that this is formally taken forward. Allowing homeworking to continue informally would have meant the board ran the risk of it becoming an implied condition of employees' contracts. So, the homeworking option has been withdrawn from the formalised flexible working programme, although the business case will be kept under review.

    Variation of contract

    Williamson says she could not find a model for an employment contract that covered the flexibility of hours offered by the Scottish Legal Aid Board. Having taken legal advice, the HR team has drawn up a variation in employees' terms and conditions of employment that will be effective from July. The variation states that the full-time contractual core hours are seven hours a day, 35 hours a week, and that the board has a right to insist on anyone working the public opening hours of 9am to 5pm hours as a fallback position, if the business demands it or an employee fails to manage their own hours, but that all employees, full and part time, can have the benefit of flexible working.

    The guidance states: "Where access to flexible working is possible, the employee can elect to access this, or alternatively elect to work their contractual core hours of work. There is no middle ground. That is to say, that by electing to take up the benefit of working flexibly, there is the accompanying responsibility of working with colleagues to plan team cover and take responsibility for rotas."

    A universal time-recording system for teams to plan and record their hours of work, and for team leaders to use as a tool for resource management, is also in the late stages of development. Having tried various systems, the HR and IT staff have returned to an adapted spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel as being the easiest option to support team-based rostering.

    Williamson recognises that a scheme that started as a hopeful application for some free consultancy and has made up "a good 30% to 40% of my workload for the past four years" has ended up putting the Scottish Legal Aid Board streets ahead of other public sector employers in its employment practices and promotion of work-life balance. "It's no longer a project," she says, "it's now part of our employees' terms and conditions and fundamental in supporting the way we run our business."

    Scottish Legal Aid Board - flexible working HR measures


    Baseline pre-phase 1 year 2001/02

    Outcome after phase 1 pilots 2002 year 2002/03

    Phase 2:
    12 months statistics 2003/04

    Overtime costs:
    whole time equivalent (wte) deployed and total costs

    17.9 wte
    Total cost £231,756

    10.1 wte
    Total cost £126,425

    5.1 wte
    Total cost £87,023

    Self-certified sickness absence

    4.4 days per wte

    3.7 days per wte

    3.3 days per wte

    Recruitment advertising and agency staff costs




    Staff turnover




    Source: Scottish Legal Aid Board.