The Legal Intelligencer - The Lasting Impact of COVID: The New Law Firm Working Environment

The COVID-19 global pandemic brought the workforce to a halt in early 2020 when government shutdowns mandated employers to send employees home and cease operations. Seemingly overnight, employers were faced with mounting challenges that caused some companies to shutter their doors forever while others were forced to adapt as quickly as they could to new workplace restrictions. Suddenly, in an industry that has stymied work-life balance for as long as it could, law firms were required to make uncustomary decisions that allowed staff and attorneys to work remotely. Fast forward 18 months and law firms have been able to gradually return to the office—some quicker than others and some doing away with the hybrid workforce altogether. But a hybrid schedule, the combination of remote and in-office work, has had an impact (both positive and negative depending on which side you are on) on how employees feel about being required to work in the office full-time. Employees are now craving the flexibility given to them after the pandemic hit and are jumping ship when law firms are doing away with their pandemic-imposed work-from-home policies. Even though some law firm executive committees have happily restored their face-time requirements and no longer allow for hybrid working, law firm leaders will be remiss if they do not take a long hard look at what that will mean for the 2022 workforce and beyond.

After almost two years of working remotely, law firms have been challenged to rethink the traditional work model. The massive shift to remote work helped to reveal the value of attorneys and staff having the freedom to work from home even if it’s part of the time. As a followup to the Forbes article “ Going Hybrid: The Future of Work Is Here,” according to a  Microsoft’s 2021 report, 73% of employees surveyed expressed a desire for flexible remote work options post-pandemic, and 66% of businesses said they were considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments. While some firms are transitioning to a more flexible remote work option, others are eager to return to a more old-fashioned workforce by bringing their employees back into the office. The law firms who do not adapt to the new demands of the post-COVID workforce, may run the risk of losing their employees who became accustomed to working remotely, and splitting time between the office and home by working a hybrid schedule. Many employees no longer want to work for an employer who requires them to be in the office full-time. Some employees are even considering looking elsewhere if their firm doesn’t extend a remote work policy. Offering a hybrid schedule to attorneys and staff is critical if your firm wants to continue to attract and retain diverse talent.

Law firms should consider not only how their attorneys and staff lives changed since the pandemic, but also how the needs of the firm changed. Shifting the work model and allowing employees to work from anywhere may impact the team’s culture. As firms emerge from the disruption of COVID-19 and begin utilizing hybrid work environments, firm leaders are seeking a culture that combines what made their firm successful in the past and to create new values for the future. Building a culture for the firm that reaches everyone across various locations is important. The “new normal” workforce must allow for inclusion, collaboration, work-life balance and flexibility. As firms continue to navigate through the post-pandemic workforce, the culture of the firm must change to keep up.

One major challenge to this new workforce is maintaining a “teamwork” mindset when employees are rarely physically together. During the height of COVID and long thereafter, the solution was adopting regular video-based conference meetings on platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to foster that sense of togetherness. While videoconferencing has become the new normal, it is not the only answer to keeping teamwork alive. Let’s not forget the challenges that videoconferencing brought us (“I’m not a cat,” Stray Jurors and Pantless Attorneys and many other gaffs). If you can recall the pre-pandemic work life, many employees complained about how “that meeting could have been an email or a phone call” and the attributed drop in productivity when too many meetings were scheduled disrupting an employee’s workflow. While teams do remain hybrid, firms should think twice before requiring every meeting to be a videoconference and instead consider sending emails and picking up the phone in order to prevent videoconference meeting fatigue. Firms should evaluate the need for virtual gatherings, especially the fun employee engagement activities, and, where possible, try to connect in person to keep up the team spirit and bolster morale.

Yet another consequence of the pandemic has been the impact on employee mental health, especially those employees of color. It’s been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people of color are dying from COVID-19 at a higher percentage than Caucasian people. During 2020, with high unemployment rates and racial tension, people of color were pushed to seek help for their mental health issues. In addition to last year’s global pandemic, the African American community continued to endure more killings by police: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Andre Hill, Manuel Ellis, Rayshard Brooks and Daniel Prude. Despite the push for people of color to seek professional help to address their mental health issues, many are reluctant to because of the stigma around mental illness. It’s extremely important that law firms support all of their employees (while many firms have wellness programs aimed at attorneys just as many fail to have a similar program for staff). In addition to mounting issues for persons of color, law firms should continue to keep at the forefront those employees who have been living and working from home—alone. A growing percentage of employees who were forced to live and work from home alone have had an increase in mental health issues. Firms can support their employees by listening and seeking to understand issues facing them in the workplace and at home. Mental health is about the overall emotional and mental wellbeing, which can include both good and bad elements. By becoming fully engaged and working with employees who suffer from mental illness we can help them overcome the challenges that have contributed to added stress (and most likely reduced productivity) at home and in the office.

With these growing challenges has come one of the most important lessons firms have learned during this pandemic: the loss of valuable human capital. Without retaining key talent, firms have no chance at remaining competitive in this ever-changing landscape. Paying attention to employee needs and understanding what motivates them—and acknowledging how the firm is or is not responding to those needs—will help firms identify individuals are most at risk for leaving. People are leaving their jobs in search of positions that have less burnout, more flexibility, better overall treatment and, yes, sometimes more money (remember studies show that most people are not motivated by money and only responding to that aspect of an employee’s wants attributes to continued turnover). As many positions are now going unfilled for months, strategies can be developed to persuade individuals to remain on board. Identifying those valuable individuals who may be looking elsewhere can be accomplished by keeping the lines of communication open and friendly, and fostering a healthy professional relationship with direct reports.

As we continue to move through this unprecedented period in history, it is important to remain aware and to carefully observe and study the changes to both the work world and our private lives. Challenges must be analyzed and met quickly and strategically. We must address business needs and compassionately guide employees and co-workers through difficult times. Only through working together as a team, can we succeed.

Reprinted with permission from the November 18, 2021 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.