The Death of hybrid working?

The way we work has changed remarkably since 2020. Are we now shifting back to pre-pandemic working with the steady rise of companies returning to the office?

Prepared by Elvira Naiman & Jessica Fox

Promoted by Naiman Clarke 24 October 2023 Big Law
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Work from home (WFH) has become the new norm, but with the world slowly getting back to pre-covid sentiment, companies from a range of industries have been encouraging employees to return to the office, with the consensus being that this will add to a positive work culture, improved collaboration, better learning outcomes for Millennials & Gen Y’s, and ultimately productivity gains.

We hear from candidates regularly that the ability to WFH allows a break from the tedium of the office, improves mental health, increases productivity without the morning commute, and allows for a steady stream of work to be completed without someone interrupting them with needless chit chat. The Law Society of NSW recently stated “ Flexibility has the capacity to improve morale and job satisfaction. Providing opportunities to work flexibly may have a positive bearing on how solicitors view their practice which can translate into loyalty, commitment, diligence, and motivation.” The benefits to mental health are largely undisputed.

Many law firms globally have fallen into line with new accepted practices in other white-collar industries having settled on a hybrid model of 2 days at home and 3 in the office. Slaughter and May Partner Natalie Cook stated “Gone are the days where people had to sit at an office desk to wait for a piece of work to come in. There is now more freedom and agility in terms of working patterns, which can only be a good thing.”

However, despite the inherent human benefits we are seeing an increase in requests for employees to return to the office full time. A prominent managing partner recently told the press that “most tasks and roles are performed better in team environment” when asked about whether staff should return to the office full-time. A recent outlook survey by KPMG asked 1325 CEO’s globally about (amongst other things) their view of hybrid working. The survey results suggest that most Australian bosses believed that traditional white-collar roles will see a full time return to the office within 3 years. Collectively indicating that workers have until mid-2026 to bid farewell to hybrid working. At the heart of the sentiment is the belief that productivity has suffered- resulting in hybrid working being a trend of the past by the end of 2026.

Also recently, more than 50000 Australian employees participated in a survey where their opinions on 50 diverse working areas was posited. One of the questions was whether participants were less productive when they worked from home. Close to a third said that productivity depended on how they were feeling on the day. Nearly a quarter admitted they were less productive. The younger demographics were more likely to say their productivity depended on how they were feeling, whilst 40–50-year-olds got most work done when at home, and over 50-year-olds admitted they were less productive at home.

When you translate this data into the legal industry it aligns with anecdotal comments we hear from partners (many of whom have returned to a 5 day at work week), who say that the output of 2-7 year pqe lawyers can be inconsistent, and the most consistency they find comes from their senior lawyers (senior SA’s and Special Counsel) who are themselves experts in their field, require little to no interaction to get work done, and know how to get consistent output out of themselves- they are used to putting in the hours at the office and regardless of how they feel can knock out 6-8 billable hours in a WFH day. They are also probably the ones that are most likely to get interrupted at work by requests of assistance or guidance from less experienced lawyers in their teams- so working at home makes these lawyers very productive and efficient.

Where we land with Hybrid working is anyone’s guess. Australian Employees unlike their international counterparts are less likely to reward employees who return to work full time, so lawyers may not see any inherent benefits in volunteering to return to work from the office full time. It may be that the ability to be hybrid stays with Senior lawyers but is removed from juniors. Whatever the ultimate outcome we are in for an interesting 3-5 years as employers & employees navigate a “New” New-normal.

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