Professional firms increasingly rely on part-time and temporary personnel to complete administrative tasks. While this is a cost-effective way to manage business, it can inadvertently create complications in working relationships.
Unique challenges of delegating to part-time administrative staff
Part-time workers are a growing segment of the Canadian workforce.
More people are electing to work in temporary, flexible or part-time arrangements instead of traditional full-time roles for a variety of reasons. And more firms are reducing full-time administrative staff to control costs.
There is less opportunity for face-to-face communication when we work with part-time colleagues, which means that it takes longer to build rapport and trusting relationships.
A lot of professional work – especially litigation –requires short turnaround times in response to changes in the schedule and scope. Team members need to be available and accessible. When this isn’t an option – in a smaller firm with a shallower pool of resources, for example – the impact can be onerous.
There is no quick solution
One lawyer I spoke with believes that part-time employees are less committed to “working hard” than full-time employees. Earlier in her career, she wasrepeatedly let down by a part-time employee who missed deadlines, refused to accommodate the occasional request to stay late and who sulked when delicately and professionally asked to explain mistakes. It has taken years for her to consider hiring part-time staff.
Many of us rely on technology such as project management software and electronic matter management systems to track work progress or control quality. But many aspects of delegation rely on context and communication that can’t be easily managed through data inputs.
Training is another consideration; firms might hesitate to invest in developing the skills of part-time staff if the long-term benefit of doing so is unclear or undervalued.
Ideas to investigate
- Consider your bias towards delegating to part-time employees
- Are your past experiences relevant to the current situation?
- How could you validate your assumption about the employee’s commitment to getting the work done properly and on time?
- What are the consequences if you can’t overcome your bias?
- Co-create brief, but formal expectations when tasks are assigned or work begins on a new matter. If you’re objective, you’ll both have an opportunity to discuss how the work will get done within the anticipated budget and what should result from it. It’s also a good way to confirm that you’re delegating the right tasks to begin with.
- Find a way to incorporate predictability and consistency into your working relationship. Regular meetings, protocols, updates, etc., will build trust as you learn to work together.
- Value candour. Candour bridges the gap between formal and unspoken expectations. You’ll save yourself the anxiety of worrying about hurting someone’s feelings, operating on incorrect assumptions or offending staff with your “demands”. Be direct, but be respectful. A review of client objectives offers a neutral way to triangulate the discussion and diffuse tension.
Economic and demographic trends indicate that the number of part-time workers in professional firms will continue to grow. Try to make the most of your working relationships by building trust and keeping the lines of communication open (that goes for all your working relationships, not just those with part-time staff).
A version of this post was originally published in the Canadian legal blog Slaw.ca on April 21st, 2015