“Julie, we need to get our staff back to work!”
You wouldn’t believe how many law firms and accounting firms I’ve seen say those words over the past six months. For the record, your staff has been working incredibly hard this past year-and-a-half from home during lockdowns because of the pandemic. They’re already working. It’s not a matter of needing to return to work. It’s a matter of when, where, how, they are returning to the office.
A recent Bloomberg survey reports that workplace activity in major cities such as London, New York City, and San Francisco is still approximately 50% below pre-pandemic levels. And yet, monthly operating costs continue to add up for firms looking to find some sort of normalcy moving forward. A simple solution in the eyes of many firm leaders? Everyone needs to get back to working in the office five days a week. In fact, a new Ipsos survey published in July 2021 found that 27% of all “Covid remote workers” expect to be back to pre-Covid office hours within the next six months. As simple or inevitable as that may seem, that is one of the deadliest decisions any firm can afford to make moving forward.
Let me be clear: pre-pandemic office hours are outdated, ineffective, and in some cases, insulting to your staff. Lockdowns and work-from-home freedom opened a door that you simply cannot shut again as an organization. At least, not without significant blowback and a loss in market share. The New York Times reports that 49% of Covid remote workers were more productive while working from home, even with the same known distractions before the pandemic, such as kids, pets, technology distractions (Netflix!), and household responsibilities.
For the decision-makers who want a back to the office approach, I strongly recommend not trying to have pre-Covid office hours five days a week for three key reasons.
01 | You risk losing your female leaders and Millennials.
Job search firm FlexJobs conducted a recent survey that shows 68% of women would rather work from home than in a traditional office compared to 57% of men. The pre-Covid lockdown allowed so many of us to see how much we could get done without the constant distractions and interruptions that come with being around other people all day long.
The Covid shutdown opened the eyes of countless Millennials – many of whom are your leaders, managers, supervisors, lawyers, even senior partners in some firms. There are so many firms and companies who denied requests for YEARS from employees, especially Millennials, who knew they could do their work at home. As more of your top talent expects the freedom and flexibility to do remote work, firms who reject these requests will quickly see that same top talent walk out the door and right into your competitor’s lobbies.
Now, of course, I understand there is some work that absolutely must be done in person, such as trial preparation, depositions, and discussing intellectual property under NDAs that must be accessed only through a fully secure Internet connection. So, what’s a good solution, a true win-win for you and your staff?
Work with your team, not against them, to find what works for both of you. You can set a hybrid work strategy for your organization, but you can also empower your team leaders to set hybrid work strategies for their specific teams. When is the best day for their team to be on-site and what does that look like for them? What’s motivating your female leaders and Millennials today? It’s likely different from what it was before the pandemic. Finding a healthy compromise means you retain your top talent without sacrificing key principles of what makes your firm thrive.
02 | You’re going to lose billable hours if your team is back to pre-Covid office hours five days a week.
If your team members are commuting, they’re losing billable hours. Translation: you’re losing billable hours. Team members likely dedicate the amount of time blocked each day for work, and how many of those team members count their commute as part of this time block? What if you knew they were logging into their computers through their home office at the same time they would expect to get in the car? As soon as they log in, those are billable hours, unlike their commute, which typically isn’t billable.
So, what’s a good solution to keep billable hours up while still creating intentional connections in-person with your staff? Ask your team to consider dedicating some of their workdays to focused time – goal-oriented, fully billable hours, usually done in an isolated setting, such as a home office – and the rest of their workdays to collaboration time. This is where your workforce is back in the office for team meetings, training with role-playing scenarios, and mentoring sessions.
You may be surprised how much more productive your workforce is because their days are themed with a purpose.
03 | You’re stealing power from your firm’s vision of the future when you focus on where your team works instead of why you’re doing the work.
Pre-Covid office hours were only really successful in an environment where your employees expected to be in the office during set hours. That status quo completely reset during the pandemic. Everything was on the table as far as when your team could work, where they could work, and even what their expected engagement level was with their team members throughout the week.
Yes, having your firm’s staff working in person at the same office could be great for boosting morale, but that opportunity is past us now. The pandemic showed us all the ways we can work more effectively without needing to be at our desks every day.
Productivity is about how you work and what you do, not where you do it. Does it matter more that your staff is actually at physical desks with eyesight or earshot because “We’re paying good money to rent this place!” – or is it more important for your staff to know you trust them to do great work?
Without trust, your relationship with your team will consistently be transactional – and set to expire at a moment’s notice. This is your chance to see work-from-home or hybrid work arrangements as an opportunity to build trust, not an obstacle to growth.
Start by shifting the focus away from where your team is working to focus on why your team is working and how they’re doing their work. This does not mean you micromanage them by checking in every hour or even every day with a “What’d you work on today?” or “How’d you spend your day?” Have some checkpoints or KPIs you can focus on with your team, but more importantly, encourage them to share what inspires them to do good work with your firm.
The post-pandemic hybrid office setup is your chance to connect with your team and see how they’re holding up. How are they finding fulfillment in their work regardless of where they’re working? If you’re wanting to create a hybrid workplace, what would it look like for your team members to each be set up for success?
Be prepared – you may have to unlearn some key principles you’ve believed for years about building and leading a firm. Times are changing, yes, technology is evolving so quickly, but people are still people. By taking solid steps to create a win-win work arrangement with your team members, you’re protecting your bottom-line, empowering your top talent, and setting the stage for optimal engagement, collaboration, and results that will thrill your stakeholders.
What’s the Best Step to Create a Great Back to the Office Approach for Your Firm?
I work with law firms and accounting firms across the U.S. through my ReIgnite training and coaching program. This is a six-session masterclass guiding your driven employees to create a stronger, higher-performing, and more profitable hybrid workplace in less than 90 days. With my insight, you can turn your back to the office approach into the greatest competitive advantage in your industry. See what’s possible by visiting julieholunga.com/reignite.