As the UK continues to reopen society – albeit with a lot more hand sanitising stations, face coverings and distance markers – law firms are following suit. But unlike the virtually overnight move to working from home, the move back to working in the office will be slow, and perhaps may not ever happen for some. Dentons employees in the Watford and Aberdeen offices will not return to office working, with the success of home working for the few numbers of employees there relative to the cost of running those offices proving to be too strong a draw for the world’s largest law firm (by number of lawyers).
Is this something that other firms may follow? Personally, I struggle to imagine a world where the big players of the legal market voluntarily give up their swanky offices in favour of an Office 365 package. Having a physical office boosts employee morale, making employees more likely to remain at a firm. While there is hot debate surrounding whether home or office working makes employees more productive, trainees will arguably feel more benefit from being physically closer to mentors. A posh office also serves to impress clients and builds on a firm’s brand image.
But while I believe the office may be here to stay, this is not to say that things will go back to the way they were. Covid-19 has not disappeared, and law firms are having to be proactive about keeping employees safe. For most, this means limiting the numbers of people returning on-site and ensuring social distancing and sanitisation is maintained. Equally, the majority of firms are leaving the decision about returning to the office up to individual employees. Despite the government’s push to encourage businesses to return to the office (in a bid to aid our faltering city economies), many law firms are still citing working from home as being the preferred option for the foreseeable future, with working the odd day at the office being only when necessary. This is likely to continue until most clients have also returned to their own offices and are looking to restart physical meetings, which may not be for many months to come. The success of virtual client meetings means that these may continue even when all parties have returned to office working – it saves on travel costs, is better for the environment and saves time.
As with most things right now, time can only tell what will happen to the working environment of employees in the legal sector. But one thing is now clear – despite the reputation many firms have for being inflexible and antiquated in their approach to working practices, they are not rushing to revert things ‘back to normal’ just yet. Maybe the lessons learnt during the pandemic have been the proof that change is not always a bad thing.