Despite the uncertainties and logistical concerns involved in a return to the office, businesses around the country are starting to fill their office space. This push to return to “normal” is inevitable, even as many employers, including law firms, struggle with evolving guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and local authorities.
But what should “normal” look like? Should employers be open to continuing the work-from-home model, a hybrid model, or simply fast-track the return to full-time office occupation? Is it possible to ensure a safe, collaborative, happy return that works for everyone, including clients?
Big Companies Leading the Way: Will BigLaw Follow?
With more than 4,500 employees, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has said he’s committed to a hybrid model moving forward. “If our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen,” a company spokesperson said last year.
If a hybrid model can work for Twitter, can it work for BigLaw?
To date, some firms are offering choices to their employees while others aren’t quite as open to the “new normal.”
Casey Ryan, Reed Smith’s global head of legal personnel, has put in place a new flexible work policy that allows the firm’s more than 1,600 attorneys to choose their office days. “Our working environment and the ways we support clients have changed significantly from the pre-pandemic world,” Ryan said in a recent interview with Reuters. “We have adopted this flexible work policy with this new reality in mind and to capitalize on the best parts of what we have learned from remote working.”
But other law firms are not as accommodating. Paul Hastings might’ve been the first international law firm to make its return-to-work policy public. In May, the firm’s leadership issued a memo requiring staff and attorneys to return to the office. The backlash led to a second memo with a message that was more accommodating and flexible regarding work-from-home requests.
“They Can’t All Stay Home”
Notwithstanding Paul Hastings’ experience, more than two-thirds of all law firms are expected to reach a capacity of 50% or more by the end of the year, according to a June report from real estate giant Colliers. However, research from real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield shows that 60% to 80% of law staff want to continue working from home. “They can’t all stay at home,” said executive managing partner Sherry Cushman in an interview with The American Lawyer. “But firms are evaluating every single position.”
An advantage to allowing remote work to continue is the reduction of costs associated with real estate and staffing needs as well as an advantage in recruiting, according to a recent survey from legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa. The firm found that remote work is among the top priorities for the incoming generation of lawyers.
And although not as scientific, recently an executive recruiter issued a poll on LinkedIn garnering over 4,900 votes from professionals, including attorneys. Of them, 51% voted for a five-day work-from-home week. This recruiter and others like him have reported an uptick in queries from attorneys looking for more flexibility.
Meanwhile, managing partners are grappling with the systemic belief that having people in the office is better for business and allows for training junior talent. Kirkland & Ellis, the most lucrative law firm in the U.S. with gross revenue of more than $4.8 billion, recently announced that its policy will be “office-centric” to guarantee the firm’s continued success.
The firm cited ongoing problems with training, relationship building, team strategizing, and some employees’ difficulty with stress and isolation as the impetuses for reopening its doors near the end of the summer.
What Do Law Firm Clients Think?
The opinion of the firm’s clients could weigh heavily in deciding whether to return to the office. While remote work has staunch supporters, it also has staunch opposition with deep pockets. The American Lawyer published a statement from Morgan Stanley CLO Eric Grossman who wrote that a remote work model simply isn’t sustainable in the legal industry.
“I strongly believe that firms that return to the office will have a significant performance advantage over those that do not,” stated Grossman in a letter to Morgan Stanley’s outside counsel. He made it clear that Morgan Stanley hires law firms because of the quality of their lawyers and their work product, and cautioned that a remote work model over time will hinder their lawyers’ ability to “deliver successful outcomes for Morgan Stanley.”
Here, you have a major client notifying its legal counsel that remote contact will not be tolerated in certain circumstances. According to the article, Morgan Stanley has had professional contact with more than 15 international law firms within 30 days, making Morgan Stanley’s stance on remote work a critical consideration for BigLaw.
It remains to be seen whether Morgan Stanley’s stance on remote work will cause a ripple effect in the legal industry. Some large firms are still moving forward with flexible work policies. Davis Polk and Gibson Dunn, both of which have worked with Morgan Stanley, announced around the time of Grossman’s letter that they would be offering flexibility to their lawyers and staff.
Davis Polk announced it would support a schedule that includes one or two days of remote work per week starting in September. Gibson Dunn offered its lawyers and staff the opportunity to work remotely whenever appropriate. To see other firms’ decisions regarding a return to the office, check out the summary of plans listed by firm on Above the Law.
Break It to Them Gently If You Want a Successful Return to the Office
With some employees happy to return but others not so willing, presenting a “take it or leave it” stance could lead to the loss of good employees and low morale among those who stay. HR attorney and workplace trends expert Rick Grimaldi says the carrot is much more effective than the stick.
“We all know the old-school command and control style of leadership doesn’t work any longer, and that includes the issue of determining where people work,” says Grimaldi, author of “FLEX: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Mastering Transformative Change in the American Workplace” (2021). “Instead of dragging employees back against their will, it’s better to entice them with a collaborative, happy, innovative work environment they can’t resist.”
Grimaldi shares these six ways to prepare and incentivize your team for a return to work that works for everyone.
1. Embrace a hybrid work model
The best way to maintain employees’ productivity and keep everyone happy during this transition is to allow employees to work from wherever they’re most comfortable and productive. Creating a hybrid work model with a mix of remote and in-office workers gives employees the flexibility to return to the office only if they are comfortable and ready. With expectations that teams will be composed of both in-office and remote employees, firms will need to bolster collaboration tools to allow employees to continue working together effectively, regardless of location.
2. Implement a rotational work schedule
Another way to mitigate COVID-19 risks in your office is to implement a rotational work schedule. For example, divide your in-office employees in half and set a schedule whereby each group rotates in-office days (be sure to divide each department evenly to avoid large clusters of employees working in proximity). This gives every employee the opportunity to work from home and from the office every week while limiting the number of in-office employees at any given time.
3. Take a phased approach
Having your entire workforce return to the office on day one is not realistic. Consider implementing a phased approach where a percentage of employees return over a period of time. A phased approach reduces the burden levied upon sanitary crews working overtime to maintain a cleaning schedule, and it reduces the risk of a contagious employee infecting the entire staff.
4. Restructure your offices
A company in the Netherlands has created the “6 Feet Office,” a model designed to help employees safely work in the same shared office space while social distancing. Additionally, organizations may need policies that limit the number of people per meeting and visitors to the office.
5. Create a sanitary workplace
All tables, desks, chairs and communal spaces will need to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected daily. Firms should establish hand-sanitizing stations in high-traffic areas and by high-touch surfaces like the lobby, break rooms, elevators and conference rooms. If possible, keep doors propped open to reduce the touching of handles. The CDC also recommends opening windows if possible, installing high-efficiency air filters, and adjusting air conditioners to increase air circulation and flow.
6. Encourage good hygiene and self-isolation
Encourage all employees to frequently wash their hands and avoid touching their eyes, noses and mouths, Grimaldi advises. Additionally, staff should be educated on the symptoms of COVID-19 and told to stay home if they are feeling ill. Consider implementing a flexible sick-time policy to accommodate employees who test positive for the coronavirus.
The Key to Returning Is Flexibility
If the pandemic taught us anything, it is to be patient, accommodating and flexible — as employers and employees. And when you “make your business a place people want to work,” adds Grimaldi, “you are more likely to maintain the competitive edge that leads to innovation, creativity and success.”
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