Finding Common Ground: Law Firms, Employees, and the Back-to-Office Debate

Employees working in office

For the past year law firms and other companies across the United States have been attempting to bring their employees back to the office. Many have laid out plans and set a “welcome back” date only to have these plans foiled by Delta, Omicron, and wary employees who just aren’t ready—and perhaps never will be. Employers have sought ways to incentivize their employees to return to the office including free food, swag, and in some cases, additional money.

While some employees have been eager to return, others are hesitant to give up full-time remote work. For some, this is caused by a fear of contracting COVID-19 with particular concern over long-COVID. While others—particularly parents of young children—are unwilling to give up the work-life balance they’ve gained while working remotely, citing the ways it has benefited both their professional and personal lives to have the increased flexibility. So, what are employers and workers to do in the midst of this great divide? We’ve got advice for law firm professionals on both sides of this hot debate.

Employers
Ask Yourself Why You Want Your Employees In-Office

Executives have claimed many reasons for their drive to bring employees back to the office. These include the notions that it would improve productivity and idea generation, be better for team dynamics, and be a boon to their employees’ mental health. While all of these are good and valid reasons, it’s hard to find the evidence to back them up. Furthermore, at a strong organization, the diversity of personalities, experiences, genders, and life situations that make up your team mean that not everyone will be productive or benefit from the social environment of the office in the same way. The office environment is vastly different for a lawyer with a private office than it is for a technology worker in a cubicle.

We recommend managers and back-to-office decision-makers really explore why they want employees to come back, what they are willing to risk— employee attrition, a harder hiring process, a dip in employee satisfaction—and what benefits they hope to gain before determining their policy.

Be Flexible with Hybrid

While many law firms may have started their planning with a full-time return-to-office approach, most have probably realized by now that a hybrid model will be better received by employees across the board. The majority of employees neither want to work remotely full time, nor work in the office full time, and law firms have been responsive to that.

However, there remains a large gap between employers and employees when it comes to what this hybrid model looks like. How many days? Many employees would like to work from home three to four days a week while many law firms’ hybrid plans are only offering two days at home, with some technical support roles requiring 100% in person. Do employees pick the days they are in the office, or do law firms pick for them? There are advantages to having an entire team in the office on the same days—it allows the team to actually get face-time and bond with one another, might prevent an insider and outsider group, and can equalize some diversity risks.  At the same time, this approach removes some of the flexibility that has benefitted parents of young children so much. If employees can pick their days at home, it can be scheduled around a sick child, a kid’s mid-day school performance, or a dentist appointment. Parents argue that these “away from desk” tasks often take significantly less time out of their days while working from home than they did when working at an office.

Law firm decision-makers have options when it comes to their hybrid work approach and flexibility is key. Hybrid (or remote) work options aligned to your employee desires and team dynamics will help you be successful in retaining your legal technology talent and—perhaps even more so— in attracting new talent to your organization.

Make Exceptions

One size never fits all. You may have employees with health conditions, family situations, or other significant reasons for working remotely 100% (or nearly 100%) of the time. Listen to them. Create an environment where they can share their reasons for continuing to work remotely and make exceptions as often as you can. While there are some roles that need to be in the office some or all of the time, the pandemic has certainly taught us that many roles can be done successfully from home. While managing and being on a team that isn’t all working from the same environment can have some challenges, this model was being used and tested long before the pandemic began. Your employees will be grateful for exceptions made for them—whether that’s fewer than the “standard” number of days back in the office or letting them continue to work from home full-time—and they’ll not only stay with you but will likely spread the word about the great law firm for which they work.  

Employees
Ask Yourself Why You Want to Work from Home

Employee working from home with child playing backgroundWe’ve all seen the posts on LinkedIn and other social media sites about why people want to continue to work from home. It might be the extra hours gained without a commute and the time spent getting ready or the ability to run a quick errand or throw in a load of laundry. Parents have shared their stories of picking up their kids from school and getting back to work before their computers even went to sleep. Introverts have appreciated the ability to focus without the distraction of small chat. These are a few of the many valid reasons that a person can benefit from working from home. It’s valuable for you to identify and understand what your reasons are before you decide to join the Great Resignation or say no to an otherwise great opportunity over a law firm’s work-from-home policies.

Be Flexible When You Can

The majority of law firms are offering hybrid options for their employees. These models vary and don’t always match employee expectations and desires. You might want to go into the office one day a week at most, and they might want you to come in three or four days. In some cases, this divide simply can’t be overcome. But if you like your role and your team and are motivated to stay with your law firm, some flexibility on your part might be required. Are you willing and able to compromise? Are you comfortable asking for an additional day from home when you need it, but meeting the policies of the firm on other weeks? Your flexibility is a show of goodwill toward your employer or manager and may make them more flexible with you in return.

Make Your Case

Many firms are making exceptions to their “standard” policy when their employees request them. While you ideally won’t need to argue your case too much, be prepared to share about your success while working from home for the last two years, along with your reasons for making the request. Just like you would when interviewing for a job or asking for a raise, prepare a list of your accomplishments and achievements, using numbers as often as you can to demonstrate your success. You might not get a “yes” or everything you want in this conversation, but at least you’ll know you gave it your best shot.

 

We’re entering a new normal for the workplace following the last two years of pandemic life. While none of us quite know what the future of the American workplace will hold, in this current reality, employers and employees will likely both need to take a step back and compromise when it comes to remote work. Organizations and employees will need to decide what’s best for them, and what risks they are willing to take in order to achieve that ideal situation.

If you’re looking to hire technology professionals to grow your team, or you’re seeking a technology role in the legal niche:

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