Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Return to Work 2.0

Return to Work 2.0

What does province-wide reopening and relaxation of mask mandates mean to you?

Many lawyers, particularly those at small firms, were able to continue to work through most of the lockdowns in a more or less traditional way. Many larger firms, however, sent everyone home at the beginning of the lockdown because office work could not be managed safely due to space configurations and sheer numbers.

JSS Barristers, who generously provides Assist with office space, has allowed lawyers and staff to work in the office according to schedules, but it is usually very quiet when I come by to pick up mail and check on things. Most people appeared to be more comfortable with working from home than risking exposure to the virus.

My family, which has grown over the pandemic to include one son’s fiancée and another son’s girlfriend, has experienced diversity in work arrangement. One of the six of us has not worked from home at all (apart from some zoom conferences from home), one returned to his office in an essential service in May of 2020, two have returned to work and then returned to home-based work at least once and are now back to office work, and two of us have been working from home since March 16, 2020. One of us who is working from home hates it and can’t wait to get back to the office, and one of us is quite content with working from home.

I suspect many families and other cohorts have had similar diversity. While we have all gone through the pandemic together temporally, the way we each experienced it is not the same.

This continues to be true as more workplaces are bringing employees back to central offices. Some lawyers and staff are excited to go back (especially after last week’s heatwave when the value of an air- conditioned office sky-rocketed), while others do not want to go back to the way things were before.
How do lawyers feel about returning to the office? A recent survey published by  Above the Law provides some interesting metrics. Of their survey respondents (about 600 lawyers from across the US from Big Law firms and law boutiques), almost 80% said that they would choose “Permanent Work from Home Flexibility” over a 20% pay raise. And almost two-thirds (63%) said that they would choose “Permanent Work from Home Flexibility” over a 30% raise!

Of course, we know that firms are not going to be offering 20 or 30% raises as an inducement for returning to work in offices, something most employees did without a second thought before the pandemic. But this survey illustrates how much many lawyers have appreciated the flexibility that working from home offered.

The Above the Law survey also asked lawyers what they dreaded most about returning to working from their firm offices. The top three responses were:

  • Commuting (77% of respondents)
  • Work/life balance (57%--I assume that this meant loss of work/life balance)
  • Professional Dress Code (35%)

It also asked lawyers what they were looking forward to most about returning to work, and the top three responses were:

  • Seeing colleagues in person (60%)
  • Office resources (43%)
  • Being out of the house (40%)

True confession: I am the person in my family who has been working from home since March 16, 2020 and could continue indefinitely. I dread my commute—one of the biggest wastes of hours spent breathing—but what I dread most about returning to office work is separation from my dog. We have been together 24/7 for most of the pandemic. My return to office plan may involve gradually increasing the length of time I am gone each day over a period of weeks, and perhaps ask my board if I can work from home occasionally.

But this survey also didn’t identify what to me is the biggest benefit of working from a central place: enhanced communication and sense of teamwork. Perhaps this is subsumed in “seeing colleagues in person”, but I believe that both teamwork and positive culture are enhanced when we can pop into each others’ offices spontaneously and share questions and ideas. I don’t know about you, but it is easier for me to fire off an email than to phone or set up a zoom meeting and I default to what is easier. While we have done perfectly fine through the working from home period, we will be better as a team when we are in person more often.

So, as an employee, I like working from home, yet as a manager, I think in person interaction is important. Welcome to the duality that is post-COVID return-to-work planning.

My conversations with Alberta lawyers show that there are many who do not want to go back to the “same old” pre-pandemic work world. As in the Above the Law survey, lawyers are valuing their flexible time and feel they have better work-life balance. Most hate the idea of commuting during rush hour. Some have had their most productive period while working from home as there are so many fewer interruptions—you can leave an email to sit for ten minutes but it is harder to avoid the person who is standing in the door of your office!

I have always believed that there were ways of practicing law that did not involve 40 to 60 or more hours per week in a central office. In fact, I spent more than half of my 34 years as a lawyer in alternate work arrangements, from a reduced hours arrangement in private practice to job sharing a senior corporate counsel in-house role to operating a small practice out of my home, before returning to the regular world of employment and then landing my dream job. Dare to dream!

If you are an employee who wants to forge a new arrangement, here are some suggestions, based on my experience working through alternate arrangements and advising clients about these options:

  • First, make a list of what you like about working from home and what you dread about returning to the office. This is an important step in helping you design your proposal. Successful alternate work arrangements are custom-designed and not off-the-rack!
  • If your issue is largely with your commute, and its effect on your work-life balance (not to mention your blood pressure), one option is to propose a work schedule that involves working from home until mid-morning and then staying in the office until the drive home rush ends.
  • The trick to this, and in fact all alternate work arrangements, is that you have to be flexible so that you can meet all reasonable expectations. You can’t change when morning chambers is held, and you may have to agree to in-person meetings earlier than you like, so you will have to show flexibility to ensure that client needs and workflow are not impeded by your schedule. I know professionals and lawyers who did this successfully pre-pandemic, and there will likely be more receptivity to this type of hybrid arrangement now that working from home has been normalized.
  • While there has been a lot of discussion in the media about how we want to bring our pandemic learnings to improve our workplaces, it is easy to forget that your employer does not have a duty to accommodate a personal choice--whether you have a disability or family status which would require accommodation is beyond the scope of this blog. Before starting the conversation with your firm or employer, carefully consider the business case—the “what’s in it for me?” question that your employer is entitled to ask.
    • I am excited to hear about firms who are trying to implement some work-from-home days on a regular basis, and although this is a positive move for work-life balance, not all firms will be able to offer something like this across the board. You may be in the position of having to pitch the type of alternate work arrangement you want, and you will have to make a business case for it. Sometimes the best business case is that it is absolutely neutral to the firm, but sometimes you may have to show a positive benefit to the firm.
    • In my first alternate work arrangement, I agreed to a target of 1200 hours, two-thirds of my firms’ 1800-hour target, in exchange for 55% of salary. Remember that your employer has overhead beyond just your compensation. From my legal practice of advising employers about human resources issues, I believe that showing sensitivity to the employer’s position is important to your credibility. So, think about how you can make your proposal financially attractive to your firm: would you require less support from an assistant? Could you move to a smaller office?
  • Not all alternate work arrangements have to involve lower targets or reduced salary. I have talked to many lawyers whose production was higher than ever while working from home. You could pitch an arrangement where your target increases and, by virtue of not commuting most days, you would have better work-life balance and you generate more revenue for the firm.
  • Be prepared for the reality that out-of-sight can mean out-of-mind. You will have to consider how you will keep your profile visible within the organization when you are working remotely, and others are in-person at the office.
  • Think about your time horizon—is this something you want to do long-term or is it more of a transition? A trial period followed by assessment is likely appropriate.
  • Consider whether this arrangement changes your track. Would your firm or employer consider you for partnership or promotion on the basis you are proposing? Do not be surprised to hear that they would want you to return to a more conventional arrangement in order to advance. This may change over time, if alternate work arrangements similar to what you are proposing gain acceptability, but be prepared for this.
  • And, finally, because there is no guarantee that your proposal will be accepted, start the process with a soft discussion with someone in a management position that you trust. Putting in a formal proposal which is rejected out of hand can create awkwardness.
Law firms and legal employers may have concerns about alternate work arrangements. After all, law has been practiced by people in central offices for a long-time now, and face time has been a valuable component. It isn’t surprising that there is some resistance to change.

However, law has seen many changes over my career, and many lawyers, firms and legal employers are open to trying something new as long as they know that client needs will be maintained or enhanced. As we have learned over the course of the pandemic and lockdowns, it is possible to manage employees who are working remotely. We may see increased use of technology, which already exists, so that employers can manage performance as appropriate (and in compliance with privacy laws.)

We need to share more stories of successful alternate work arrangements, so here is one of mine. When I left private practice, I took a role as half of a job-share at a multi-national corporation. By complete fluke, my partner and I were a perfect fit. We had both been securities lawyers at large firms, we had sons, we even had the same china pattern, and when our law department brought in an industrial psychologist to enhance performance of our large and diverse group of lawyers, he noted that our personality test scores had all the same peaks and valleys without knowing that we were a job share. Whatever one of us started, the other was in sync and could finish it.

We began the experiment as independent contractors at a fairly low rate of pay. When we achieved success, we were offered employment and were promoted to senior corporate counsel, which involved a large raise. We worked on transactions, and we did presentations to the Board of Directors, and we did it for about eight years.

If you are anxious about returning to a central office or are part of a management group and aren’t sure how things will go in the new normal, you are not alone. But do not panic—take a deep breath and think about what could work, both from an individual’s point of view and that of your firm. And you can always call me if you want to run ideas past me or we can connect you with peer support volunteers who have also negotiated alternate work arrangement.