September 2021 was scheduled as a key date for ‘return to work’ in the business world. Many City based law firms published their plans to return to the office whilst also committing publicly to working differently going forward. In fact, 88% of legal companies surveyed by TOTUM (totumpartners.com) said they would formally commence hybrid working, with 75% saying they would be making permanent changes to working policies.
Hybrid working is not a new term or practice. At the 2021 UK Workplace Design Show that took place this year, Jack Pringle, a veteran architect and interior designer stated that the first hybrid working design project he had implemented in London was now over 20 years old and that the uptake for hybrid working had been very slow ever since.
That was until the recent pandemic which accelerated plans and provided everyone with a crash course in hybrid working. Suddenly offices were abandoned and employees learned to do their jobs utilizing digital resources available to them. Paperwork in offices was inaccessible for most, as moving it to home addresses or going into the office to access it, was too much of a risk and impractical.
If hybrid working was possible all along, why has there been such a delay in implementing this? When change is needed and at the start of any project, a sense of urgency must be established. The pandemic created undeniable urgency. A power shift also seems to have taken place during lockdown (The Guardian), with employees having enjoyed the many benefits of working from home, including saving money, time and a better work/life balance. Productivity levels were reported to have remained stable, with some firms stating productivity to be at an all-time high (forbes.com). This has resulted in employees favouring home working and companies accepting that flexible work could be a longer term solution.
Forbes recently reported that companies who focus on their workers will win the war for talent. Concerns over losing talent to the competition are valid with some law firms offering more flexible working options than others. However, according to TOTUM’s 2021 survey, 57% of law firms surveyed had a preference to have staff in the office for at least 60% of the week from September. This has risen from 8% back in March. This indicates that more firms are doing a ‘U-turn’ and are wanting to see staff back in the office. How will they attract staff back in without losing them?
To encourage staff back, firms are following the likes of Amazon and Google and turning to office designers to make their workspaces attractive and interesting. In fact, 82% of law firms surveyed (totumpartners.com) have confirmed major redesign plans to incorporate more meeting rooms and break-out spaces. 71% are also introducing hot-desking.
The one thing that could prevent law firms offering an agile working environment is their dependency on paper. Lawyers are prolific users of paper with an average of 10-15 metres per head being found in legal offices (ClearSpace). Paper acts as an anchor in offices and will prevent firms from being able to properly implement agile arrangements. Many law firms are realising this and have committed to being ‘paper-lite’. Some firms are targeting 75%+ reductions (ClearSpace) in filing and succeeding. Removing paper in offices will prevent bad filing habits being presumed once staff return. In addition, real estate will be released which will assist with an office re-design or downsizing ambitions.
In conclusion, hybrid working has now been proven to work in the legal sector. Paper usage has been at an all-time low which has resulted in the sector ‘catching-up’ with firms in other sectors who have successfully worked paper-lite for years. Hybrid working has the potential to work on a long-term basis, particularly if the abandoned paperwork in offices can be eliminated enabling employers to reinvigorate their offices into more modern agile environments.