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LCN Says

Will outdated attitudes scupper true flexibility in the legal sector?

updated on 03 November 2021

We’re reading more and more about businesses encouraging people back to the office with incentives such as yoga, bonuses and free meals. It has been reported that PwC for example, has offered staff cash bonuses to cover commuting and new office clothes. Several City businesses, including Slaughter and May, are offering free meals for returning office workers. And it seems to be working, with many businesses reporting an uplift in staff in the office, coinciding with the return to school. Transport for London reported the busiest Monday since pre-pandemic levels at the start of September.

However, many businesses are, on paper at least, embracing the lessons we all learnt over the pandemic and offering staff a more hybrid working pattern, with many employees choosing to continue to work from home a few days a week. Many law firms have embraced hybrid working too, with the legal press full of the latest agile, flexible working arrangements implemented by firms. This will be music to the ears for many newly qualified lawyers entering the profession who want more flexibility but will also need face-to-face time to support their development.

At my own firm we recognised how well everyone worked from home during the pandemic, and we’ve made it a permanent benefit that our staff can choose where they want to work.

But have attitudes towards working from home really changed? And could this scupper true flexibility in the future? Recently, across platforms like LinkedIn and in the press, there has been debate about which days people should choose as their ‘office days’. A prevailing viewpoint in many of these debates is that to tread carefully when making your decision, as picking Monday and Friday as your working from home days could make bosses think you’re slacking off around the weekend. It’s quite surprising to read these views when, after a period of unprecedented change and upheaval caused by the pandemic, many businesses have reported working from home successes without any dips in productivity, in fact in some instances, productivity improves. A study from Stanford University of 16,000 workers over nine months found that working from home increased productivity by 13%.

It’s not just productivity either; in April, a survey of corporate counsel and senior lawyers by Thomson Reuters found 65% of UK lawyers thought remote working had a positive impact on their wellbeing.

Read ‘Mental health and the legal profession: the impact of covid-19’ for more insight into lawyers’ wellbeing.

However, these perks to lure staff back into the office and the attitudes around which days to work from home shine a light on a real issue that could impact this flexible working revolution – how working from home is still often viewed in a negative light and as we return to ‘normal’ these attitudes could prevail. In essence, firms are in danger of taking a backward step if they don’t consider the attitudes around working from home in their business and addressing any potential issues. In the legal industry, traditional attitudes are still commonplace presenteeism still reigns.

Without taking action there’s a danger we will see a two-tiered workforce – those who choose to work from home because it suits their personal circumstances, parents for example, and those who work from the office and are seen as more dedicated.

For law firms looking to successfully navigate this post-pandemic world of hybrid working, they need to take an honest look at their culture, which may result in having to tackle some deeply-held views and prejudices to ensure flexible working actually works. It’s not about water-tight policies and HR procedures, but attitudes and not being afraid to talk about these issues.

We’ve been welcoming of all working styles – many of our staff have families abroad and they’ve been able to work remotely, while around a third have been keen to return to the office. We know our staff work hard and it’s important to regularly communicate that all staff are trusted to do a good job, regardless of their location.

Regular communication, both in person and virtually is essential to ensure a two-tiered, fragmented workforce isn’t created. Taking time to discuss not just business but personal matters too is important; social events can’t be underestimated; and we’ve found that everyone is keen to get back to seeing each other.

In addition to communication, it’s important the polices and realities of hybrid working are evaluated on a regular basis. Give feedback, make sure concerns are addressed and suggest adjustments in the flexible working policy where necessary – particularly if you worry it’s impacting your professional development.

Mutual respect, tolerance and openness are at the heart of our firm, but it’s very important you live and breathe these values too. Sleepwalking into hybrid working without addressing any potential underlying issues could have serious consequences.

Marcin Durlak is managing partner at IMD Solicitors LLP.