Work practices have shifted dramatically during the pandemic, and as employees return to the office over the next few months, we crowdsourced the question of what work practices must remain and what needs to go
Morgan Stanley chief legal officer’s recent warning to the Wall Street giant’s outside legal counsel about their apparent lack of urgency to return their lawyers to the office sent off a wave of concern for law firms, many of which are responding to their lawyers’ preferences by allowing some remote work. It was perhaps the most attention-grabbing voice to date that was ordering a return to the “old normal.”
Law firms, for their part, are trying to accommodate lawyers and other employees who have strongly voiced a desire for better work/life balance, which includes more flexibility and remote working opportunities. Indeed, the Morgan Stanley missive may place law firms in the unenviable position of choosing between clients who want their lawyers in the office and top talent who can only be lured with more flexible options.
At the same time, work practices shifted monumentally during the pandemic, and reports of anxiety are up as the return-to-office phase heats up as the summer wanes. In fact, the next few months as employees return to the office offer the opportunity to expand the norms of work and finally achieve the approach to measure productivity from the inputs of labor hours to the outputs of value, goals, and outcomes.
To examine this further, the Thomson Reuters Institute and She Breaks the Law crowdsourced what work practices and paradigms must remain and what needs to go. The findings are both interesting and thought provoking.
What to ditch — The most popular ways of working that that should be thrown out, according to our crowdsourcing results, are i) the rigidity of needing to define hours of work; and ii) the link between being in the office and productivity and commitment. Indeed, these themes revealed themselves repetitively during the discussion, which cited “close mindedness,” the strict confines of the 9-to-5 workday, and the “controlling” default of being in the office as strong negatives.
What to keep — At the same time, lawyers revealed that there were many aspects of work that they wanted to maintain as the result of the pandemic — flexibility, trust, and boundaries. “Flexibility… that means work is part of your life, but not your whole life,” said one individual, adding that “keeping the gift of time that isn’t wasted on a commute or travelling to a client” is a clear advantage. The word “inclusivity” was also emphasized multiple times in the context of being able to demonstrate productivity no matter where you live or work.
Interestingly, trust was cited multiple times in our discussion. Participants said they experienced a lot of goodwill from their employers during the pandemic, but when it came to identifying what work practices to ditch, the philosophy of “return to a pre-pandemic normal” gave the appearance of an inherent sense of distrust. The good news is that there are simple-but-not-easy solutions and actions that employers can take to retain that trust.
Ways to balance employees’ preferences for work
The most significant insight on what’s needed to balance the range of employee preferences was the understanding that the problem has not been solved and to have patience of the long-term view to avoid the thinking that one side is “right” and the other is “wrong.” To proceed, some lawyers advocated for employers to commit to pilot tests of different hybrid approaches and to allow the data to determine what is successful and what is not. This way allows for collaboration between legal employers and their employees around the composition of the future of work.
In addition, Thomson Reuters Acritas surveyed thousands of lawyers in March 2021 about the biggest challenges they faced during the pandemic —collaboration, business development, and developing junior lawyers — and then offered three principles for successful hybrid-remote working to address these challenges:
- Proactive communication — To make hybrid teams work, communication needs to be scheduled, consistent, and done with authenticity.
- Embrace the human connection — The human side is a critical component of success in hybrid working; and to make it work, leaders need to check in on non-work matters, reduce formality, demonstrate empathy, and invoke high-quality listening skills.
- Collaborate with intention — Finally, developing talent by using an apprenticeship model has to be maintained in a remote environment. And to collaborate effectively, meetings need to be planned with a clear purpose with every attendee having a role. Also, involve junior lawyers in all activities to better help them learn on the job. This, along with monitoring progress and providing feedback in real time, can create the working “side-by-side” phenomenon that was identified as key to achieve success in hybrid approaches.
Employing these short-term exercises can help pilot different approaches, which seems to be the best way to maintain the goodwill built up among employees during the pandemic and address concerns about ongoing remote working going forward.
At the core of a highly engaged employee is trust, and that is something that is built up over time but can be undermined in a moment. Losing the goodwill is a real risk for employers because of the threat of the “great resignation.”
Recent announcements, however — like the one by Morgan Stanley’s CLO — illustrate the tug of war that will transpire in the coming months. Perhaps legal employers and their clients might be wise to remember that the question to ask is not, Who will win? but How can we succeed together?