Pressured into the Office

  • May 06, 2024

Dear Advy,

I loved working from home during the pandemic. It afforded me balance in my life, and I truly felt it benefitted my practice, given I did not need to worry about rushing out of the office to pick up my kids or waste time commuting. Now that we are forced to go back to the office, my anxiety and stress have increased. I am having to juggle multiple timelines (not always well), and it really seems senseless. I could ask my manager for accommodation, but I am concerned about the optics. I get the sense that my colleagues believe that I just want to work from home to slack-off, and that I cannot complete the same amount of work from home as I would at the office. I thought we had more than proved ourselves over the pandemic, so I am puzzled at this perception. Any suggestions?

Pressured into the Office

Dear Pressured into the Office,

The first thing to bear in mind is that feeling stress and anxiety related to commuting, having to pick up kids from school/daycare, juggling multiple timelines and no doubt other challenges is normal. You’re not broken, or somehow less-than because you are having those feelings. In fact, if you were dealing with those challenges and not feeling stress and anxiety, that would be more of a cause for concern. Your body is just telling you “Yup, you’re a human alright.”  Don’t beat yourself up for that.

Let’s take a moment to examine the reasons why your boss or your firm may be mandating you to return to the office, look at those reasons from the assumption that they have some validity, and consider some ways of dealing with those concerns. No, I’m not assuming that your boss’ concerns are bona fide to side with your boss. You yourself say you’re concerned about the optics of asking for accommodation. I’m starting from that assumption because if we generate your “case” for working remotely based on the assumption that there are good-faith reasons to be worried about remote work, you can be a lot more persuasive when you talk to your firm about what you want.

It is possible for workers to be unproductive when working from home. Homework environments vary widely. One worker may be working in a focus-supporting cocoon lacking distractions. Another may be working at the kitchen table with the kids playing and watching loud cartoons nearby. Take a careful and critical look at how much your homework situation supports productivity. If there are things you could do that would help you be more focused, do them. That could be as simple as changing your work routines (For example, I do what I call a “phony commute”, i.e. a short bike ride or walk outside before getting down to the tasks needing attention just to cue my own body that I’m shifting from home time to work time). It could involve re-arranging your home space to maximize focus and minimize distractions. It could involve buying furniture or technology to help you with productivity at home (noise-canceling headphones anyone?). Whatever your own audit of home-work productivity reveals, communicate with your firm what you have uncovered and what you are doing to remedy it.

Employers generally are worried about worker productivity in remote work situations. This is not a phenomenon particular to your firm, to private practice, or even to the legal profession. In a July 2022 study, nearly half of managers in a variety of businesses surveyed stated that they believed workers working away from the office were not working as hard as they would if they were on-site. One interesting (and admittedly partial) explanation for this disconnect is that employees and managers think differently about what constitutes the working day.  Workers usually include commuting time in a working day. Managers tend to think of the workday as only the time the worker is “at” work. You yourself mention that part of what you perceive as improving your productivity when you were remote working is the time you saved on commuting. If you are making the case for working from home bear in mind that you and your manager may be speaking a different language when it comes to productivity and be prepared to bridge that gap in understanding.

Different kinds of work can lend themselves to being done better from home as opposed to being done from an office. If you have ever had to write a factum and contend with multiple e-mails, phone calls and co-workers dropping by your office for a chat, you have experienced the downside of working in an office. On the other hand, you may also have gained from being able to pull a colleague aside in the lunchroom and being able to bounce ideas for solving a difficult problem off someone else for new insights. The list of what works better and what works more poorly when you are working from your home versus from the firm office is a long one and it is worth looking closely at what it is you do in the course of a workday to assess if your practice is more or less conducive to remote work.

Humans – and it’s important to remember that even partners in a law firm are humans – are subject to many conceptual biases that affect how they process information. One bias, or heuristic, that is likely at play in your firm manager(s)’ mind is Availability Bias. When we think about a phenomenon, we usually focus on a specific example of the phenomenon, and we usually concentrate on the example that comes to mind most easily. An example that is unusual or noteworthy looms much larger in our own minds than more mundane examples. Availability Bias is the focus of a lot of study in explaining the paradox that even while crime statistics show significant declines in criminal behaviour and especially violent behaviour, surveys of public perceptions of crime almost always show widespread fear that rates of crime are rising, not falling. One explanation appears to be that news stories on violent or horrific crimes lead every newscast and people tend to discuss them more on social media and elsewhere. A story about a murder grabs our attention. It’s not newsworthy to report that nobody was mugged in your city that day and almost nobody posts on Facebook about how their bike wasn’t stolen from the park last Tuesday. We tend think of the salacious or outrageous as the norm and forget that we’re hearing about them because they’re so unusual.

You may be asking yourself what any of this has to do with your conversation with your firm about remote work. Your boss will most easily recall instances – either in your firm or in the news or just in the rumour mill – where remote work situations worked out badly. It is hard to forget a news story about remote workers taking on jobs at multiple employers at the same time to maximize earnings and doing none of them well, for example. You on the other hand have a memory of working well during lockdowns because you lived that experience. It is very easy for the boss to forget that most employees were conscientious about getting their work done during the lockdowns because that is a story about what didn’t happen. Remember that your employer is grappling with the same cognitive limitations we all do and be prepared to work with that in persuading them that no, you’re not anything like the management horror stories they’ve heard out there. You’ve experienced this disconnect viscerally when a client or even an acquaintance tells you about a news story about a lawyer who stole money from clients and implies all lawyers are the same. No, you’re not defined by the worst examples of people who are superficially like you. Your task with your firm is to differentiate you and your request from what automatically comes to mind when they think about working from home.

Part of the objection may be a lack of clarity of what you mean when you ask for accommodation. Be clear about what you want. Are you asking your employer to approve working from home exclusively? Are you asking your employer to allow you to work from home part of the week while working in the office sometimes as well – what is often called “hybrid work”? Some of the same studies that find remote work decreases productivity also find that hybrid work is about as productive as is work that is always done at the employer’s worksite. Hybrid, as opposed to fully remote work, may allow you to balance “face time” with the time you need to immerse yourself in one task. If your firm manager is concerned that approving work from home will make you a less productive worker, changing the model to hybrid work may allay those worries.

In terms of firm managers, there may be many other reasons why they have concerns about remote work that I have not listed here. Who is the best expert as to what objections the firm manager(s) may have about your request to work from home? Your own firm managers. Yes, it takes some courage, but ask them what it is about your request that worries them. Bearing the information, I’ve set out above in mind, demonstrate that you are not asking that question rhetorically. Show that you “get” that they could have good faith worries about your request and you are asking about those worries because you too want to ensure you can continue to effectively contribute to your team. You can do that by listening respectfully to them as they tell you why they worry about this, reflect what they are telling you by paraphrasing what they have told you, and then engaging in dialogue about what could be done to solve this problem. When the firm manager(s) tell you about these concerns they are providing you with an opportunity to meet those objections with ideas to support rather than detract from your effectiveness and that of the firm.

There are some positive points about remote work that you can have in your back pocket to help persuade your employer that what you’re asking for is a good idea. Among them are:

  • Remote work saves employers expenses on average $11,000.00 (USD) per employee if flex workstations and other shared workspace solutions are implemented.
  • Those cost-savings, and the time savings unlocked by reducing or eliminating commuting, more than make up for the costs associated with losing connectivity with peers or losses of focus on work when measured in terms of profit.
  • Having an example of a well-functioning, mutually beneficial work-from-home arrangement with one employee can help firm managers develop a more comprehensive remote work plan for other employees. If you are handling the situation well, your arrangement can be a good model that the firm can draw on to increase employee happiness, support worker retention, and even help the firm’s efforts at increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

You point out that the perception that working from home is just seeking an opportunity to “slack off”, and I get the impression that you are not just speaking about the attitude of firm managers. Part of your audience, when you’re trying to persuade your firm to approve accommodation is not just the firm managers but also your peers in the firm. Will they see you as choosing to contribute less to teamwork? Will they take advantage of your lack of “face time” to compete against you for work? One way to deal with that audience’s objections is straightforward:  show over time that they’re wrong. Surprise team members by coming up with a solution to a problem that they didn’t think of. Share ideas you managed to generate because you had that extra focus that comes from not having to juggle all those competing priorities you mention. Establish a track record that shows you are no slacker.

You may be realizing as you read this that the kinds of conversations I’m describing here aren’t something that will happen in one meeting and certainly not in one e-mail to your boss. As I’ve said a few times, persuasion is a long game, and that’s particularly so when you’re trying to change a broad-based (mis)perception like what you’re addressing here. Have some patience with the people you’re speaking with. They may not get what you’re telling them right away. Allow some of what you’ve said to sink in and give them lots of reinforcement in the form of your own successes realized because, rather than in spite of, working from home.

Be well!

[0] Comments

CBA members may sign in to comment.