It’s beginning to look like the pandemic has permanently changed how corporates and law firms will work going forward, with hybrid working becoming an established norm. Has your organisation converted or not, and if you have, how do you optimise the benefits and avoid the pitfalls?
Some things were irrevocably changed by the global pandemic. Among them, working from home was widely enabled and adopted, and looks to be here to stay. At the beginning of 2020, less than 6 per cent of workers worked exclusively from home. A mere three months later (April 2020) nearly half (46.6 per cent) of all the people in employment in the UK had begun home working.
Two years later and the Office for National Statistics concluded in May 2022 that more than 8 in 10 workers who had worked from home during the pandemic said they now planned to hybrid work going forward. And, of interest to lawyers, hybrid and homeworking increases by income bracket and those earning over £40k are the most likely to hybrid work.
In addition, a hefty 78 per cent of those who worked from home some of the time told the ONS that it gave them an improved work life balance; half said it was quicker to complete work and that they had fewer distractions; and 47 per cent reported improved well-being. Only 8 per cent could see ‘no advantages’ to home working.
Meanwhile businesses themselves identified improved staff well-being as their top reason (60 per cent) for adopting home working, with reduced overheads (43 per cent) – and importantly – increased productivity (41 per cent) as the next most popular reasons, with reducing carbon emissions, the ability to recruit from a wider geography (both nationally and internationally), reduced sickness levels and reduced wage bills also in the mix. It seems like the future is hybrid. But what are the dangers and how can legal practitioners avoid them?
Blurring of boundaries
A theme that recurs is that working from home doesn’t stop burnout from happening. If 47 per cent report “improved well-being” – the majority don’t feel that benefit. Although people are more aware of the dangers, there’s still a need to recognise and act on the blurring of boundaries that can lead to an “always on” culture. So, organisations need to set some ground rules.
For example, there’s a growing understanding that “focus time” needs to be protected. This is enabled by instituting policies such as “no Zoom” Fridays; or banning back-to-back meetings; or mandating “focus hours” – during which people are not expected to answer emails immediately (people have felt that they need to do so to prove they’re “at work”).
Technology can usefully be brought in to enforce these policies and to help maintain good work life balance hygiene, for instance tracking and triggering alerts when individuals aren’t taking their annual leave entitlement. This has also apparently become a casualty of hybrid working: Microsoft found that a startling 83 per cent of its US employees didn’t take their full entitlement in 2021.
Visible and supported
People also don’t do so well when they feel their efforts are invisible. And young lawyers, in particular, can suffer from a lack of mentorship and professional guidance when hybrid working. If firms are to keep hold of talent and get the best out of people, individuals need to feel both supported and that their efforts are recognised. This can be done by embedding policies that require managers to check-in regularly and to conduct well-managed appraisals. People also need a sense of being included in the firm’s or organisation’s future thinking and that there’s clear career progression available to them.
A final thought about hybrid working is that the productivity and work life balance benefits won’t be fully realised unless or until the systems that support home working are optimised. It’s therefore a good idea for organisations to audit both how well current remote working systems are performing; and to conduct some research on the potential to upgrade. For instance, can your lawyers easily search, access and collaborate on documents remotely? And is it simple for fee-earners to log even small increments of time remotely? Providing slicker cloud-based software can have a big impact on net billable hours and revenue; not to mention retention – because modern, reliable, simple-to-use systems are also a big draw for hybrid workers.
The bottom line is that hybrid working is here to stay, and with the right systems and the right balances struck, has clear benefits. Meanwhile the organisations that drag their feet will likely lose talent and struggle to attract new blood, suggesting that when it comes to enabling hybrid working, everybody needs to get on board.