Office working – out with the old and in the with the new

For years, millions across the UK mobilised each midweek morning to make their way to the office. Nobody questioned the exorbitant costs of crowded trains, or the sanity in sitting in the same traffic jams day after day. The boom in homeworking brought about by Covid, however, has slowed and a return to the office is gathering pace, with flexible workspace giant IWG reporting a 54% increase in visits across their UK estate in 2022.
It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean that long commutes are back, but hybrid working has very much become the norm, and many are choosing to combine working remotely with visits to regional offices and flexible workplaces closer to home.
New patterns emerging

The transition to hybrid working was always going to be a challenge – convincing people to swap their work-from-home existence for a return to the daily trek to the office is a tough sell. It’s also become clear that lawyers are like many other professionals in that they can be effective outside an office, so there’s little benefit in insisting on outdated practices that may well negatively impact talent acquisition and retention.

Recognising the productivity and profitability gains enjoyed during lockdown, many law firms have rid themselves of the old ‘9 to 5 – Monday to Friday’ model and moved to a 4- or 3-day office week. Footfall data available from IWG supports this and shows the transition to hybrid working has brought a three-day office week, with Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday by far the busiest days with up to 50% more people choosing to work from the office on these days and from home on either a Monday or Friday.

Mobile phone activity harvested between 2019 to 2022 by PlaceMake.io across 500 UK high streets reinforces the polarisation of the modern office-based working week, but the promise of an extended weekend isn’t the main attraction. The promise of quieter trains and roads may be factor, but it’s the flexibility afforded by Covid that enabled greater control of work and home commitments that people don’t want to lose. 

What about culture?

Critics of hybrid working point to collaboration, connectivity, and culture as good reasons staff should be in the office. Advances in technology can be put forward to mitigate the first two, and the reality is there is little to separate the culture of law firms. A culture based upon long hours, presenteeism, limited flexibility, hierarchy, and hours worked rewarded above results is one perhaps few will miss.

Agile practices are the way forward

Having embraced the freedom to work remotely previously unavailable, legal professionals returning to the office part of the week will allow for the reinstatement of established practices and continue to offer employees and clients flexibility.

Whilst the data shows employees are favouring Tuesday to Thursday for their office days, law firms need to retain agility in their hybrid working. Mandating minimum and specific in-person workdays removes the very autonomy people have come to enjoy and would be counterproductive in selling the firm as a great place to work.

Financial considerations include making the office desolate outside of designated days and wasting money on lighting and heating premises that nobody’s in. Conversely, many firms may have adapted their office capacity to reflect hybrid working, so everyone descending on the office at the same time will put pressure on resources and remove scope to make future space rationalisations.

In a wider context, dictating when staff are in the office creates a boom or bust economy for the local businesses that rely on office workers for their revenue. Income would be consolidated across fewer days and lead to some of the same challenges facing the very firms on which they depend.

Allowing colleagues to choose the days they work from the office gives firms the ability to schedule meetings or deliver training on any day, without the need to negotiate or make special arrangements. Clients have also adapted to hybrid working patterns and no longer see face-to-face meetings with lawyers and advisors as essential to receiving high levels of service. Limited days in the office still gives clients access to partners and associates to allow for relationships to be developed, but transactional elements can just as easily be executed online.

Covid has brought to the fore the fact that work undertaken exclusively from the office in the past can now be completed just as easily – and perhaps better – from home. Hybrid working practices vary between firms, but there seems little doubt that retaining the flexibility to adapt hybrid working policies is the best route for law firms to take.

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Authored by

Andrew.1
Andrew Leaitherland Founder and CEO
Although Andrew is an employment lawyer by training, over the last fifteen years he has built up extensive experience in leading M&A activity with professional services firms including leading the listing of DWF Group plc on the main market of the London Stock Exchange. Andrew uses these skills to advise strategically on inorganic growth opportunities for all types of professional services businesses, in conjunction with other members of arch who support on the necessary legal work. Andrew is also the Chair of The Legal Director and a NED of Summize which gives him great insight into how the respective businesses can collaborate to further the interests of our clients.

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