Remote working: The end to the traditional office workplaces?
When the UK government issued its stay-at-home order on the 22nd of March, law firms were quick to showcase their technological aptitude and adapted almost seamlessly to WFH, working from home. Now, law firms and other employers face an even more daunting task; that of safely returning back to the office.
Working from home has disrupted the normal working patterns of lawyers. Meetings and hearings moved online. Coffee catch-ups became zoom calls and suits turned into t-shirts. Many people revelled in this change away from the high-intensity and time-consuming way of working. The hours wasted each week on commuting to work were no longer a problem for most lawyers, with many getting the chance to spend quality time with their loved ones.
It is no wonder that, according to various studies, 55-65% of all legal staff are in favour of retaining flexible working policies. A large number of UK law firms have already announced that working from home will remain entrenched in their working life for the foreseeable future, with many law firms giving complete discretion to their vulnerable employees and allowing the rest to choose their preferred way of working.
Nevertheless, this change has not been beneficial to all. Junior lawyers, parents of young children and lawyers from disadvantaged backgrounds have been negatively affected the most, but working from home has exacerbated the work-life balance of many other lawyers as well, as the lack of a clear end to their working day has tilted the scale towards the side of work.
It is important to acknowledge the impact of working from home on trainees and junior lawyers. A huge part of the development of a lawyer in the early stages comes from observing and discussing various aspects of the job with other lawyers and partners. William Robins, operations director at Keystone Law, admitted as much when stating that ‘Trainees pick up a lot from hearing what others are doing’ to justify the lack of agile working for trainees pre-Covid.
The majority of law firms have tried to replicate their office culture online, with regular calls and quizzes after work, yet this is not enough to compensate for the lack of direct exposure to the workings of more experienced lawyers. Perhaps more training will be required for work-from-home trainees, a consideration that must be in the minds of law firms worldwide to ensure that trainees and junior lawyers get as much guidance as they would in the office.
Most UK-based law firms opened their offices when this was made possible, but only on a voluntary basis. This has proved invaluable for lawyers with young children and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Until schools opened this month, many parents had to combine their usual legal work with a teaching and day-care role. The surprise appearance of young children in zoom calls may be amusing to other participants, yet it can be both a distraction and a source of stress for parents who had no way to separate their family-life from their work.
At the same time, working from home was not suitable for many lawyers for technical reasons. Not all lawyers have a stable internet connection, nor do they all have the necessary equipment to carry out their work normally. Some firms, such as RPC, tackled this by subsiding the purchase of equipment deemed necessary for their staff to work efficiently. Yet this may not be enough for lawyers crammed in small flats, potentially with various other family-members of flatmates.
Law offices are tranquil and tidy workplaces, facilitating the detail-oriented and high concentration work of lawyers. Hence, it is expedient for law firms to arrange so that those whose work-from-home setup is not suitable can go to the office and work from there. Slater and Gordon decided not to renew the lease of its London office, signalling its support for work-from home. Whilst their courage to innovate away from the traditional office-based approach is laudable, the firm must also consider those amongst its staff who are not able to work form their home and should find appropriate solutions for them.
The most serious and widespread issue with working from home is the impact it can have on work-life balance. Whilst many lawyers have enjoyed a more balanced lifestyle, benefitting from the lack of commute, the long-term implications of a permanent shift to working from home will be detrimental to the lifestyle of many others. The high-pressure environment in law firms, in which lawyers struggle to chalk up as many hours of work as possible to reach often unrealistic targets, is likely to lead many in the legal industry to overwork themselves.
Lawyers often record some of the longest working hours in the UK and working from home will blur the line between work and personal life even further. Gone is the ritual of packing your things up and commuting back to your home, which signalled the end of the working day. Instead of this, lawyers feel pressured to continue working beyond their normal working hours, with many reporting that they often found themselves rushing back to their computers late in the night to complete unfinished tasks. Any long-term implementation of work-from-home must account for the high-pressure work of lawyers and law firms have to ensure that their employees maintain a healthy and stable work-life balance.
Although the Covid pandemic in the UK has been brought under a relatively stable control, the rate of infection remains high. The onset of autumn and flu season is bound to exacerbate the situation, making a return to normality seem impossible without a vaccine and working from home will remain the norm throughout the legal industry and other office-based businesses. But this must not be at the expense of junior lawyers, lawyers from disadvantaged backgrounds or lawyers with young children and it should definitely not be at the expense of a healthy work-life balance.