Returning to the Office: Using a Hybrid Environment for Balance and Flexibility

As pandemic restrictions begin lifting in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, law firms and tax & accounting firms are looking to create return-to-work policies that emphasise balance and flexibility.

The car manufacturing company GM’s post-pandemic return-to-work policy empowers the company’s business unit leaders to “take responsibility for their departments” and to determine how and when their teams work.

And, as restrictions begin to be lifted in the U.S. and other parts of the world, many more companies will enact similar back-to-work policies. Law firms and tax & accounting firms are also taking a similar approach.

In the early months of the pandemic, many lawyers appreciated the flexibility that remote work offered for self-care, well-being, and caregiving needs among others, according to the recent Thomson Reuters Institute research paper, Pandemic Nation, which analysed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on diverse lawyers. As the year wore on, however, attorneys, particularly those with a diverse identities, became aware of the difficulty of remote working from a career development perspective. Indeed, they soon realised that organic, on-the-job learning — especially around how junior lawyers can improve their performance — best occurred in-person and required scheduling time.

Returning to the office

Many organisations are struggling to create a workable hybrid model that meets the post-pandemic expectations of more flexible, remote working options, yet also ensures the culture of the organisation also is maintained.

To address this need, many law firms and tax & accounting firms are taking a variety of approaches. For example, Crowell & Moring has signaled to its employees that the firm is going to be more flexible, according to Marguerite Eastwood, Chief Human Resources (HR) Officer at the firm. Using its consensus-building culture, the firm’s leadership team is doing a lot of listening through surveys and personal engagement with its staff and lawyers at all levels, Eastwood says.

Friedman LLP, a top 40 accounting firm, is also remaining flexible. While the firm is encouraging people to return to the office, flexibility and balance are key, says Lindsay Gaal, Chief Operations and HR Officer at the firm. “We’re definitely going to be flexible and encourage employees to find a work structure that balances their personal needs while meeting their firm and client responsibilities and deadlines,” Gaal explains. “We want employees to feel accomplished personally and professionally.”

One of the potential downsides of a hybrid work model is the possibility that those professionals who are mostly working remotely — whether lawyers or accountants — could lose out. In fact, there is concern that these professionals could miss out in two ways: i) on the critical development opportunities and conversations that occurred in-person before the pandemic; and ii) on the increased chances that the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” phenomenon might take hold with assigners of work.

We’re definitely going to be flexible and encourage employees to find a work structure that balances their personal needs while meeting their firm and client responsibilities and deadlines. We want employees to feel accomplished personally and professionally.

To address these challenges, Crowell’s Eastwood explains that the firm will be taking “proactive steps to keep connected with lawyers across the firm and to ensure that work continues to be assigned through its practices’ staffing partners with a focus on the developmental needs of each individual lawyer.”

For those wishing to work fully remote, Crowell is leaning on its pre-pandemic experience and guidance, says Eastwood. This will include: i) checklists and guidance that describes the professional responsibilities of the person working virtually, the tax implications of working in another state, supervisory expectations, and strategies for developing client and firm relationships from a distance; and ii) a detailed memo that one litigator and aspiring partner created specifying what he was accountable for, including travel costs, and how he planned to meet the firm’s pro bono expectations, and cultivate and maintain important internal and client relationships.

Another potential option to help preserve a sense of community is to establish certain days of the month or the week when lawyers can come together in an office for in-person practice groups or office-wide meetings. This approach would afford those lawyers wishing to work in the office intermittently a significant amount of flexibility, and help maintain the firm’s culture, address the developmental needs of junior lawyers, and strengthen interpersonal connections among the lawyers and professional staff.

Friedman, according to Gaal, is also relying on its past experience in which about 10% of its staff working flexibly or remotely full time before the pandemic. However, Friedman is taking a different approach on the culture component, Gaal notes. “I think the mistake a lot of employers are making is stating we need to ‘preserve our culture’ when culture is not static, it is fluid and evolves with time and people,” she says, adding that it is the responsibility of the employer to set the direction and be intentional about any changes.

“We at Friedman recognise that we’re not going to have the same culture we had a year and a half ago,” she explains. “It’s going to be different, in a positive way. We just have to be intentional with the cultural defining decisions we make.”

The firm also has the opportunity to be more flexible in what it does with its organisational culture in a hybrid work environment, Gaal observes. “You can offer a lot more customised approaches to create an engaging culture for all different styles.”

Pandemic as the great equaliser

One of the unexpected benefits of organisations’ move to large-scale remote working for the last year is that the experience has been an equaliser for professionals who worked outside of employers’ hub offices and for individuals who worked remotely full-time.

Indeed, a virtual practice group meeting with a grid of camera views of colleagues makes a difference, even if it doesn’t follow the pre-pandemic model in which most people met in a conference room with a few people on the phone. In fact, according to Gaal and Eastwood, collaboration on their teams — which existed across the country before the pandemic and continued through it — has never been higher.

The author of this article is Natalie Runyon  Director of Enterprise Content and Talent, Culture & Inclusion Strategist in Market Insights for the Thomson Reuters Institute. Natalie’s article was originally published by the Thomson Reuters Institute, the Thomson Reuters thought leadership forum.

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