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Reconfiguring Legal Workspace in the New Normal with Hybrid Remote Schedules

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional or legal advice in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential consultation with a law practice advisor here.

With powerful recommendations for employers to support flexibility post-pandemic recently released by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, we’re sharing an overview of what law firms need to consider as we balance remote and in-person work post-pandemic.

 

Material in this blog post is based on a presentation and related materials created by LCL | Mass LOMAP Practice Management Advisor Laura Keeler for ABA TECHSHOW 2021.

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Massachusetts Recommendations for Legal Workplaces Post-Pandemic

On June 4, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being released a statement detailing Recommendations for Legal Workplaces Post-Pandemic, expressing “a call for flexibility as the ‘model’ rather than the exception.” This push for a culture shift requires legal employers to make substantial real changes in their environments, emphasizing inclusion. While it often won’t be easy to manage the change, it can and must be done. As noted in the Women’s Bar Association’s Statement in Response to the SJC Lawyer Well-Being Committee’s Recommendations:

 Employers who fail to rise to this challenge and rethink norms, structures, and policies risk losing exceptional attorneys, including women and attorneys from under-represented and historically excluded backgrounds and identities.

 

Hybrid Workplace Flexibility

We’re all unique in terms of how we’ve adapted to working remotely, which can make decisions ahead for employers, managers, and other leaders complex — making flexibility critical. The ability to embrace the uncertainty in this time is a defining quality for leaders. Accepting what we don’t and can’t yet know allows us to focus on what we do know and can know (and how to find out), to break it all down into actionable work, and to measure, review, and make new plans based on results.

 

Basic Trends

While it’s important to focus more on data and its application specific to our individual situation, being aware of general trends is also important to consider our actions in the broader context. According to the Clio Legal Trends Report (published October 2020), numerous law firms have already decreased or eliminated their commercial office space. To cite just a few statistics about where law firms are at in terms of office space:

  • Before the pandemic, 21% of surveyed law firms were already operating without commercial office space.
  • 7% gave up their commercial office spaces.
  • 12% were unsure that they would keep their commercial office space going forward.

As you consider your own clients’ unique needs and preferences, the Clio Legal Trends Report also offers a sense of what legal consumers want:

  • 37% of consumers prefer to meet virtually with a lawyer for a consultation or first meeting.
  • 50% of consumers would prefer to conduct follow-up meetings through videoconference.
  • 69% of consumers prefer working with a lawyer who can share documents electronically through a web page, app, or online portal.

Interestingly, the relative importance of bricks and mortar offices has fallen sharply for both clients and employees. Clio’s surveys of legal professionals and consumers find that neither group considers commercial office space as highly important anymore.

  • More than half of consumers believe that most legal matters can be handled remotely.
  • Nearly a third believe In fact, more than half of consumers believe that law firms should be run virtually in the future.
  • Roughly a third believe all lawyers should run their practices virtually in the future.

The Clio Legal Trends Report has also illuminated how the relative importance of a brick and mortar office has scuttled towards the bottom of relative priorities for both consumers and legal professionals. From Robert Ambrogi’s LawSites Blog:

“While the pandemic forced most lawyers to abandon their bricks-and-mortar offices, at least temporarily, the report finds that both lawyers and clients are questioning whether they should ever go back.

Clio’s surveys of legal professionals and consumers find that neither group considers commercial office space as highly important. In fact, more than half of consumers believe that most legal matters can be handled remotely and roughly a third believe all lawyers should run their practices virtually in the future.”

A number of law firms in Massachusetts are already well on their way to a new normal that looks substantially like the old, as reported by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, noting the main obstacle to a fuller return is the need to provide childcare. To wrap up the statistics, since the pandemic began, interest in permanently having at least one remote workday has more than doubled, as discussed in this podcast interview with Laura Keeler, following her presentation on reconfiguring workspace at ABA TECHSHOW 2021. More, the percentage of workers permanently working from home is expected to double in 2021, according to a recent survey from Enterprise Research Technology. And finally, to quote a recent Forbes article (https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/03/30/the-hidden-cost-of-remote-work/?sh=63509ced6947),

Companies that allow remote work are more profitable and have lower turnover rates, and their teams report overall higher happiness. The last decade saw a 400% increase in remote work, and it’s only going to grow; nearly 30% of working professionals would leave their job if they had to return to the office after the pandemic. That’s a trend that’s not going away.

While there’s good reason to be eager for the ability to return to normal, there’s also good reason to anticipate a new, better normal that captures much of the benefit in how we’ve experienced flexibility, while also resuming the benefits of the basic structure we’ve been lacking. Firms need to balance the financial bottom line with employee and client preferences. Before we look at alternatives to traditional workspace, we’ll unpack the considerations a bit more.

 

Basic Considerations

As firms consider their bottom line, they need to unpack both staff communication and turnover. Considering alternative work spaces and hybrid-remote arrangements implicates all of a firm’s operations, and can often improve them.

 

1. BOTTOM LINE BUDGET.

Office space is typically the highest expense behind personnel, so the cost-cutting power of downsizing the footprint can be highly significant to the budget. How much a firm might save of course varies by the local market.

On the other hand, the biggest hidden cost of remote work is increased cybersecurity risk. How much a firm increases its risk and cost to mitigate such varies as well, of course — depending on firm size, tech competence, and other factors.

From there, firms need to think about work-life balance and collaboration, both of which relate to productivity and ultimately impact the bottom line.

 

2. WORK-LIFE BALANCE & PRODUCTIVITY.

Overall, knowledge workers (like lawyers) have shown greater productivity from home even with the additional challenges of life in the pandemic. The biggest time savings that many have spent on more work relates to the commute, which varies depending on local traffic conditions (looking at you, Boston). Many of us have also been able to capitalize on the lack of interference from the typical commute time on our “power hours”. And with remote flexibility, many are able to improve their housing at the same salary.

Managing time, talent, and energy effectively increases productivity by 40% on average, according to research discussed in the Harvard Business Review’s Time, Talent, and Energy (2017) by Michael C. Mankins and Eric Garton. Optimizing time requires staying focused on the right tasks; talent requires personal autonomy to be supported; and energy is a matter of how much commitment individuals invest in their work. The authors describe how a corporate productivity gap is widening due to the pandemic, separating high performers from low performers.

Individual productivity and quality of life are also linked. Seeing results from the time we invest in our work is enjoyable and key to the motivation that sustains us — distraction doesn’t feel good. Further, autonomy is the top factor affecting our happiness. We’re also happier when we work on values we’re committed to.

While multi-tasking negatively impacts productivity, workers have benefited from new task synchronicity in the pandemic, e.g. in taking calls and listening to while handling household tasks that don’t require thought, including walking our pets. Many of us can enjoy more time with family, with the flexibility when managed optimally. Whether more distractions happen at the office or at home varies by each individual situation.

Firm leadership should take care that assumptions and biases about the productivity of remote work do not skew assessments. While plenty of firm leadership across industries worried that people working remotely would work far less hours, several studies have shown that during the pandemic, workers have largely worked even more hours (though on a flexible schedule) and had productivity stay stable or often rise. Hence, innovative leadership would be served by remembering that productivity doesn’t simply equal face-time or number of hours in the office.

 

3. COMMUNICATION & PRODUCTIVITY.

Physical proximity works naturally, though not flawlessly, at facilitating communication and collaboration. Being remote does help us avoid meetings and drop-ins that could’ve been emails, but we also lose organic opportunities to collaborate.

Fortunately, we’re not bound to a binary decision, and flexibility is key. We can replace organic opportunities with planned and predictable ones that allow flexibility for remote work as well. Depending on how well it’s done, intentionally crafted opportunities for collaboration may outperform organic proximity.

Interestingly, according to a recent study, visual cues don’t improve group intelligence (contrary to popular belief) — but visual cues over videoconferencing do decrease group intelligence. The next section covers tips for virtual success, including considering audio-only for meeting formats.

 

Steps for Hybrid Remote Success

1. Prioritize Feedback. Communication and planning, as always, are key to success — creating a strong feedback cycle is foundational for both. Build easy-to-use channels where employees and clients feel safe sharing concerns and ideas. Plan to review and apply feedback, then review again and continue the cycle.

2. Plan Meeting Formats. Distinguish work and time needed for collaboration from work and time needed for focused independent work. Planning work (including training efforts) enables you to assess the volume by type of work (collaborative or independent) to determine how often teams need to gather in-office, and to identify what individuals comprise those teams. Then take steps to improve meetings, whether in-person, by video, or audio only.

  • Be deliberate about the format. First, decide if there needs to be a meeting at all, then consider the format. Mixed-media attendance is often cited as inherently difficult to balance varying forms of attendance. Consider audio-only calls given previously mentioned findings, and the fact that it allows attendees to participate while walking or taking care of simple chores.
  • Tips for better meetings: (1) Prepare and circulate an agenda and follow it; (2) Consider using tech tools to facilitate scheduling them in first place; (3) Respect the start and end times, and encourage participants to plan for 5-10 minute buffers between engagements; (4) End with clear action steps that identify a deadline and who is responsible. Also, consider building in time to review materials and letting individuals attend only for relevant parts

3. Use Tech Tools. Take steps for cybersecurity, recognizing the heightened risk mentioned in the first section. From there, client portals and both law practice management and project management software will help communication and collaboration from remote locations.

4. Center Support & Inclusion. Communication matters both on the technical end behind adopting technology or implementing new processes and on the personal end behind adapting to the additional life pressures most of us have encountered. (See: How to prepare for the coming inequity of the hybrid office [Fast Company, June 2021].) Employees will need to feel safe to express their specific needs, employers will need to provide material support, and it can help to discuss and share tools for challenges common to us all, like:

 

Basic Alternatives

When considering alternative workspaces, planning is critical. For lawyers, confidentiality considerations must be central in planning for the design of the shared spaces. Other considerations around shared workspaces post-pandemic, including distraction and risk of infection are common to us all. Most concerns can be addressed — and remember that a healthy feedback cycle will help you figure out how.

HOTELING. Hoteling is a set up for workspaces that offers unfixed work stations to accommodate reservations as well as unscheduled drop-ins (again, remember that planning is key to success and unscheduled drop-ins are probably unideal). Scheduling space can be done like conference room booking, with the current assigned workstations for all individuals available to all.

DESK BUDDIES. Whether work stations rotate or are fixed, pairing individuals, particularly those who are only in-office for collaboration time, in shared desk or office space can help reduce the office footprint.

COWORKING, TEMPORARY AND VIRTUAL OFFICE SPACE. While WeWork generated a lot of buzz followed by a failed IPO, real estate mainstays like Regus have been offering similar arrangements to accommodate less-than-full-time office space needs. With unique confidentiality needs, lawyers can find coworking spaces specifically designed for the legal profession, like FirmVO and Dockit.

 

Related Resources:

Figure Out the Right Hybrid Work Strategy for Your Company (Harvard Business Review, June 2021)

Women of Color Are Disproportionately Impacted by the Post-Pandemic Workplaces (ABA Law Practice Today, July 2021)

Heidi Alexander on Why Flexible Work Should Forever Be the Norm in Law (LawSites Blog, June 2021)

The Post-Pandemic Workplace: An Opportunity for Change (ABA Law Practice Today, July 2021)

Don’t Make Me Go Back to the Office! (Legal Talk Network, July 2021)

6 Ways to Reduce Anxiety About Going Back to the Office (Fast Company, June 2021)

Ropes & Gray’s Reopening Plan Puts an End to the 5-Day In-Office Workweek for Associates (ATL, May 2021) 

How to Lead Your Team Through the Transition Back to the Office (Harvard Business Review, June 2021)

As Offices Reopen After Covid-19, More Companies Will Let Employees Work from Home or Hire Workers Who Live Far Away (USA Today, June 2021) 

The Psychology Behind Why Some Leaders Are Resisting a Hybrid Work Model (Fortune, June 2021)

5 Ways the Future Office Must Change According to a Workplace Technologist (CNBC, June 2021)

National Practice Trends 2021 — Remote work in spotlight (Wisconsin Lawyer, February 2021)

Nicholas Bloom is America’s best work-from-home expert. He says the remote work revolution is ‘only halfway through.’ (Business Insider, April 2021) 

What Apple and Google Executives Missed in Telling Workers to Go Back to the Office (USA Today, June 2021)

Tensions Rise as Return to Work Plans Gain Steam (CNBC, April 2021)

How to Handle Tough Conversations on Whether to Return to the Office (ABA Journal, May 2021)

We Still Need Conference Rooms Here’s What They Should Look Like Post-Pandemic (Fast Company, June 2021)

Microsoft Teams Is Getting a Bumper Update for the Hybrid Working Future (Techradar, June 2021)

The Rise of Working from Home (The Economist, April 2021)

Perks of Working from Home (Statista, June 2021)

Consolidated Workweek Gains Popularity Around the World (Bloomberg, March 2021)

Virtual Practice (Mass LOMAP Resources) 

 

   Free & Confidential Consultations:

Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can discuss concerns with a law practice advisor, licensed therapist, or both. Find more on scheduling here.

CATEGORIES: Client Relations , Law Firm Management , Leadership
TAGS: covid-19 , remote work , video conferencing , well-being

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