Although law firms have historically been slow to adopt remote working policies, the COVID-19 crisis has forced many firms to embrace a work-from-home model nearly overnight.
For some, this transition came with ease, and for others, it came with many new challenges. From seasoned partners having never worked remotely, to dusting off never-used collaboration software, IT departments around the country sprang into action to facilitate technology-enabled work practices. Digitally native younger attorneys who have been asking for a more flexible work policy suddenly got more than they wanted. While that flexibility had been a long-desired amenity, young attorneys are now facing a new challenge—finding quality mentorship.
When we explore why hesitation around flexible and remote work policies existed in the first place, it becomes apparent that the traditional apprenticeship model ubiquitous with mentorship in law firms is a prominent factor for the need for in-person communication. COVID-19 has ground that model to a halt. Can Zoom, or any other digital conferencing tool, successfully replace the value of in-person connections? Will lawyers be able to facilitate collaboration during the transition to a flexible and remote work policy moving forward? As our exposure and our comfort level with communication technology grows during the pandemic, its value will be realized as an effective and essential tool to facilitate connection and comradery.
We are learning as we go.
If law firms are to embrace flexible work policies successfully, we need to understand their impact on the workplace. First, we must recognize the immediate impact on the workforce and the office culture, and what it means to come, or not come, to the office every day. Eventually, we must understand what this will mean for a firm’s business goals and real estate portfolio. We will see a rise in more fluid and effective uses of space, as employees start to live out their new flexible and remote work schedules. As institutional norms begin to shift, it is reasonable to question how law firms will adjust to meet the demands of new facility protocols and economic realities while maintaining high standards for their employees and their clients.
How can law firms foster a more flexible workplace?
Gensler’s 2020 U.S. Workplace Research Study found that half of the U.S workforce worked outside the office at least one day per week. Previous studies on younger attorneys showed that 83% surveyed had no desire to work remotely full time, but want the option to balance one or two days away from the office
How might law firms continue to experiment with a mobile workforce, and what have firms learned during this crisis about employee collaboration while working from home? Conventional industry wisdom pointed to a dependence on paper and in-person meetings and oversight. The reality that the vast majority of law firms have adapted well to working from home in the last few months is a clear indicator that the legal industry is ready to pivot to more flexibility around when and where we work.
Is productivity tied to a desk?
While many industries have embraced the concept of dynamic seating, law firms have been hesitant to shift to this model. During the COVID-19 crisis, firms that have most of their employees working from home have seen productivity remain high, even while remote. It is clear that a productive workplace can include some employees working from home, while others sit n unassigned work stations when working in the office.
We also must understand what draws an employee to the office in the first place. We can better plan the in-office experience when we understand the specific activities or tasks that require them to leave the comfort and safety of their own home. From facilitating meetings or attending depositions to collaborating and socializing, a firm’s real estate strategy will need to flex to meet those demands.
Human connection is crucial
While some things have changed in recent months, maintaining a professional network is still incredibly important to the law industry. Physical distancing has made managing social and professional relationships difficult, but as an integral part of daily life at a law firm, people will find new and effective ways of connecting with each other. The question remains how business development and networking needs continue to be met in a world where people are hesitant to gather in large numbers.
This crisis has required us to re-evaluate how we work together. We also have seen numerous approaches to remote work that have proven the creative, resourceful nature of the business community. For law firms, it is time to accelerate the industry’s adoption of new approaches to collaboration and connection to meet the new workplace reality we are all facing.
About the Author
Katie Buchanan is a design director and senior associate at Gensler, a global design and architecture firm.