By -

A growing chorus of executives are trumpeting a return to office for all, but the on-the-ground reality for legal practitioners shows employees and forward-thinking firms still hold the balance of power.

The dramatic increase in hybrid or remote working that occurred during the pandemic represents one of the largest changes in Australian workplaces in generations. In professions like law that value face-to-face collaboration and hierarchical organisational structures, the switch was as surprisingly smooth as it was swift.

So entrenched have working from home arrangements become that 60 per cent of managers and professionals, and 37 per cent of Australians across all professions, regularly work remotely more than four years after the first pandemic-era lockdowns began.

Flexible working arrangements like these are enormously popular among workers – many people have indicated they would leave their job or seek alternative employment if they were not available – yet recent reports suggest employers are increasingly issuing return-to-office directives.

Almost nine in 10 Australian companies have implemented mandatory office days, according to a survey by recruiting firm Robert Half. Some commentators and research suggests that working patterns will eventually revert to pre-pandemic norms of full time in the office.

For the legal profession, the future of hybrid and remote work hangs on an ongoing commitment to new ways of collaborating, mentoring and, in a tight jobs market, attracting and retaining talent.

Lawyers working from home

Most lawyers currently work in some form of hybrid model. This is true globally, where data from research and consulting firm Gartner shows hybrid working is undertaken by 61 per cent of legal industry professionals around the world, as well as locally in Australia.

“Even before the pandemic, the likelihood that wide-scale remote work was going to become more popular was clear. It was trending before the pandemic, which accelerated that adoption,” says Aaron McEwan, VP, Research & Advisory for Gartner’s HR Practice.

Kim Chalmers, associate director at Amicus Legal Recruitment, estimates around 90 per cent of Australian law firms use a hybrid structure. “The majority of our clients offer two days working from home and three days in the office. Most firms have a day when everyone from a particular team comes into the office.”

These arrangements can also be less formal. “Depending on the team you work for and what the partners are doing, people don’t necessarily come into the office every week at some firms. It really depends on the firm,” Chalmers says.

Dr Felicity Bell, deputy director of UNSW’s Centre for the Future of the Legal Profession, agrees that firms across the country have maintained and adopted a variety of hybrid working patterns since the end of the pandemic.

“It ranges from arrangements requiring people to be in the office for a certain number of days or hours a week through to being more supportive of more remote working,” she says. “There are firms that are leaving it up to the discretion of staff, versus firms that are trying to set certain parameters.”

Flexible and hybrid

One firm that has so far adopted a relaxed approach to hybrid work directives is McCabes. Tim McDonald, a principal in the employment law group, says there are no fixed rules for when staff can work from home or are required to come to the office.

“We have long had a flexible work policy. We generally leave it to our teams to work out largely between themselves what’s going to work best,” he says. In fast-paced departments or areas of law where trips to court are common, like litigation, McDonald says working from the office is more common. When the work involves more written advice, some practitioners prefer to work at home.

“What we have found to be quite successful is trying to have anchor days so there are days when everyone is in at the same time so they’re interacting in person,” McDonald says.

The firm also runs professional development sessions, invites guest speakers to give presentations and puts on a regular Friday breakfast to encourage staff into the office. “It contributes to a feeling of belonging,” McDonald says.

This approach is what’s known as ‘flexible hybrid’, explains McEwan. “The companies that adopt flexible hybrid don’t mandate it, but they have a certain expectation or a percentage around time spent in the office and it’s left up to teams to decide what works best for them.”

He says flexible hybrid working patterns match work that needs to be done with a suitable location and time and are associated with “more purposeful collaboration” during times when people are in the office.

“People use the office for specific tasks – typically not to get day-to-day work done,” McEwan says. “One of the things that frustrates employees is if they’re mandated to come into the office and then spend their time doing Zoom calls. It makes the commute not make any sense.”

Indeed, he says, flexible hybrid is has “superior outcomes on almost every measure”, including improved productivity and performance, lower levels of fatigue, higher levels of engagement and – crucially for a profession like law – better staff retention.

Pushing for an office return

Despite the success of hybrid and remote working arrangements, there are rumblings about a widescale return to offices across Australia. There has been a significant uplift in the share of organisations that are mandating staff to be in the office for between three and five days a week, according to a survey by the Australian HR Institute. Big corporates like NAB, ANZ, Origin Energy and Commonwealth Bank are seeking to bring staff back to the office full time or on set days.

McEwan says a desire to reassert a perceived loss of control and unconscious bias can drive these sorts of high-level directives. “The average executive probably has a parking spot in the building, lives closer to the office and outsources domestic responsibilities to paid help or a full-time caregiver, so they’re not necessarily looking at the world through the same lens as somebody who lives an hour and a half commute away from the office,” he says.

Plus, senior executives often have “relational jobs” that are dependent on getting work done through others, and “lower levels of digital dexterity” owing to more mature age. “So you can understand why motivating or influencing somebody might in many cases feel easier if you are in close proximity to that person,” McEwan says.

There is, however, little evidence that law firms are set to require all staff to return full time, or almost full time, to the office. McCabes is a typical example: McDonald says the firm is keen to have more of its lawyers working on site more often but is reluctant to impose strict requirements.

“There’s a level of comfort with trying to get people to think about moving back to the office for at least part of the week, if not half of the week,” he says. “We’re not dictating that but as time goes on, it’s inevitable that it’s going to have to be regularised a bit more. We are constantly reviewing the way we can support our staff and meet the business needs.”

What workers want

McEwan says this is indicative of wider workplace trends. “Most of the data that we look at suggests that there’s a lot more rhetoric around the return to office than reality,” he says. “It’s not to say that there isn’t pressure coming from certain CEOs of organisations to encourage people to spend more time in the office, and some CEOs have mandated full return to office, but they are still in the minority.”

A central reason for this is simple – and pragmatic: many Australian professionals like working from home. Amid a widescale, pandemic-induced rethink about our relationship with work, wellbeing factors like shorter commutes and more time for leisure often rank higher on workers’ wish lists.

Recent research shows 78 per cent of Australian workers say they wouldn’t work for a company without a formal flexible work approach.

“There is a chunk of workers who are willing to forego a fairly large proportion of their annual salary for the opportunity to work from home at least some of the time,” Dr Bell says.

Gartner’s data shows location of work and the ability to work remotely are key drivers of attraction and retention for employees.

“I would say 99 per cent of candidates that we interview want that flexibility to work from home. In the last two years I’ve interviewed maybe two people who have said they want to work in the office five days a week,” Chalmers says. “Most employers want to give that flexibility. They want that to be a drawing factor for candidates to come to them.”

Indeed, economic conditions continue to give employees a bigger seat at the negotiating table. “Many countries are facing prolonged demographic challenges in terms of population and we’re probably looking down the barrel of decades of chronic worker shortages. That balance of power is unlikely to change,” McEwan says.

“Most of the organisations that have attempted mandating office attendance haven’t been successful. Mandated time in the office is universally disliked by employees, and it tends to have negative implications on talent outcomes like retention and engagement, and it’s more difficult to attract people.”

McDonald says that in a market where “law firms are competing for the best people”, not having “some deference to what people want is going to be a problem.”

Supporting junior lawyers

For some firms, supporting early career practitioners is a key area of consideration in assessment of hybrid work practices. Some leaders worry that junior lawyers are unable access adequate support and mentorship with so many people working from home.

“Law is traditionally based on an apprenticeship-type model where a lot of what junior lawyers are supposed to learn is meant to come from observing more senior lawyers doing their thing, whether it’s meeting with clients or just observing how they are in meetings, and being able to ask quick questions of someone when they’re passing by,” Dr Bell says. “To replicate that when some people are remote can be difficult.”

She says it’s important for firms to be intentional about facilitating in-person and remote opportunities for junior lawyers to connect with senior practitioners. “It’s about being in tune with what people want and not assuming that opportunities for collaboration will happen in the same way they used to with everyone being in the office all the time – because that ship has sailed.”

Chalmers says anchor or regular office days can be a simple and effective strategy. “Having in-touch days where you’re all in the office and you can ask a quick question, or talk about complex cases and do CPD lunches, can aid career growth,” she says.

There is also a case for swapping adjustments to the old way of working for an entirely new approach to remote team building and mentorship. Tomoyuki Hachigo, co-founder of Sprint Law, a firm that operates completely online, recommends firms to adjust the way they build and sustain workplace culture to accommodate the shift to hybrid work.

“You can’t just give someone a laptop and tell them to work from home and expect things to be the same,” he says. “You’re not building a culture that’s the same as a full-time, in-person office culture, so you have to be deliberate about how you go about it.”

Teams at Sprint Law gather for remote daily huddles each morning and staff members have a casual, one-on-one meeting with their manager every month. “There’s usually no agenda, it’s just to see how they’re going,” Hachigo says. “This means everyone in the company knows how their direct reports are feeling and can get to know them as humans, which fosters a culture of openness and connectedness.

“It’s not about how close senior leaders may be, it’s how approachable they are.”

Ultimately, Bell says, firms that can be flexible and adopt a forward-thinking approach are well placed for success.

“Hybrid work is here to stay,” she says. “I get the sense that it will grow as we’ll soon have a workforce that expect hybrid work because it has always been the norm for them. It will be interesting to see if the number of people who are happy with fully remote grows, too.”

McEwan agrees that the days of everyone working in the office all the time are not coming back. “The future of work is not full-time office attendance. Absolutely, almost categorically, we can say that it’s not going to be that,” he says.

“It’s much more likely to be hybrid.”