With vaccination rates rising and states reducing restrictions around COVID-19, discussion in the legal services industry has turned to whether and to what extent law firms will require their people to return to offices. A lot of media reports have framed this issue as a tug-of-war between managers and their workers. The simplified conclusion is that many white-collar workers want to continue working from home at least some of the time, while decision-makers argue that remote work makes it “difficult to train junior talent and maintain a cohesive culture.”
While the tug-of-war narrative generates good headlines and potential villains, the reality on the ground is more nuanced. For starters, the sources of information about what employees want are questionable. Dan Ciampa, writing for the Harvard Business Review, warns against taking employee surveys as “gospel” and suggests surveying management separately. The types of collaborative and innovative tasks required at higher levels of an organization’s ranks might warrant more in-person time than the work required of other employees. This may, to some extent, account for managing partners’ preference for having lawyers and staff return to the office. This might be more important and helpful for those actually managing the firm or its practice areas than for most attorneys or staff. Firms should think about an approach that considers how much in-person collaboration actually impacts the productivity and efficiency of particular lawyers.
Firms should also be cautious about justifying a wholesale return to the office on a generalized sense that it will increase camaraderie. There is no reason to assume that camaraderie will improve if people are working together in an office. Moreover, it’s possible to improve camaraderie without requiring everyone to return to the same space. For example, the firm could organize in-person meals or get-togethers one or two days a week, or perhaps the firm could host a party or other social event once a month. These options can have the desired effect while still hearing lawyers’ interest in continuing their work remotely.
The question for those advocating for a full return to the office is: how much talent are you willing to lose? If forced to choose between heading back to the office full-time and looking elsewhere, some of your best lawyers and staff will likely walk away. The inclination to push for a return to normalcy is, at some level, about habit and control. While many are reluctant to discuss the latter, a sense of constant supervision certainly plays into leaders wanting their employees to work in the same office.
For those who champion never returning to the office on a full-time basis, the question is: how much career advancement are you willing to risk? When law firm leaders are in the office, there is a non-trivial risk that the better assignments and promotions will disproportionately go to those who are also in the office. COVID-19 has been a huge disrupter, but it hasn’t entirely killed off the concept of face time.
Don’t fall for the narrative that this is a simple dynamic that pits managers against rank-and-file lawyers and staff. Whatever initial conclusions you come to as a firm leader, you should be revisiting the topic, discussing it with your team, and reevaluating regularly. This is a decision that merits an extra-large dose of patience and humility.