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Workplace arrangements must evolve for legal departments

Law firms of all stripes are currently considering how best to adapt their WFH and remote working accommodations to suit the “new normal”. In-house legal teams need to do the same.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 19 May 2020 Corporate Counsel
Workplace arrangements
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The undertaking of daily legal practice and business can and will look vastly different in a post-pandemic world. BigLaw firms are fully cognisant of the evolutions taking place around them and are moving to change with the times.

This has become apparent on two fronts: first, reliance on technological platforms was a necessity, and second, WFH and remote working arrangements can and do work.

According to two senior in-house lawyers, legal departments must similarly move to adapt to the new normal and better accommodate staff needs and preferences in a post-pandemic world.


Why workplace arrangements must be adapted

Regardless of size, there are two reasons why in-house legal teams must move with the times, said senior in-house counsel Rachel Scanlon.

“Firstly, because everyone is working differently, so in order to get the work done and deliver value to clients and stakeholders, in-house legal teams must be prepared for webcam meetings, clearer communication by email, and responding remotely to demands,” she said.

“Secondly, the lawyers themselves now have different expectations around what working can look like, for both health and lifestyle reasons. Many people I have sounded out on this do not want to go back to working full-time in the office, and would prefer a hybrid model of part-office/part-remote working.”

Canon Australia chief legal counsel David Field said that the in-house realm was already making "extensive use" of flexibility prior to the pandemic, but that what may change is a "flipping of assumptions".

"We've moved from it being a matter of 'you can work from home if you need to be and you can still do your job from home' to 'you’re at home unless you’ve got a good reason to be in the office'. Post-pandemic, will we see a change where the default assumption is that the majority of office workers work from home?  Potentially, yes."

Lodestar director and general counsel Simone Tierney supported this, noting that technology allows in-house teams to be more spread out if they so wish.

“COVID-19 has provided the perfect trial to demonstrate that it can work (for some at least),” she said.

Moreover, making greater accommodations for WFH and remote working arrangements “reduces the impact on public transport and on our roads, allows lawyers to be more efficient with fewer distractions, enables in-house lawyers to meet caring/parental and other responsibilities and helps work/life balance, morale and the management of mental health and wellbeing.

“Working remotely doesn’t have to mean losing touch – we can still come together in person. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing – [firms] can implement WFH on certain days or for part of a week and the remainder in the office.”

What adaptations will work best?

Mr Field said that technology is readily available, and it has taken the pandemic for many workplaces to appreciate how best to utilise it.

"I think the key challenges I am seeing with extensive working-from-home are the quality of human interactions is not as rich as it can be face-to-face – you miss things like body-language and tone to enhance communications - and you miss serendipitous interactions, or the unplanned corridor conversation. I’ve been finding that, when we were all in the office, I was able to catch-up with a wide range of people without planned meetings. When we are all physically remote, you lose the unplanned corridor conversations that are actually really valuable," he recounted.

Ms Tierney explained that she has been helping in-house teams with the development of working-from-home policies, amendments to their employment policies and with tips on how to manage out-of-office staff.

“The key is to ensure that the legal team (and each member of the team) remains ‘visible’ within the business and, notwithstanding their remote working arrangement, that they are engaged and are accessible and connected to the business so they can easily be contacted for both formal interactions and considered advice as well as informal advice, such as general guidance, assistance with direction or for bouncing ideas off,” she posited.

“Having said that, remote working is not for everyone and if it’s not working for some of the in-house team, those arrangements should be varied or revoked.”

Ms Tierney argued that team leaders will have to ensure a range of things, including: “regular catch-ups between individuals’ lawyers and key business units/stakeholders to manage communication flow, expectations, requests and deliverables and [that] the in-house team has the right technology to support remote working with little to no impact on service delivery timelines, turnaround and processes”.

Furthermore, she said that leaders will have to ensure that the business “has a remote-working policy and that everyone is clear on expectations, including care arrangements for children/other persons, core work hours, deliverables, service levels, attendance at specified meetings; if working from the office is required on a certain day, etc.”

Ms Scanlon pointed to the fact that in-house legal teams are “increasingly” working in open-plan offices, sometimes with agile or hot-desking arrangements, which may need to be re-evaluated.

“Suitable adaptations are to revert to fixed desk locations (which can also have positive mental health benefits as people feel a greater sense of belonging), and to seek efficiencies in having video meetings where people stay at their desks rather than meet in a room like they used to,” she noted.

“As our understanding improves regarding how the virus spreads, there will be adaptations such as the amount of time you can leave an office area free before it is safe, and heightened awareness of the need to disinfect desks and office equipment, including common areas.”