Andrea Lekushoff runs a public relations agency staffed with refugees from traditional firms intent on finding better balance in their lives. They all work from home, although there's a downtown Toronto office for important meetings, and each person sets the schedule they are willing to work each week, limiting or defining their hours to what's comfortable for their lifestyle.
Ms. Lekushoff considers Broad Reach Communications to be a forerunner of the model other professional services firms must adopt if they are to stop losing female employees and move into the new millennium. "It's about the employees dictating the hours they work rather than the agency dictating the hours worked," she says in an interview.
An MBA graduate of Ivey Business School, she recently contributed an article to its prestigious Ivey Business Journal making the case for what she calls "lifestyle-driven virtual teams." That's a mouthful, but when unpacked, makes perfect sense. A crucial factor in determining the teams she mobilizes to serve her clients is the lifestyle of team members, as they determine the hours they wish to work. And the teams are virtual, saving on commuting time, which the employees can put to client work or their families. "Many of my associates are in Toronto, some in my own neighbourhood. But it's not desirable to be spending an hour or two commuting each day," she says.
The word "driven" also applies to the current model of professional services firms, since they have been driving away many good employees, primarily but not exclusively women, with the long hours of toil, as associates must accrue a high number of billable hours per week as well as find time for their non-billable administrative load.
"To stem the exodus, keep top talent, and remain competitive, professional services today must meet an imperative: They must create new arrangements to accommodate talented practitioners who need more choice when it comes to how, when, and where they work. They must consider ways to ensure that working parents (especially women) do not have to work long hours or travel extensively, but instead have the flexibility they need to raise a family or care for aging parents. And with Canada expected to experience a labour shortage that could begin affecting employers as soon as 2020, having these new work arrangements in place will become increasingly essential to the delivery of high-quality professional services," Ms. Lekushoff writes in the journal.
But can what applies to her small firm also be adopted by the large professional services firms in accounting, law, and communications? She insists it can: "Even those that say they can't do it can apply a variant." It's a shift in how client services are handled, but not that difficult, she insists, once you accept the organizing premise.
She still has clients and team members. But she starts assignments by figuring out the work that needs to be done, by when, and then considers the line-up of talent she can use and whether the hours the associates are willing to work can meet the client's needs. Big firms have an even larger pool of specialists to draw on, so she figures they can make such a system operate as well – if not better. And even if it's administratively more complex, she says, "I think companies would be delighted at how women would stop walking out the door."
Her associates in some ways seem like freelancers, and certainly advertising and PR firms have long counted on freelancers. Indeed, many of her associates also do other freelance work, under their own consulting nameplate, beyond the hours they give to her. But the scope is different: Freelancers only carry out a small portion of the normal professional services firm's work. She sees this as a hybrid model, between freelancing and working full time for a company, in which the associates work part time on a regular basis most weeks for her.
In her Ivey article, she sets out some best practices for firms willing to try this approach, including:
· Set expectations from the start: You need clear objectives and definitions of the roles for associates to avoid overlooking or duplicating aspects of the work.
· Implement strict protocols: The protocols are intended to ensure that team members know when and how quickly to respond to action items, so handoffs don't get delayed or fall through the cracks because of the different working hours of the associates. More generally, the team needs solid work practices. "Virtual teams have little margin for error when it comes to project management, as problems can go unnoticed and grow into major issues," she notes.
· Manage timelines and budgets carefully: With associates being paid according to the time they work, budgets must be monitored to avoid them spinning out of control.
· Establish meaningful project milestones: You need checkpoints to manage the projects when everyone is working different schedules and in a variety of locations.
Andrea Ellison left the PR treadmill in 2010, tired of her 50-hour work weeks and how they kept her away from her kids, ages eight and five. She would get home barely in time to make dinner – or after dinner had been made – and her mind would be on work even as she tried to deal with baths and bedtime. "There was an imbalance in my life," she says.
She took 2011 off, and this year began freelancing and working as a senior associate for Broad Reach. She makes less money, but she is keeping her hours manageable, ranging from 15 to 25 hours a week, and no longer needs a nanny as she works from home. "Now I'm the director of my own script. It's not perfect, but I have more control over my life," she says.
Lifestyle-driven virtual teams may be a mouthful, but they also may be a solution to the work-life balance pressures of many professionals.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter