September 2021 is now upon us and as many of us prepare for a return to the physical office, there is an overwhelming feeling that things are not as they once were. Numerous city law firms and companies are expecting staff to be in the physical office and although we have all long anticipated a return to the office, it is not yet clear what the impact will be.
The next few weeks will offer a look into the future, we will have a front row seat to a tussle between policy, productivity, tradition, technology and diversity.
What should we expect? Firstly, with very few exceptions the return to the office is talked about in almost every discussion that we have with our clients in the UK. It is best described as a lively discussion and at the very least it is a management headache! Key sectors such as professional services, financial services and technology have transitioned, almost seamlessly, for an extended period of time, into remote working. Most conversations with candidates and clients feature some dialogue around the working dynamic and we have all become accustomed to discussing our specific circumstances and often voicing our preferences. Some might say that we have been able to enjoy bespoke working arrangements. By that we mean if you wanted to work from the physical office it was possible, if you wanted to work from home, well that was the norm and those seeking a balance between the two have actually been able to achieve that. The need to be in the physical office dissipated as a new digital form of collaboration amongst colleagues was enabled through technology rather than office space. For anyone that has visited their physical office however it is clear that uptake has been low, numbers quoted to us have indicated a range of 10-30% but our surveys suggest fewer than 10 % have actually been traveling into the office regularly.
We conducted three surveys during the height of the pandemic. We sought to understand the impact that the pandemic was having on working dynamics. Why three surveys? At the time we genuinely thought that there would be a start, a middle and an end to the pandemic. The reality however was not as we first anticipated. Survey 1 was conducted at what we thought was ‘early pandemic’ which was 2 – 4 weeks after the first lockdown in the UK commenced. Survey 2 was what we felt was the midpoint, this was at 6-8 weeks. As we sought to complete the final survey we realised that a return to normal was not within sight. So we paused, choosing to complete the picture as we advanced towards what was eventually dubbed ‘freedom day’. But even with ‘freedom day’ looming the return to the office did not crystalise. There are a number of contributing factors towards this, not least rising levels of infection widely reported in the news. Employers in sectors such as professional services, financial services and technology have instead largely focused on September, or the end of the summer, for the watershed moment.
Why it has taken so long to return to the office is of course debatable but for argument sake it is worth first acknowledging just how well the legal industry has performed in the remote working environment. Every aspect of day to day business that could be performed remotely, has been performed remotely and there have been some surprises along the way. This is not to say that parts of our economy haven’t been hard hit however.
What was a temporary shift has turned into a long term way of working. With almost half of the sampled respondents ‘preferring’ to work from home post restrictions lifting; employers take note. This result shows a shift in attitude when it comes to working from home. Employers seeking to get the most out of their talented employees must now reflect on a staggering shift in perception. 23.3% of respondents indicated that they didn’t mind working from home, only 26% responded that they prefer to work in the office. With only 4 % responding that they are unsure. This is a clear thumbs up to remote working.
Let’s now look at the fear factor. 42.5% of those who were concerned about returning to the office listed “the commute to the office” as their primary concern compared to 17.8% who said their main concern was a “safe work environment”
Our survey shows that commuters are more concerned about their journey to work than their safety whilst working in the office. These concerns are due to the lack of infection control, social distancing and health and safety precautions during the commute. Nonetheless, employers are not able to factor the safety of the commute of their employees into their return-to-work strategy as this is beyond their control. Whilst not all respondents work in congested urban environments an overwhelming number do. It is simply not productive to have employees arrive pre or post rush hour, this simply extends congestion times and is disruptive. Whilst there are alternatives to public transport these are not necessarily accessible to all and given that an overwhelming percentage of respondents listed the commute as their primary concern it begs the question, how do employers seek to distil this concern?
What are we expecting from the return to the office? 60 % of respondents said they “would expect to work 2-3 days in the office once restrictions lift.”
As it stands, law firms have differed in their approach to the return-to-work strategy. Some have decided to return to their offices three times a week, others like Allen & Overy are looking to open their premises fully, while some are planning to open at 50% capacity, with desk booking systems and extra cleaning measures in place. Other firms such as Simmons & Simmons are gradually allowing employees to return to the office once a week to meet with their team until the firm’s hybrid policy commences. Several others are taking a more cautious approach and using the summer to explore different working patterns.
Arguably it is too early to settle on a long-term approach to office re-entry or agile working, considering new variants and the constant changes the pandemic brings. Even today we are waiting to see the impact the return to schools will have. Only 15.3% of respondents said that they would expect to work 5 days per week from the office. This represents a staggering shift in mentality.
59% of respondents said their employer has communicated a return to the office strategy.
This is not all together surprising, there is no one size fits all policy, trial and error is likely the way forward. After all what does 50% in office time mean? Is that 2.5 days per week, is that 2 days one week 3 days the next, is it a rough guide, is it an aspirational value or could you spend 6 months in the office and 6 months at home. It means all of the above, potentially! What happens when a team member contracts Covid-19, should teams be split into bubbles or should they seek to be in at the same time in order to collaborate better. Prior to March 2020, leaders had the fortune of a one size fits all approach. Is it irresponsible for the office to re-open whilst some are not vaccinated or further still, should vaccinations become mandatory? As we work through a period of unprecedented change in terms of the office working dynamic, it is clear to see that there are more questions than answers.
What should we look for?
Should employers consider productivity a key barometer? The legal industry offers us a glimpse into what may be a tangible gain from the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to March 2020 the office environment was considered the only environment to house a large employee base. We now know that there is an alternative, however the alternative thrived as the majority were working from home, we achieved a form of level playing field. Service provider and service seeker both found themselves working from home, leaders and their teams all found themselves working from home, single adults and adults with children all found themselves at home. Not only was it a level playing field but respect crept in, people had to respect each individuals specific situation. Empathy and understanding prevailed.
The pandemic created different and unique challenges for those on their own and for those with young families, those with partners working on the front line and those with partners who lost their livelihoods or were as a result of the pandemic forced to work under challenging conditions. However…the mean productivity rating out of 10 was a 7.6 with most respondents grading their productivity between a 7 and 10 out of ten. This is a phenomenal finding as average would have been a 5. Employees clearly feel like their productivity is enhanced by working from home. Big Law has clearly been party to this productivity gain as most major firms have enhanced both their revenue and profitability during the pandemic.
On top of productivity gains 63% of respondents expressed that their loyalty to their employer had increased and that as a result they were less likely to leave. Only 12.3 % of respondents expressed that they are less loyal and actively considering a new role. For those employers hoping to capitalise on pandemic related hiring opportunities this perhaps provides an insight into the reason unemployment figures have been falling and numerous media outlets have reported on a lack of supply in the labour market.
76% of respondents answered “No” to, “does your employer currently have a hiring freeze in place?” This statistic has changed from 50 % during the height of the pandemic.
While people have enjoyed the benefits and flexibility of working from home, there is a consensus seemingly of an overwhelming need at the junior and trainee level for a return to the office. Is there an optimum level? There is no denying the benefit of learning by osmosis, simply being around experienced individuals creates a learning environment. It also enables real time corrections to take place, which can be a major hurdle in a remote working scenario. Furthermore, we have emerging evidence to support that trainees and junior lawyers have expressed that working from home has had a negative impact on their mental health, their need for more supervision and their desire to develop boundaries between work and home life. During the height of the pandemic 89% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that ‘working from home is more productive when a significant percentage of the work force is accustomed to working from home’.
Whatever the office dynamic looks like moving forward, the ‘new normal’ and the transition to a hybrid model will be more challenging than the shift to universal home working. Law firms and companies will have to consider new ways of managing significant numbers of employees who will be split between home and the office. Firms that will succeed are those that communicate effectively and keep the needs of their lawyers and clients at the forefront.
Now we must decide, are we a fist pumper, foot tapper, elbow bumper or hand shaker?