Legal update: Home working – here to stay?

Published: Monday 11 April 2022

The word 'change' feels too small to describe what we have seen over the past two years. Seismic feels more appropriate! Thinking about the business world in particular, and office-based industries such as the legal sector, one of those biggest shifts was the move to home working.

We were seeing incremental changes in the couple of years prior, with more employees requesting flexible working patterns, but these were driven by their needs, rather than that of the business. There was an element of reluctance from firms, due to the changes that would be needed to accommodate this; getting the correct IT setups, agreeing office and home days, and the larger scale point of should this be offered out more widely through the firm.

The emergence of the pandemic and lockdown forced these questions to be answered without any discussions, as virtually overnight, workforces were sent home to work. Now that we are emerging from this (much later than we all originally anticipated), we can reflect on how this leaves the future of home and office working.

The adult approach

We are at the stage now where we can reflect on how productivity levels have been affected by the office to home switch. Overall, we have seen that work levels remained broadly stable throughout the lockdown periods, and in fact were higher initially. Staff who were conscientious and hard-working as office workers took that attitude home with them.

Individual well-being was brought to the forefront of all our minds in that time and being offered this new world of home working was quite the novelty initially.  However, as we were home longer, and the long summer stretched into the darker winter, we saw that the thought of returning to the office, at least some of the time, became more appealing – even the commute!

Now we are all returning to the offices, staff are seeing more clearly the pros and cons of both scenarios. We are seeing that, by treating staff like adults and giving them the empowerment of choice around their presence in the office, they are striking the right balance. We urge caution on trying to get 'things back to the way they were' - you may be faced with a resistance that could lead to job unsatisfaction or even resignations, when this could be avoided by trusting your staff to do their jobs as they have been doing so well in the most uncertain of circumstances, personally and professionally.

Good for you, good for everyone

With this, we need to consider the needs of the business too. Law firms' most important assets are their staff, and a fee earner who is happy in their role and achieving the desired work-life balance will be more productive in their work.

It is important however to think about the bigger picture – although more senior staff should be all but self-sufficient, trainees naturally need support and mentoring. A recent survey by the Future Forum showed that 42% of workers felt home working gave them fewer opportunities to learn from their colleagues.  'Learning by osmosis;' plays a crucial part in developing staff and the next generation of partners cannot absorb knowledge or make a name for themselves working at home alone - they need to be interacting, sitting next to their colleagues, overhearing conversations and joining meetings.

It is therefore important to strike the right balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the firm.

Technological and traditional gains

The overheads savings of rent and utilities that come with having a smaller office workforce should not be ignored. We have seen most law firms benefitting from higher profitability as a result of these savings on what was previously thought of as 'fixed costs'.

Although funds have been invested in IT to allow for the transition, this has been contracted with savings in travel too. The ‘video meeting' has become a go to option in many cases and has been embraced on the whole. There is still a place for traditional face-to-face meetings, to really cement those client relationships.  However, this acceptance of technology as a facilitator of meetings means those travel costs are unlikely to recover to pre-pandemic levels. 

It is important to set client expectations of your intended approach, to make sure their needs are satisfied.

The future is hybrid

The Law Society recently carried out a staff engagement survey, where 79% of staff agreed that “working practices within my team support a healthy work-life balance, such as agile and flexible working.' This highlights the importance a happy workforce puts on being allowed an element of flexibility with their working practices.

Trusting your staff to work in the most appropriate way will help to benefit your firm with improved employee retention, increased productivity and you will be more attractive to potential recruits.

As we emerge into a post-pandemic era, the future of working in this hybrid environment seems to be here to stay. Staff well-being has been an historic challenge in the legal sector, and this change provides an opportunity to tackle this head on and give your firm the best opportunity for future organic growth.

Key contacts

Jon Cartwright
Jon Cartwright
Partner
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Patricia Kinahan
Patricia Kinahan
Partner
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Andy Harris
Andy Harris
Partner
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Jack Hayman
Jack Hayman
Senior Manager
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