If remote and flexible working are the ways of the future, retaining connection to one’s firm may become more difficult, writes Henry Kalus.
So much has been written lately about the “new normal” working environment in response to five lockdowns in Victoria, and months of working from home throughout Australia.
Media reports of the “death of the five-day office week and commute”, and surveys showing a significant preference for working from home, are regular occurrences. This is an issue for the legal profession and many firms which have made significant financial investments in new and bigger offices.
Business leaders are quoted as saying that “forcing people back to work would be a mistake”, that they are “hearing loud and clear from their employees that they want to work remotely”.
But I am not sure that any of this is necessarily true or accurate. Having formed working-from-home habits over many months, what would anyone expect the answer to be?
Habits are hard to break, and the time to be making decisions for the long term is not while we are working from home, but after a period of being back in the office. To make a proper comparison, we need to experience office life again, with all the benefits it brings. But if the answer is still that staff want to work from home, then law firms should be asking themselves, “Why?”
If staff are saying they would rather work from home, then surely the response from ,managing partners, CEOs and HR managers should be, “What can we do to encourage you to prefer being in the office?” and “How can we make the office experience more meaningful?”
I am sure that all of us employers can do more.
If it’s a given that human contact is a positive, and that working together has benefits, then perhaps it’s time for law firms to reset priorities. Should billable hours, and maximum profit, continue to be the measures of success, as it is for many law firms? It might be for equity partners, but it’s unlikely to be the most important measure for everyone.
Sure, profit is important, but perhaps success should be measured by outcomes that are best for the collective. Positives that impact each and every person in the firm. Employers can do so much to make a firm successful for everyone. Rethinking what the office experience should be could do a lot for its people and should also benefit the firm.
After all, what is a law firm without staff? And what is work without connection and common purpose?
I am a fan of working from home some of the time. There are benefits, for sure. But if working from home for most people, most of the time, is the way of the future, what hope is there that people will remain connected to their firm? What hope is there that staff will get real satisfaction and validation if they are at home most of the time? And what values will be promoted if everyone works remotely?
At a micro-level, there is so much that can be done. Creating environments that compel interaction, that promote a collegiate environment, where successes are shared, where people get to know each other and enjoy the company of others, where mutual respect is a given, are not difficult to introduce. And the positives are enormous.
But, at a structural level, this probably won’t happen to the degree required until employers acknowledge and believe that the firm works for the staff just as much as the staff work for the firm. That the responsibility (and, in fact, privilege) of every law firm is to enable staff to lead their best lives. And, most importantly, employers and managers must recognise that as human beings, everyone, and I mean everyone, is equal.
It is, after all, the truth. Perhaps when this fundamental shift is made, staff will want to return to the office.
Henry Kalus is a partner at Kalus Kenny Intelex Lawyers.