UK law firms are finding that office flexibility is vital for success

March 06, 2023

The first Legal Office and Facilities Forum (LOAFF) of 2023, hosted virtually by Williams Lea, focused on the different approaches law firms are taking towards remote working, bringing staff back to the office and using technology to help establish the new purpose of the workplace.

A panel of operations leaders representing top UK law firms including Ashurst, DLA Piper, Herbert Smith Freehills, and Stone King, joined an audience of over 80 senior law firm operations professionals to share their ideas, findings and opinions on the how they are reshaping the world of work for their fee earners and support staff.

Here are the top five key takeaways from the discussion:

Office attendance policies and guidelines are not one-size-fits-all

The main topic of discussion was on the current state of play for hybrid working. Regardless of whether workplace attendance requirements are labeled “policy” or “guideline”, the panelists agreed that their office attendance strategies were designed to magnetize, rather than mandate staff to return to the office. “Our state of play is we don’t have a policy, we have a guideline, and the guideline is 60% in-office and 40% homeworking, and that’s not necessarily across the week,” said Rosa Ward, Head of Operations at Ashurst. “What’s been happening is a variation of things. We’ve had a minority of people who haven’t been back to the office, and we have people coming in 100% of the time.” Tassy Vincent, HR Director at Stone King, added, “We’re talking about maintaining flexibility. It’s a world that continues to change. We don’t have all the answers, but we’ll keep taking stock as we go along.”

The consensus was an expectation of staff turnout to be between 40% to 60%, but there was general agreement that flexibility was needed as it depended on location, team, day of the week, personal responsibilities, and other external factors.

DLA Piper currently has an operating guide that expects 50% of their people to be in the office on any given workday, but Andy Bradshaw, their Director of Property and Workplace is seeing a wide variance in attendance behavior among law firm employees, “What we’re starting to see is a pattern where you’ve got some people who are coming in the office most days, and then a layer of people who are in very infrequently, more like once a week. There are quite different ways of operating that get masked by the general stats.”

Trust and promoting digital equality are key to avoid regressing back to the old ways of working

There was a clear sentiment among the panel to innovate and progress with hybrid working, rather than revert to the way they worked before the pandemic. Offering hybrid working can attract and retain top talent at law firms. As Tassy Vincent pointed out, “At the beginning of the pandemic we were all talking about trusting our people. This [hybrid working] is the big evolution. I’m a bit apprehensive about slipping back to those old norms and I’d love us to be in that fully magnetizing mode. Showing that there is more opportunity for hybrid is very appealing…that’s something we can have in our pocket and really sell to people.” She also added that encouraging more virtual team meetings to promote digital equality and minimize presenteeism, while using the office as a place for collaboration are among tactics being used “We’d given all sorts of guidance about encouraging team meetings to be remote, and to have that equality. There’s a bit more work there to really encourage that social time, all together as a group, or just to have real rules of engagement.”

However, despite the drive towards hybrid working, there has been some evidence to suggest that in some locations, and on some days, attendance is heading back to pre-COVID levels. Stephanie Roberts, Herbert Smith Freehills’ Operations Director for the UK, US and EMEA, highlighted varying attendance levels across the globe, but pointed out that when reporting on the total headcount of each office and occupancy levels separately, then comparing them to pre-COVID levels her firm found that for some days of the week, their office attendance reached the same levels as before the pandemic: “Hybrid working existed before the pandemic, so there was never always going to be 100% of people in the office. When we compare our weekly attendance to our pre-COVID levels, we’re actually seeing 100% of our pre-COVID attendance levels on some days.”

Sensors are providing vital insight into office attendance and reshaping the workplace

Some law firms have adopted the use of technology to track real-time office attendance, where in the office people are working, meeting room usage and activity levels. DLA Piper is among the law firms who are using sensors. This technology is now affordable for many mid to large sized law firms, and is, allowing operational leaders to make informed decisions on repurposing the office. As Andy Bradshaw pointed out, “We’ve got good data, which tells us not who’s in the office, but how many people are in the office, and where in the office, what sort of activities they’re doing, e.g., in conference rooms, what type of spaces are being used and what spaces aren’t being well used, so we can make available less of the spaces that people don’t ever occupy and more of those that are popular.”

Even though individual data protection is a concern, Stephanie Roberts highlighted that measures should be in place to adhere to GDPR when it comes to analyzing and reporting on occupancy data, “People know we have access to data, but we don’t go down to name level. Detailed occupancy reporting is managed by our HR teams trained on GDPR. We report down to job level, but it doesn’t go any further than that.”

There is a greater acceptance of business support staff working remotely

With multiple factors affecting office occupancy, panelists deliberated on whether law firms are seeing a difference in attendance between business services teams and legal teams. The general answer was that, similarly to the variation in different legal practices, it depends on the team and the role. “There seems to be a greater tolerance of business services working more flexibly,” said Andy Bradshaw. “I wouldn’t say it’s entirely consistent to split the organization into those two categories, because in the same way, I see different practice groups are in the office more than others.”

Rosa Ward supported this view when emphasizing the importance of deciding the frequency of in office attendance required. It is important to identify each role within the organization, and how much of the role can be done remotely vs. in office: “On the facilities side, we have people who do need to be in the office 100% of the time. The practice executive teams who support our partners follow the firm’s guidelines, which is 60% [of time in the office]. Our team executives are in four days a week, so at 80%, and we’ve moved our document production teams to 100% working remotely.” She also pointed out that it also depends on the partners, “There will be partners who feel that people have to be in 100% of the time, and there will be partners who say it doesn’t really matter. So, there is a variation across offices.”

Law firm leaders are taking steps to help employees deal with external factors

Along with providing greater flexibility, firms are showing a higher level of compassion around the external factors affecting people’s lives and connecting them to hybrid working. Economic headwinds, the rising cost of living, and transport disruption are among some of the factors affecting the fluctuating and varied levels of office attendance. Some law firms have run internal surveys for guidance for flexible working, one of them being Stone King. As Tassy Vincent pointed out, “We found from our survey and we hear from other HR colleagues and in other firms, that there are various motivators. It could be financial reasons for being in the office versus not being in the office, such as travel costs. We are hearing from people with caring responsibilities, whether it’s for elderly relatives, or children. It’s really nice just to have that checkpoint. For many, that’s something they’ve never had in their professional career, and that’s golden.”

To learn more about how companies are finding the right balance of remote and in-office working, download our future of work brief, Mandate or magnetize: Finding the right approach to return to office policies and practices.

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