The Working From Home Dilemma: Bums on seats?
Updated: Dec 24, 2021
Photo by Magnet.me on @Unsplash
As 2021 draws to a close, the pandemic is in the throes of its latest wave of COVID-19, Omicron. With a name apt for a Marvel Comic’s villain, Omicron is highly contagious. It has been reaping havoc, with a spike in infection rates, hospitalisations and the reintroduction of lockdowns around the World. New lockdowns have been implemented in the Netherlands and Denmark with increased restrictions in France, Germany and other European nations.
In the UK, Boris Johnson’s government is holding-off from announcing restrictions yet. However, the feeling is that restrictions may begin shortly after Christmas. Whether this is following the science or short-term political expediency falls outside the scope of this post (although my gut feeling points to the latter).
All of this foreshadows more working from home (or #WFH) in the short to medium term. Let’s face it, WFH is here to stay in some form or another.
Before the flare-up of the Omicron variant, my firm, like many others in the market, was moving to a hybrid work policy. Most large English law firms, often referred to as City Law firms, have adopted similar stances. Whilst the details vary, the spirit of the movement remains the same. People can work in the office anywhere from 1 to 3 days a week with the rest of the time working from home or otherwise remotely.
Photo by Domenico Loia on Unsplash
A senior partner in my team subtly but noticeably hauled me over the coals for not conforming to the minimum office attendance policy. “As partners, we are required to set an example” he enthused while admonishing me. In situations such as these, I find it wise to pick your battles. I could have easily railed against this very English telling off. I could have pointed to my excellent billings, client development, delegation of work, supervision of my team and wider contributions to the firm which were all possible while WFH. However, I simply agreed to pop into the office more often, following the policy. I knew full well with Omicron in the offing, events would soon overtake our embryonic policy. Sometimes, saying less is more.
Although, I am not a fully paid-up WFH evangelist. There are drawbacks to working WFH long term. I miss the social aspects of being in an office, catching up with the team informally in the kitchen or chatting by the printer. Those innocuous social interactions that were so mundane as not merit mentioning previously, were strangely missed. It is not the same having those interactions as part of our endless schedule of video conference calls on Zoom or MS Teams.
Another WFH challenge has been managing and motivating the junior members of our team. Some of our juniors and new trainees only joined the workforce during the pandemic. Starting a career in law can be daunting enough but starting it in the middle of a pandemic has been next level strange for some. I don’t blame them at all. It must be surreal to join a new firm having not met in person your fellow trainees, other lawyers and support staff in your department. It is hard enough for the more senior people to transition to WFH, let alone the newcomers. Although, I have been very impressed with how well they have adapted, under the circumstances.
That said, in terms of training and development for the trainees, this is difficult during WFH. I try to navigate around this as best I can by scheduling regular catch-up meetings with the trainees I supervise. We have regular calls which are an important change of pace from the relentless emails and Zoom meetings. Our brief return to the office, in a limited capacity, was a welcome break from full-time WFH.
Photo by Shubham Dhage on Unsplash
It is interesting that in a recent survey of millennials in the UK, over two-thirds of them would rather continue to WFH than return to the office full-time. I have to say that I agree with them.
Of those surveyed, approximately a third said they would look for another job if they were required to return to work full-time in the office.
The pandemic has forced a lot of people to rethink their relationship with work. People enjoy the flexibility of WFH and do not miss the long, expensive and tiring commutes. People enjoy spending more time with family and friends around their WFH. Although, I feel special sympathy for parents with young children trying the impossible juggling act of managing WFH, kids and their remote education.
The overall message is clear. If businesses, including law firms, want to retain their staff they need to be more flexible and accommodate WFH.
As an aside, a friend of mine was chatting to a senior partner at a Magic Circle Firm (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Circle_(law_firms)) who was surprised by The Great Resignation (which I spoke about in my last blog post) where it was almost unheard-of people resigning as, pre-pandemic: “lawyers were invited to leave, rather than the other way around”. Those impertinent millennials, eh!
But grappling with the tentative return to the office has not been easy. There have been a lot of issues with UK law firms uncertain whether to mandate vaccination for all staff returning to the office. This was an approach followed by many US law firms. UK firms must balance this risk of discrimination against the public health threat by failing to insist on vaccination. To my mind, the choice is simple. For the health of those in the office, everyone returning to the office should be vaccinated; otherwise, they can continue to work remotely. It is not a civil liberty discussion but a public health necessity which is a legitimate aim worth protecting. However, this is my personal view only. Firms will need to take a careful position so as not to fall foul of the provisions of the Equality Act which prohibits direct or indirect discrimination.
On balance, many will continue to WFH in the coming months. Whilst not without its challenges, WFH is here to stay in some capacity. The preference amongst many millennials towards WHF and greater flexibility at work, in general, cannot be ignored. In the current employment market, employers must do all they can to retain the talented people that they have now. WFH flexibility will be an important incentive toward achieving greater staff retention levels. Plus, for us working Joe’s, it offers some much-needed choice. When properly structured, WFH can help us find some much needed work-life balance.