LTRC Roundtable Discussion: The Future of the Office

Alexander Paykin (AP)Allison Johs (AJ), Lance Johnson (LJ), Reid Trautz  (RT)

1. From fully in-office, to fully remote, and everything in between, law firms seem to be settling into a hybrid model.  What are your expectations for the future of the office over the next five years, and why?

AP: I believe the hybrid model will only gain traction over the next 5 years. Less time spent commuting can result in much more time utilized for actual work, along with an increase to work/life balance leading to happier employees. A fully in-office model implies inflexibility and lack of autonomy for the employee, whereas a fully remote model implies isolation and total disconnect from the workplace. I do believe face-to-face meetings with colleagues and clients can help to foster a good work culture; therefore, a hybrid model provides the perfect middle ground.

AJ: I think the hybrid model is here to stay. Most law firms will continue to allow some remote work, but I believe that many will require at least a minimum amount of time spent in the office rather than allowing entirely remote work. The way that looks will vary widely depending on the firm’s size, geographic area, and practice areas.

LJ: IMHO, the hybrid model will become the dominant format for law firms. Some members have a type of practice that does not require collaboration and can be just as productive in a fully remote arrangement. (I’m thinking mostly of transactional work or government agency practices that are typically one-person projects.) Other members will have projects that require collaboration, coordination, and mentoring/review that is best done in an office setting, probably with access to one or more conference rooms.

RT: Many firms are already reverting to in-office only with limited hybrid options, although I believe this is short-sighted. The world has changed as a result of the pandemic, so going back to what is familiar will only postpone the need to move into the future. The differences in those two approaches will be apparent in five years.

2. What are the benefits you have seen, if any, for firms using a hybrid in-office/remote work environment?

AP: An increase in productivity, general morale benefits, freedom to work from anywhere, less sick days taken, ability to work around personal events.

AJ: One of the major benefits of allowing remote work is a reduction in expenses resulting from  a reduced need for office space. Allowing remote work also provides more flexibility for people with family or other personal obligations and reduces time wasted on commuting to and from the office. A hybrid model can provide flexibility while still allowing collaboration among colleagues who work together in the office. For some, remote work is more productive because it means fewer interruptions from colleagues and other office-related distractions. 

LJ: The folks I have seen in hybrid offices seem happier in many ways. Maybe happy is not the right word, “less stressed” might be a better descriptor.

RT: For offices that have fully altered work flow processes to fit the hybrid model, I see less stress and more satisfaction. For those that have not properly altered their processes, I see them reverting to their pre-pandemic work environment because that is what feels comfortable. I think those firms will lose employees and some profitability because they have not fully altered their work flow processes to meet the new world in which we now work.

3. What are the challenges do you see for firms seeking to implement a successful hybrid in-office/remote work environment?

AP: Difficulties with training and the need to utilize necessary remote tools. Lack of office equipment for home use. Trouble with communication and trust that employees are working the hours they claim to be.

AJ: There are a number of major challenges facing law firms who allow lawyers and staff to work remotely or with a hybrid schedule. Training and supervision are more difficult when done remotely, and it can take longer to identify or recognize problems when everyone is not working together in the office. Collaboration is more difficult in a remote environment. Brainstorming is more effective in person. For some, working from home provides too many distractions – seeing the laundry or dishes that need to be done or hearing the kids in the house after school makes it too difficult for them to get work done at home. Others find it more difficult to concentrate or pay attention in a meeting conducted online rather than in person. When lawyers are not together in the office, learning opportunities can be lost – younger lawyers don’t hear or see more experienced lawyers at work; they may not hear and learn from the war stories or have as many opportunities to observe how more experienced lawyers interact with clients, colleagues or the court. Impromptu discussion doesn’t occur, and networking opportunities are lost within the firm. It may be more difficult to establish a strong culture or camaraderie with those attorneys or staff an individual doesn’t work directly with. 

LJ: I can foresee that a hybrid arrangement might pose certain ego challenges. Those not always in the office likely don’t need a big office but may want one when they have to come in. That’s an overhead expense that the other partners will likely object to, particularly if they are always in the office. Partner-level hoteling will likely face some resistance.

Hybrid arrangements should theoretically allow a firm to reduce its leased space needs with an attendant reduction in net overhead. If so, how is that overhead savings translated into partner distributions? Do hybrid partners warrant a greater share of the increased profits because they do not have a large, dedicated office? Yeah, that’ll be an interesting distribution meeting to attend. 

RT: When the pandemic hit, firms sought client and employee input to quickly pivot to working remotely. Many firms now are reverting back to in-office working without consulting clients or staff, relying instead on what feels best under their culture. Going back to the “good ol’ days” rather than learning to move forward will ultimately hurt firms especially with retaining and hiring employees. Lawyers and their firms have much to learn about working successfully in a hybrid environment. Embrace it as your future.

4. From allowing full employee autonomy to choose the days they come in, to management controlling the scheduling of in-office work, how much control should employers exercise and why?

AP: Management should consider individual employee’s needs along with the needs of the firm and work together to establish a schedule that benefits all. 

AJ: I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question because so much is dependent on the size of the firm, the type of practice, how long the lawyers and staff have been working together and how well they know each other. I think when lawyers are starting out it is more important for them to be in the office. Sometimes calls come in or a new case or client comes in unexpectedly and the lawyers who are in the office are more likely to get those assignments simply because they are there and the partners see them. It is much easier to stay “top of mind” when you are present. Of course, that assumes that the partners are working in the office, too. I think it is important for new lawyers to observe more experienced lawyers at work, which is much easier to accomplish if they are working in person, rather than remotely. 

LJ: I think the in-office attendance will be dictated by the partner in charge of the client and the partner for the project. The range of possible projects and situations is just too varied to make broad generalizations.

RT: Remote work is not just about place but also about time. Firms should debate, discuss, and develop hybrid work policies that reflect their current values that recognize the changes in the attitudes of our workforce. Our 8-hour day no longer needs to be 9-5 to fit commuting schedules. We need to recognize those changes in conjunction with remote work.

5. What are the different models you have seen? Is there a hybrid work environment model that you would recommend and why?

AP: Fully in person, fully remote and flexible hybrid models. I believe a hybrid model best suits the nature of legal work because it designates in office time where you can ask questions and get feedback on your work, but also allows for more work to get done from home when not spending time traveling to the office.

AJ: I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” answer for many of the reasons listed above. I have seen all kinds of arrangements from firms that allow the lawyers to decide whether they will work fully remotely, a few days a week in the office and a few days remote, or full-time in the office. I have seen other firms require all of their lawyers to be present in the office on specific days of the week, with the option to work remotely other days of the week. I have seen firms who allow both lawyers and staff to work remotely and others who require staff to be on-site while the lawyers have an option to work remotely.

LJ: I have not seen enough different models to have an opinion.

RT: The model I am seeing in firms is two days in/three days out with most people being in the office on the same two days so they can maximize collaboration and relationship building. For those working from the office fewer than 3 days per week, they use common “hoteling” space rather than have a dedicated office, thereby saving the firm the cost of office space.

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