Office Bound

  • March 01, 2022

Dear Advy,

I am starting to think about the transition back to our firm’s office.  I have been working in and out of the office since the pandemic began, which has worked well for me, but I know some of the other lawyers in my firm and our support staff have expressed some anxiety around returning full time. I tend to think it is healthy coming together in one space to collaborate and foster a good team, but I know that my way of thinking seems to be in the minority. Should we be looking to incorporate a hybrid work model permanently? How do I best support my staff and colleagues as they work through any anxiety?

Office Bound

Dear Office Bound,

I’ll answer your questions in reverse order.  

How do you best support staff and colleagues as they work through anxiety?

You have already taken the most important first step: You are aware that there are different perspectives about this. The fact that you recognize that and that you care enough to support your co-workers is critical.  

Let’s go a little further with that. COVID, and returning to a common workplace are not just abstract concepts. They are a complex physical reality. The thing about complex physical realities is that they affect different people in different ways. Someone who is more anxious than you about going back into the office full time may not have that heightened anxiety simply because they are more sensitive to risk. They may also live with an unvaccinated child, or an immune-compromised partner, or an elderly relative who is vulnerable to this disease. Your work colleague may have a spouse who is afraid of the effect of this change, and forcing a return to the office full time may put that colleague’s relationship in jeopardy. Two lawyers can disagree about whether the appropriate sentence in a criminal case is two months or seven years, but if one of those lawyers’ arguments gets dismissed, the lawyer losing the argument isn’t going to jail. In your workplace, these disagreements and differing perspectives arise in part because no two people are going to be affected by that change in the same way. We’re not just talking about differing opinions here. We’re talking about differing real-life consequences of change. The colleague on the “losing” side of the back-to-the-office argument may face conflict at home, losing contact with a parent, a sick child and any number of other costs. When you are dealing with your co-workers, bear in mind that their lives and their risk profiles may be very different from yours, often in ways you wouldn’t expect.  

Of course, even if the divergence of views you encounter is confined to attitudes to risk and has nothing to do with differing circumstances, it’s important to be respectful of that as well. We, lawyers, are kind of in the divergence-of-viewpoint business, aren’t we? How often do you see a real-world conflict where one side is simply in the right, and the other is simply in the wrong? Most of the cases we work on offer good examples of the dangers of being dismissive of a differing point of view. There’s usually something really valuable you can learn from someone else’s perspective.  

No, I’m not accusing you of being dismissive. You took the time to ask, which tells me you generally aren’t dismissive of your co-workers’ concerns. I am saying that if you’re tired, busy or having a bad day, you may be very tempted to be dismissive of your colleagues’ points of view. An important way you can be supportive of your colleagues over the long run is to take care of yourself and do as much as you can to be the best peer you can be. Get enough sleep, eat well, laugh once in a while, get fresh air and exercise, and if you do snap at someone who’s brought up these issues when you weren’t at your best, be compassionate enough with yourself to try again. Make an appointment with a professional counsellor or a coach and proactively work out a strategy to get you through the challenges ahead.

Should the firm be looking to incorporate a hybrid work model permanently?

The short answer:  Yup.

Knowledge is a very valuable commodity. In February 2020, did you know how to set up and run a video conference or make a remote court appearance? How much money and training went into setting up the Virtual Private Network at your firm over the last two years?  

One of the things we’ve learned as a group during this pandemic has been that there is a lot about working in an office that’s lousy. We have to commute. We drink too much bad coffee. We get constant interruptions. We have unproductive meetings. We pay rent in pricey downtown offices. Evidence gathered since the start of the pandemic suggests that employee productivity didn’t suffer, and in fact, in some cases, it got better when we all had to work from home. In a July 2021 U.K. survey, 55.2% of respondents reported they were anxious about returning to the office. A sizeable minority (44%) of respondents cited “I get more done when I’m not in the office” as a reason for being wary of a return to the workplace. There is conflicting data on whether those productivity gains are merely perceived or if they are real, but there is some solid support for the latter. 

Is it really worth it to take all those gains in knowledge, quality of life, and productivity and just chuck them out? Even if we’re all very lucky and this is our last pandemic for a while, the institutional knowledge of how to operate a hybrid work environment is potentially valuable for the next crisis we encounter. A bad storm, the civil unrest that shuts down a city’s downtown, or flooding like we saw in the Lower Mainland in 2021 or Calgary in 2013 could all make a resilient workplace desirable.  

Leaving aside that issue, the reality law firms face is that a sizeable chunk of their workers and potential workers do not want to return to the office, or at least not on a full-time basis. Much has been made of what is called The Great Resignation. Workers are choosing to quit their jobs rather than stay on under less than optimal conditions. In the past, many law firms have seen their lawyers and staff as eminently replaceable. They may say things like, “Our people are our best asset,” but in practice, law firm work culture has historically taken a page from Game of Thrones rather than How to Make Friends and Influence People.  

Were there exceptions? Of course, and there were and are a great many people in our profession who have treated one another admirably. However, the days of the fungible lawyer are behind us if, indeed, they ever were with us in the first place. In a recent global survey, the International Bar Association found that among lawyers aged 40 and below, 54% of respondents reported they were ‘somewhat likely’ or ‘highly likely to move to a new place of work, 33% hoped to switch to a different area of the profession, and 20% were considering leaving law altogether. A law firm in 2022 that treats its workers poorly faces the very real prospect of losing those workers to other firms that are willing to treat them better.

Your firm management could mandate a full-time return to the office. It could eliminate or significantly curtail opportunities for remote work, and it could impose that outcome on workers. However, it risks creating a resentful, cynical workforce that is unmotivated and on the lookout for a chance to go elsewhere. That is especially dangerous in an industry like law, where much of the goodwill associated with a firm resides in the individual lawyers who practice there. Not only does a lawyer’s exit bear the risk of high costs to hire and train a replacement, but there’s a good chance clients will follow the departing lawyer. What else can a lawyer leaving your firm because of a poor work-from-home policy offer to a client as an inducement to drop you? Lower fees. Working from home by and large costs less than working from a rented office. Your departing lawyer can offer to pass some of that savings on to your clients. You may be incubating a group of low-cost competitors with an intimate understanding of your clients’ needs.  

Opportunities to be kind and self-interested at the same time don’t come along often, but this one strikes me as one of those times.

Be well,

Related Article: Please Don't Go - CBA National Magazine

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