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Homeworking, the future of business in Britain

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Companies that refuse to permit homeworking face a serious challenge: hanging on to staff. No industry is immune from this issue, not even traditional professions, such as law.

A decade ago, female lawyers would rush back to work six weeks after having a baby. In a profession where being made a partner was the all-consuming goal, staying at home to raise a child was career suicide.

Lawyers Direct has changed the rules of the game. Set up by James Knight in 2002, Lawyers Direct is a traditional corporate law firm, with one difference: it has no central office. Instead, its 65 lawyers work from home.

“You might think we are 80 per cent female,” says Knight. “Well, you would be wrong. Half our staff are men. It’s an indication of how appealing this way of working is.”To an outsider, Lawyers Direct looks like a boring old law firm. Which is spot on, says Knight. “Our lawyers work in the conventional way. We are regulated by the Law Society, and all our solicitors have at least five years’ experience with a top 20 firm. Many are ex-City lawyers who have left for maternity or paternity leave – they still want to work, but with more flexibility.”

This novel approach means there are benefits for clients, too. With no support staff, junior or trainee lawyers and no long-lunching equity partners to pay, Lawyers Direct’s fees are far lower than at a traditional City firm. Unlike some “virtual” firms that disguise their true nature, Lawyers Direct is quick to tell clients how it works. “They understand how we operate, and they appreciate that they are not funding anything other than the work we do for them.”

Top earners at Lawyers Direct can pull in a few hundred grand a year – not quite the multi-millions that some City partners command, but enough to lure quality candidates. “We are adding four lawyers a month,” says Knight. “Lawyers Direct is the fastest growing law firm in the country.” City firms can no longer count on star performers rushing back to work after a child is born. Knight’s gain is their loss.

In the public relations industry, homeworking is now so widespread almost no firm can resist. At Golley Slater’s Leeds office, account director Emma Mortimer works from home a few days a week. “Women want flexibility,” she says. “I’m pregnant, and some mornings I need to get to pre-natal appointments. Normally, I’d have taken the morning off, but now I just work from home on a laptop and make the hours up elsewhere.” Mortimer says the PR industry is introducing homeworking in a bid to retain employees. “In ten years’ time, even junior members of staff will be working from home. I don’t see firms having any alternative.”

Spark Energy is a young gas and electricity firm, and boss PJ Darling says his salesforce work harder from home. “They are happier and more productive when operating from home, so it works for them and the business.”

Data consultancy firm Jaywing says its decentralised structure, where 92 of the 95 staff work from home, means it can attract and retain older members of staff who would resent trekking into an office each day.

The loyalty homeworking generates can be powerful. At Actinic, which makes shopping carts for e-commerce sites, founder Chris Barling says the flexible approach means he can keep hold of staff in an industry riven with poaching. “Once people have experienced homeworking, they rarely want to go back. Not many firms offer it, so people are unlikely to leave us.”

He also reaps the benefit of recruiting from outside his immediate area. “We have people in Hungary, India, Spain, Greece and France. In the globalised economy, you need to be able to employ the best people, no matter where they are from.”

Read more on successful businesses run from home: UK’s 30 top business run from home: 1 to 5UK’s 30 top businesses run from home: 11 to 15UK’s 30 top businesses run from home: 16 to 20• Lawyers Direct• Golley Slater• Spark Energy• Jaywing• Actinic

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