Is the “New Normal” normal?

Can we strike the perfect hybrid balance to maximise productivity, training, culture and wellbeing outcomes?

Promoted by Elvira Naiman, Managing Director 01 February 2024 Big Law
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Pre-pandemic, the concept of a “hybrid” working model was not common parlance. Post-pandemic, it seems to mean somewhat different things to different generations and organisations. A recent culture survey of law firms in the US, which gathered over 400 responses from more than 220 different firms, suggested a significant challenge. Finding a hybrid model that works effectively across varying generations and firms is still a considerable distance from being universally accepted or approved. In 2024, for a large majority of firms in Australia, the hybrid working model typically offered two days of work from home and three days in the office, but it doesn’t appear to be applied universally across every firm and could be dependent on partner and team specific factors, meaning it is likely to cause disgruntlement. The survey suggests that many firms either do not want to or cannot enforce compliance from 100% of their employees 100% of the time.

The survey surmised that finding the right balance between remote and in-office work continues to be a challenge to many firms ultimately leading to dissatisfaction and departure. For the younger generations, the sticking point seems to be that firms largely did financially well through the pandemic when most people worked almost exclusively from home, and that period therefore reinforced certain work habits and perceptions about “free time”, working in your pyjamas, and the futility of spending up to 3 hours per day commuting to a job that you “successfully” did from home. That imbedded thinking is hard to reconcile with senior lawyers believing training junior lawyers, when they are working from home, is nigh impossible.

Many partners believe that in-person training is essential for young lawyers to deliver high-quality work. Additionally, they find that maintaining a strong firm culture becomes almost impossible when lawyers choose their own in-office days. Anecdotally, we have heard from lawyers that there are days they turn up to work when there is no one else on their floor. It becomes very hard to mingle or consolidate “culture” when that is happening. Others stated that “getting to know” new co-workers is definitely more awkward and harder post-pandemic. Part of the issues around “getting to know your co-workers” is that pre-pandemic people spent time together outside of work; having dinner and/or working late, there were more firm events and most people worked with an “open door policy”. It appears that some of our habits around cleanliness and personal or group hygiene are likely to continue to have a zeitgeist perseverance well after the pandemic has ended and that may continue to flow into the way we meet and greet, mask wearing, closing doors for “hygiene” reasons and so on.

A highly regarded HR manager recently told Naiman Clarke that his requirement to travel to the firm’s other offices once a month has dropped to “maybe once or twice a year” with those once-a-month meetings now occurring virtually. There is no doubt that whilst a to-do list can be actioned over zoom, as humans, we can’t discount the importance of physical interaction. Actually being physically present somewhere or meeting in person provides meaningful opportunities like being able to take a colleague for a quick coffee or check in on someone “in person” as to how they are doing. The ability to read body language “virtually” is somewhat imperfect.

As firms start discussing phasing out hybrid working, (with one notable “white-shoe” firm stating that new employees will be required to be in the office 5 days a week, although they will provide necessary flexibility to attend medical appointments and attend to urgent family requirements), what will happen to firm culture as some longer standing employees continue to enjoy hybrid working whilst the new staff don’t, and how long before most firms ask most of their lawyers to return to the office full time? In a world where “mental health”, “work life balance” and “wellbeing” are terms no longer being used anecdotally or casually, but are slowly being weaved more pervasively into legislation, it will be interesting to see what the end of this decade will actually look like in terms of a work model; hybrid or otherwise.

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