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Returning to a new normal – is working from home here to stay?

Before COVID-19 reared its head, leading to mass lockdowns in all major hubs across the country, the traditional law firm model did not necessarily embrace the practice of employees working from home.

Generally speaking, there was negative perception of employees working from home with concerns about productivity and client service.

The government mandated lockdowns forced working from home arrangements on the majority of the legal industry. Unsurprisingly, the sky didn’t fall in. Productivity remained steady or increased, client service standards didn’t slip, and many law firm processes were made more efficient through necessary investment in better working from home technology.

As the lockdowns are coming to an end and Australia is looking to open up again to the rest of the world, law firms are faced with a choice to either revert back to the traditional working in the office model or embracing the benefits of having employees work from home.

In approaching this decision, law firms should reflect on the working from home learnings and experience from both early career lawyers and more senior practitioners.

For the more junior lawyer, working from home presented many challenges.

Firstly, junior lawyers were unable to learn through osmosis. No longer were they being pulled into meetings, sitting in on phone calls or watching senior lawyers run files from start to finish.

Junior lawyers missed out on key learning experiences during what is the most significant growth phase of their career. They also missed out on key social and networking events that allow them to feel connected to their team and the industry at large.

Secondly, junior lawyers seeking support from senior lawyers was more difficult. No longer could they simply present at your office door to get the information and assistance they needed in an unobtrusive, timely fashion.

While working from home, the junior lawyer needed to be comfortable calling, and possibly interrupting, a senior lawyer or partner, which was daunting for some and prevented efficiency in the sharing of information.

Senior lawyers, partners and managers also faced barriers to effective team management during the forced working from home experiment. Ensuring that their lawyers had enough work, and tracking workflow, became a completely online function, sometimes presenting communication difficulties that come without a face-to-face conversation.

It became even more crucial for senior practitioners to ensure they were giving clear instructions and making sure the more junior lawyer knew how to perform the tasks given to them. Making themselves available to junior lawyers and making sure they felt comfortable asking for help was also a challenge.

Senior leaders and managers were also presented with difficulties in managing employee entitlements. For example, sometimes employees would communicate that they were unwell but, since they were working from home, they would continue to perform work or be available.

It was unclear whether the employee was taking personal leave or working. Perhaps employees felt pressured to work, in circumstances where they should have taken the day off to recover. If so, that is problematic as it is not conducive to high levels of wellbeing.

There was also confusion where employees were also responsible for the care of children while working.

As most parents will attest to, caring for children whilst working productively is extremely difficult. Even telephone conferences with clients can present a challenge in this environment, if the background noise of children playing (or complaining!) can be heard.

Where to now?

For most legal environments, working from home to some degree is here to stay at all levels of practice. Working from home arrangements are now being used as an attraction and retention tool by many firms, particularly as all professionals are looking for more flexibility in the way they work.

It is a balancing act for senior leaders and managers to overcome the issues presented by working from home. Currently, the hybrid working arrangement model is popular, where employees will work from home for part of the week, and in the office for the rest of the week.

Firms will need to consider the potential complexities of working from home arrangements such as, appropriate mentoring and supervision of early career lawyers, team cohesion, the management of personal leave, working hours and the care of children.

Lawyers will need to consider, perhaps for the first time, whether working from home is appealing to them. It will be interesting to see who thrives in a working from home environment and who reverts back to working from the office as time passes.

This article appears courtesy of the Queensland Law Society Wellbeing Working Group. Belinda Winter is a Partner at Cooper Grace Ward and Deputy Chair of the working group; Jack Bristed is an early career lawyer at Cooper Grace Ward.

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