Hybrid working requires dynamic thinking for long-term success

December 05, 2022

The annual People in Law Conference 2022 took place in London in late November, with a great turnout and many law firm leaders in attendance. Williams Lea was pleased to sponsor this successful event that included sessions on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and diversity and Inclusion, and a lively and practical panel session on the future of hybrid working.

The plenary panel brought together industry consultants and law firm leaders who provided great insight in “what’s next” for hybrid working. We’ve captured our five favorite takeaways here:

Hybrid working is no longer a short-term adaptive change

Two years of constant flipping in and out of lockdown restrictions, social distancing and travel restrictions mean that many of the changes we had to make are now permanent in our lives and working patterns. The panel began from the premise that hybrid working is here to stay and that firms who have tried to reintroduce the pre-pandemic status quo have faced substantial resistance. As one panelist stressed, “Some firms want to go back to ‘normal’, even though normal is gone.” However, that does not mean we are now in a ‘post-office’ world. “At our firm the friendly, attractive and fun office environment is a big draw to people, who feedback that they enjoy their days in the office, while still valuing the flexibility they now have.”

The employee/firm relationship has changed too

The HR specialists on the panel provided a unique and too seldom mentioned perspective about the impact of the pandemic and hybrid working: There have been multiple key moments and milestones since the first lockdown that have shifted the underlying “employer/employee contract” and the prevailing war for talent environment we find ourselves in now is, in part, a result of that shift. Employees now expect an individual relationship with their employer, one that is tailored, personal, and unique to them.

Firms need to respond to different cohorts with different expectations

Everyone needs to avoid the risk of stereotyping and jumping to assumptions, but there are some clear trends now emerging from the much wider experience of, and research into hybrid working.  Many junior lawyers and trainees are looking for the social, buzzy, student-like work experience in and around the office and city that they were originally attracted to (and, in many cases, promised). There’s an important counter-fact to this point, though; Junior Lawyers are generally the most tech-savvy and naturally capable of using digital devices from anywhere.  Additionally, beyond the obvious demographics, the pandemic uncovered a whole, often previously invisible, cohort of people, some with intense family and caring responsibilities who found lockdown a relief or those with personal health issues or cognitive diversity whose work opportunities have flourished now they are supported and encouraged to work remotely.

Leading in a permanently hybrid world requires some re-skilling

As one of the panelists commented, “Hybrid shines a light on good, and different leadership.”  But too many law firm leaders have been trying to keep doing what they were doing, even though the workforce has already dramatically changed. Extroverted leaders may well want to spend more time in the office but can also be resentful of those who aren’t in, and there is evidence of some bias toward people who work in the same way and are in the office and visible. The skills required to manage a much more geographically distributed team, with an ever-shifting blend of virtual, in-person and hybrid meeting styles, using fundamentally digital processes and tapping into new levels of care and awareness about inclusion, diversity and unconscious bias have not necessarily been a priority in the past.  Now, they are essential.

We need to look beyond the short-term pros and cons and address the longer-term implications of hybrid working

Over the last few years hybrid working has been both a positive revelation for some and a negative regression for others. The longer-term implications of the pandemic on office workers are only just beginning to emerge. Many are causes for concern and we need to get a better understanding of them and respond as a priority; even the short-term positives around improved productivity could lead to longer-term burn-out, stress-related illness and resignation. There is a danger that we have stopped doing a lot of the checking in and virtual social activities we did during 2020-21; and this still needs to happen with distributed teams. HR leaders throughout the People In Law event were very conscious of the risk if a no-breaks, isolation, loneliness, long-hours, and an unbalanced culture is allowed to prosper.  For example, home workers suffering from the lack of natural movement around different spaces and environments (both in the office and on the way to and from it) that office working offers was one issue the panelists had in their sights to address.

At Williams Lea navigating and responding to the challenges and opportunities of hybrid working are central to our support for law firms. To learn more about the best ways to repurpose office space and activities to make in-office experiences more compelling, read our latest future of work brief, Mandate or magnetize: Finding the right approach to return to office policies and practices.

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