Mandates. Policies. Incentives. Steps law firms are taking to boost return-to-office rates indicate that carrots may matter more than sticks.
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Hybrid operations may be here to stay, but what does success look like for law firms? For most law firm leaders, success means maximizing attorney time in the office. We wanted to find out what law firms are doing (or not doing) that is helping to achieve that end. So earlier this year, we launched the Forrest Solutions Return-to-Office Survey.
Top Actions and Outcomes
Our survey represents responses from approximately 20% of the top 200 law firms on a range of questions designed to gain insight into the specific actions firms are taking — and specific outcomes.
The survey tracked law firms’ return-to-office policies, compliance with those policies, and identified new initiatives that helped increase attorneys’ number of days in the office.
Here are the top five takeaways from our results.
1. Nobody Seems to Be Complying
Unsurprisingly, survey data showed that the vast majority of responding firms — 93% — have not returned to pre-COVID occupancy levels. Rather, they are operating on a hybrid schedule. The majority of firms, at 66%, strongly suggest or recommend two to three days per week in the office, while 20% are mandating two to three days per week.
Another 7% of firms are mandating four or more days in the office, and 7% have no policy at all.
Here’s the rather surprising news: Of this group of “hybrid” firms, 94% do not comply with their firm’s return-to-office policy.
2. Return-to-Office Mandates Are a Non-Starter
Drilling into noncompliance rates, we were curious whether firms that have “mandated” a set in-office schedule are more successful than their counterparts with “strongly suggested” days in the office.
It turned out that firms with a mandatory policy fared the worst and reported the highest rate of lack of compliance at 71%. Firms that strongly suggested their return-to-office policy fared much better, reporting over half (55.6%) of their attorneys comply with the firm’s policy.
And here is the natural outcome of what “lack of compliance” means:
- For the majority of firms strongly suggesting two to three days in the office, the result is one to two days a week in the office.
- The 20% of firms that are mandating two to three days a week in the office are achieving two days.
- The 7% of firms that are mandating four-plus days in the office are achieving only three days.
- And the 7% of firms that have no policy are achieving less than one day a week, on average, in the office.
3. Trying New Things Leads to More Time in the Office
Firms that added at least one new program were able to attract their attorneys back to the office for more days on average than firms that tried no new programs at all.
Whether mandated or “strongly suggested,” new programs were found to move the needle: The 12.5% of firms that made no changes and tried no new programs averaged two days per week in the office.
However, our survey found a somewhat higher figure among the 87.5% of firms that tried at least one new hospitality program, made at least one change or addition to their real estate including flexible workplace strategies, or added at least one new amenity. These firms’ attorneys averaged 2.36 days in the office.
While this may at first appear to be an incremental difference, this is an 18% boost — or an extra 26 days a year, or five additional business weeks in the office.
And that’s significant.
4. New Programs Lead to Incremental Wins
We saw incremental victories across each of the measured categories. Of firms that redesigned their floor space (29%), for instance, these firms averaged 2.42 days in the office. This is a 21% increase over the average two days a week of “non-changing firms” — or an extra 30 days a year in the office, or six additional business weeks in the office per year.
Close behind this were firms that added amenities to their office, which saw an average of 2.3 days in the office, or 27 extra days a year or almost five business weeks. But even better were firms that enhanced hospitality. They averaged 2.35 days in the office or just over five additional business weeks per year.
More than half of firms started some kind of hoteling and this actually increased days in the office to an average of 2.41 days, for an extra 30 days per year or 6 business weeks.
5. Law Firms Must Earn Their Attorneys Back to the Office
Overall, we learned that law firms have to “earn” their attorneys back to the office, and it takes a combination of carrot and stick.
When law firm leaders apply a variety of “carrots,” incremental success is gained that, over time, can deliver a significant impact in terms of what leaders want: culture, collaboration and mentorship. An additional six weeks of in-person time in the office can be game-changing.
The 2023 Forrest Solutions Return-to-Office Survey report can be accessed here.
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