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The changes needed to entice lawyers back to the office

The office of a law firm ‘wasn't always the perfect place to be’ pre-pandemic. Although firms are implementing numerous measures to entice people back into the office, there are a range of variables to consider when making the office more appealing.

user iconLauren Croft 01 November 2022 Big Law
The changes needed to entice lawyers back to the office
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However, that’s something Fionn Bowd, chief executive of boutique law firm Bowd, said depends on different groups of people and what they value.

Speaking recently on Legal Lightbulbs, she said that the idea of making the office better than home and making it more appealing and attractive was unlikely to be an easy feat.

In terms of whether being in the office will become more normal the further from the pandemic we emerge, Ms Bowd said that there are a number of different cohorts of people to consider.

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“You have a whole spectrum of people from [the ages of] 24, 25 through to 60 in the office. I think what the office was like before the pandemic is worth talking about. Because I think we can't really ignore that it wasn't always the perfect place to be before the pandemic, but there was no choice about being there,” she explained.

“When you're talking about the cohort that were in the office before the pandemic, you're asking them potentially to go back to a world that they were never particularly happy with in the first place. So, what can we do to actually improve what's on offer from what was there before the pandemic?

“I think all of those things need to be unpacked. And then I do think we have to ask this question, ‘Why do we want people back in the office anyway? Does it really matter? Why do we think it matters?’ And I think with that, we don't really have any data. We know what people are doing and I just think it's a bit early for us to really know what we think is the best amount of time for people to spend in the office and why, and what that looks like.”

Pre-pandemic, Ms Bowd actually researched the office environment, as Bowd has always been a pro-flexible working and pro-working from home organisation. This research revealed that people tend to need more focus time and less collaboration time — but that collaboration time needs a sense of trust and security, and safety in the people that they’re collaborating with.

“If you don't feel safe with the people around you and if you don't feel that it's going to be okay for you personally, it's going to be okay for your reputation, it is a really stupid idea. And everybody in the room and everyone in an environment needs to feel that equal level of safety and trust in the people around them. So, what does collaboration mean? What does it look like? How much do we need? And what are the kind of fundamental requirements for that? And I think probably, intuitively, it makes sense as well as what the evidence says that you do need this sense of safety and security and trust,” Ms Bowd noted.

“What is needed to create that sense of safety and security and respect between everybody in the workplace? And then that leads to how much time do we need to spend doing that? How much time do we need in the office? Why do we need it? What are we doing there? And so that sort of side of things. What are the blockers that are currently stopping people from coming in? And then let's not forget the issues in the workplace before the pandemic, which haven't been addressed aside from the flexibility aspect.”

In terms of the different issues and challenges with legal offices prior to the pandemic, Ms Bowd said that the amount of time lawyers were required to be in the office was particularly hard.

“The early mornings and the late nights, and the lunch at the desk, and the sense of being physically chained to the office space. And when not in the office to be completely available sort of electronically. And that's one of the really challenging aspects of just legal work generally. And again, I think it depends on what your cohort is. When you're very junior or quite junior, the office is actually quite terrifying,” she added.

“There is an inherent challenge going into an environment which is filled with hierarchy, which is filled with sort of unknown rules that you know you need to learn, social rules about your conduct and other people's conduct. And that can be quite terrifying and quite exhausting.  And there are so many rules and you're constantly trying to work out the moods of the people around you.”

In fact, in any organisation with a great deal of hierarchy, Ms Bowd said, there’s a statistically higher amount of bullying, sexual harassment and assault.

“That sense of feeling not necessarily safe or not necessarily secure and relaxed in the office can be caused by just ordinary working out social pecking order and how I engage with everybody here,” she said.

“But it can also be caused by much more serious risks to the person. And that's one of the areas that I think we've had the luxury of being able to ignore for the last few years because I think it's quite difficult to perpetuate that kind of environment online. Because you're going to create a paper trail, you're easily recorded. This is going to be much easier for someone who's on the receiving end of that kind of thing to be able to prove the activity.”

Offices have also become more individualistic, in a way, as cost-cutting becomes more prominent — making them less appealing for staff to want to come to.

“In the past, there used to be a whole sort of network and ecosystem of people whose job it was to support the fee earners. So, your job as a fee earner was just to earn fees, thank you very much. And then there was this huge support network of people whose job was to do everything else for you. And even things that seem potentially small are just really aggravating,” Ms Bowd added.

“Like the fact that there are no bins at any desks anymore. And you have to get up and move around the corridor just to put your rubbish in the bin or to take your paper to the shredder. And things like going to the photocopier and having to put in a code and then stand there, and wait for your thing to come out rather than sending it to the print room or sending it to your secretary, getting them to print it and having it delivered to you.

“There's been all this kind of cost cutting that's made going to the office a series of irritations. Even if you're not at all worried about other stuff that might be happening like bullying or whatever, going into the office, [means dealing with] the transit time and then going in and having this environment where nobody is there to help. You are there to do everything for yourself and you just have to constantly wade through the work environment, getting everything done with a series of irritations,” she continued.

In addition, having a “sterilised” desk without any personal items can also be a deterrent for some people, according to Ms Bowd — who concluded that people are more likely to want to be at home where they can personalise their environment.

“I can have a mood board and I can have all my holiday photos and I can have my cute little stuffed animal that's like whatever. I can completely personalise my environment,” she said.

“But I go into the office and it's sterilised. I've got this constant series of challenges and the office itself, there's nothing personal here to me. And there's no one here in the office, in the workplace who's here to help me do my job or to support me, or to help reduce the amount of time that things take for me to do. I'm just on my own. So, when you put all of those things into a bucket, it's hard to understand why anyone would voluntarily come to the office at all.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Fionn Bowd, click below:

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