After more than a year of predominantly working from home, teams are now beginning to return to office premises in greater numbers. How are legal firms managing this transition and what might the “new normal” look like in the long term? The Brief finds out.

Agile working is nothing new for many law firms. A look back at “The Brief Talks to…” will demonstrate that for a number of years lawyers have been voting with their feet and moving to firms whose working practices enable them to advance their careers while providing the flexibility to maintain a healthy family life.

However, the fact they had to move to new firms to gain that flexibility shows it was far from universal pre-pandemic. The two obvious barriers at their former firms would have been culture and technology.

Every firm’s culture had to change overnight in March 2020. Those firms that had made major investments in technology were able to manage the transition to home working relatively seamlessly, while those with less up-to-date systems had to muddle through and upgrade wherever possible.

Although some firms were better prepared technologically than others for last year’s shift to homeworking, the fact of everybody being forced to evacuate their offices and their work from home was universal. Of course, some team members took to it like ducks to water, while for others (particularly those in shared accommodation, or with young children to home-school) it was a far less joyful experience.

Nonetheless, if not in the same boat, everybody, and every firm, was in the same storm. As offices, and society, reopen, however, there are many different visions of what the “new normal” should look like.

Safety first

Many of the firms to which The Brief has spoken over recent months have been taking a cautious approach, mindful in part of some team members’ hesitancy to venture back into crowded public spaces. Public health guidance is also an issue, as Peter Taylor, Managing Partner at Paris Smith, which has offices in Southampton and Winchester, explains.

He says, “We are maintaining a 65 per cent occupancy limit at present to minimise the risks of virus transmission whilst the variant is still in our midst.

“We are mindful of the benefits of having everyone in a team or department in the office at the same time. However, the advice that we have received from the Director of Public Health locally is to maintain social distancing and mask wearing in the office setting for the foreseeable future.

“The health of our staff is our priority and we shall maintain a staggered approach to use of the office by all in the firm.”

Do the right thing

However, there are also concerns in some firms that although it may be relatively straightforward to entice younger team members, who could benefit from learning by osmosis from interacting with more senior lawyers, back to the office, those senior lawyers are often less keen. “It’s about how we get those people to do what’s right for the business as well as what’s right for them as individuals,” one member of the management team at a large national law firm told The Brief.

The latest Bellwether Report into the smaller end of the legal sector, published by LexisNexis in September 2021, found that, broadly speaking, the smaller the firm, the more likely it was that management would want their staff back in the office full-time. Fifty-four per cent of the smallest firms surveyed wanted their staff in full-time while at the slightly larger SME level only 32 per cent of firms expected everybody to come back to the office every day.

Every firm is different but some reasons for this will be cultural, some geographical (commuting to work at a local high street firm is probably less unattractive than battling through traffic or running the gauntlet of public transport to get into a city centre five days a week), and some technological.

It's good to talk

When The Brief asked law firms how they were approaching the return to the office, it appeared to have been common practice to have surveyed staff about their opinions and expectations. Some firms are, as a result, welcoming staff back into the office for three days per week, others five  days per fortnight, and others are setting a minimum of just one day per week. Many are taking a less prescriptive “horses for courses” approach.

For these firms it is important not only that staff should be able to work flexibly but that flexible working should be implemented flexibly. For example, Jo Losty, Recruitment Director at national new-model firm Excello Law, says, “At Excello, we built our business model on true agility over a decade ago, enabling us to understand what is required from our lawyers, the support team and management for hybrid working to work to optimum effect.

“Hybrid working needs to be as flexible as possible, but we hear stories of policies and procedures being implemented that start to control the process, or everyone bidding to work from home on a Friday. Our approach is entirely driven by personal choice with lawyers deciding how, where and when they want to work.”

Paris Smith’s Peter Taylor strikes a similar note, saying, “We have sought to put a degree of structure around the occupation of our offices. At the same time, we’ve also empowered departments and teams to strike the appropriate office attendance to meet the needs and wants of our clients’ businesses, and those of individual staff members.”

Home comforts

The other side of the hybrid working coin is, of course, working from home. While it might have been possible for employers to fudge part of their responsibility to ensure that employees’ home workstations met a minimum standard at a time when the government was telling everyone they had to work from home, this is unlikely to wash with the Health & Safety Executive long-term.

To address this the national firm Freeths has provided Surface Pros and extra screens for staff who are working from home, and also made a £200 contribution available for staff who want to buy desks and chairs for their home office set-ups. The Salford-headquartered Court of Protection specialist Hugh Jones Solicitors, meanwhile, has taken a particularly novel approach.

Hugh Jones is only expecting most of its staff to come to the office for one day per week, although trainee solicitors and others requiting mentoring will attend more regularly, and it has invested in specialist desk-booking software to manage the process. Inadequate kit is unlikely to be a problem during the time its staff spend working from home.

The firm’s managing director, Rachel Dobson, explains, “In March 2020, at the beginning of the first lockdown, we surveyed everyone to determine exactly what they needed at home – from desks and chairs to extra screens, screen stands, keyboards and mice. Within a couple of weeks, everything was boxed up at the office and delivered to them.

“It was pointless to have an office full of furniture but no people, and people at home without proper office furniture. The decision to ship out equipment not only guaranteed we were keeping up with health and safety requirements for our home workers but also gave us the space to remodel the workplace ready for when the team could make the gradual return back.

“We’ve reduced the number of desks from 50 to 30 so that they’re all socially distanced, with screens, multiple sanitising points and cleaning protocols.”

The management challenge

Another issue that has received significant attention during the pandemic is the mental health and wellbeing of homeworkers, and how employers can discharge their responsibilities when staff are not physically present. To deal with this, Freeths, for example, has given its managers training in how to lead in a world of agile working.

Vicki Simpson, the firm’s Principal Manager, Human Resources, explains, “Part of this training focuses on identifying mental health issues, as well as being creative in their approach to managing a hybrid team. This includes running hybrid meetings, supervising remotely, ensuring those individuals not in the office are included in client calls, team meetings, new work allocation and that those conversations which would normally take place in the office are still happening.

“The training programme challenged our leaders to re-evaluate their leadership style and to really understand the priorities of their individual team members to ensure we have motivated high performing teams continuing to provide a great service to our clients.”

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