LL Looks At… Working from home

Will this short-term solution become a long-term reality?

August 4, 2020

6 min read

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What’s going on here?

The Coronavirus pandemic has undeniably impacted all our lives in one way or another. One of the biggest impacts has been the swift move to home working across multiple industries. Working from home has now become the norm for many workers. From 9 April 2020- 20 April 2020, the OPN reported that 45% of adults in employment had worked from home at some point in that last week.1 To compare, less than 30% of the workforce was working from home in a 2019 ONS study.2 With some home working for the first time, it may be worth looking into home working in a post-Coronavirus world, with its current success potentially altering current flexible working policies.

Benefits of working from home

For many employees who are working from home, one of the main benefits is not needing to commute. This saves the employee time and money, as well as helping to reduce one’s carbon footprint.3 If flexible working policies are made more commonplace in the near future, such benefits would have a profound long-term impact on the individual. Productivity could increase due to the extra time individuals usually spend commuting, that could be used to enjoy family time or go to the gym instead. In turn, benefits may also improve employees’ mental health too.

Employers would also be able to see a sustained benefit of home working policies. By having more employees working from home, costs could be driven down by requiring smaller office space and lower costs associated with that office. Facebook have also suggested that their employees can work from home if they wish, but would have to accept a lower wage, depending on their location.4  While providing employees with a flexible working opportunity, Facebook have shown how it can benefit the employer with reduced costs. Although, it would seem unfair to place a disadvantageous condition on a policy, such as flexible/homeworking, which may benefit the employee for other reasons.

Continued isolation?

There is definitely a risk of homeworking enhancing employee isolation. The ability to speak to colleagues in the kitchen, or bumping into someone in the corridor, is an important social aspect of work. The burden, therefore, falls on the line manager to ensure that employees are not feeling socially isolated, and are able to strike a healthy work-life balance. Although whilst homeworking this may be difficult to manage, and a clear line of communication between the employee and line manager would be needed.5 The need to implement new technologies or set up a “checking-in” system could help mitigate that risk.

For others, though, homeworking has the ability to prove that they can still be productive and efficient employees, despite being at home. This can be a huge development for parents or those who have caring responsibilities, who have previously been denied generous flexible working strategies. The ability to take advantage of more homeworking post-Coronavirus may help those who otherwise felt distant at work.

As we at LittleLaw covered in April, Eversheds Sutherland have launched an app for its employees to use during the pandemic, in order to have a sense of togetherness.6 The isolation that is felt at home could be mitigated by such initiatives from law firms, alongside social events over video calls. The social element of work is really important for many employees, and for home working to become a viable long-term alternative, the feeling would need to be replicated. For example, Goldman Sachs offers cooking classes via Zoom, virtual prayer sessions and virtual story time for children. Linklaters, the law firm, launched virtual choir workshops”.7 Incorporating such events in order to help employee wellbeing at home can go a long way to ensuring that employees do not feel isolated and the increased move to homeworking is smooth.

Home working for law firms

Private practice law firms (especially magic or silver circle firms) have been known to have lavish and extensive offices, providing a number of facilities like a gym or food shops for their employees. The offices are also there to impress clients. As a result of COVID-19 homeworking, law firms (and other client-based roles) are being forced to have meetings across Zoom with a somewhat comparatively unimpressive backdrop. What this sudden homeworking has shown, however, is that business can happen across borders through technology, without the physical need to be there. What may have been limited by distance before, is now (due to no other alternative) simply conducted online. Zhang Xiaomeng, professor at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing finds lawyers the “ideal candidates for agile working”8 as the “core work involves communication, research, administration and critical thinking, all of which are tasks which do not generally require any specific physical presence.”9 Although, this does not account for the team-based nature of the job, or the litigation.

Solicitors are often known to work within teams, and the lack of physical presence may make the job more difficult.10 Similarly, those working in litigation most likely won’t see a long-term shift. Although courts are able to operate online for now, their presence beyond preliminary hearings (as they were generally used before)11 is unlikely.

However, is this really a viable change for a profession so deep rooted in its traditions, like the legal sector? In 2019, Legal Week found that 72% of those at firms with more than 1,000 fee-earners spend some time working from home, with nearly half of those doing so three days a month or more.12 Although firms seem to have a working from home strategy in place, it may not work as a long-term or more frequent strategy. The importance of client interaction and nuance of negotiation can be easily lost over video calls.13 The client care nature of the job cannot be accurately replicated by technology and would require a large disruptive change to the sector. We may instead be looking at an “administration-only” move for home working.

LittleLaw’s Verdict: Flexible working will increase, but slowly

For home working to become the new normal, a lot of change would have to occur in a small space of time. Not only is there the physical change of the workplace (and the technology involved with that), but there is also the new mental state employees would have to have. The switch to working from home would give a new meaning to work-life balance and require a permanent office-like set-up at home.

It’s likely that most people will be itching to get back to the office, even just to return to some sort of normalcy. However, once the dust has settled and life is a bit more like it used to be, I believe there will be some move towards being more adaptable to flexible working policies. Homeworking has been successful, despite being unprepared. Therefore, with a measured and well-planned move towards homeworking, the result can hopefully only be more positive.

Whether we will see a significant shift in the legal sector is still quite unknown, with the profession well-known for its “in-office” presence and client treatment. Although, the stress associated with the legal profession will hopefully be eased with more allowance for flexible home working policies. Whilst key client contact may still require a physical meeting, law firms may begin to turn to remote measures for cross-border clients to ensure swifter and cost-saving business.

Report written by Harina Chandhok

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