Hybrid working: ‘Presenteeism’ has changed – you need to adapt

Since the lockdowns, I have seen the legal sector largely move on from a culture of presenteeism to a much more flexible attitude around ‘being present’ in the virtual and physical workplace – that is to say, available, willing and championing productivity.

Matthew Kay

But as firms battle in an increasingly competitive environment to win clients and retain staff, law firms and legal teams are seeking to perfect hybrid working. While many firms and in-house legal teams agree that virtual working has boosted productivity, diversity, wellbeing and opportunities to work on international projects more seamlessly, some have become increasingly concerned about the impact of ‘empty’ offices. This is not just related to their bottom line. There are also concerns about the impact on collaboration, culture and professional development.

Research from 2021 found that full virtual work could impede collaboration in businesses, even if remote communication tools were used firm-wide. A study by economists last year found that those working from the office spent 25% more time on career development activities than those working remotely. Research into Microsoft employees in 2021 found remote working led to individuals working in ‘siloed ways’, creating detachment between employees within the company.

Therefore, over the past couple of years more firms and in-house teams have introduced mandatory office days to claw back these in-person benefits. Yet some firms have reported that some lawyers are still not coming in, and the problem has become more acute.

More UK law firms recently announced that they would start monitoring employee attendance via swipe cards. For some, it was cited as a useful way to gauge how much office capacity was required before relocating or designing their workspace, but for others it was introduced as a last-ditch tool to compel employees into the office on required days by sharing this data with managers and HR.

Law firms and in-house teams are now at a critical juncture. A hardline push for office attendance risks reinvigorating presenteeism, rather than the purpose of enhancing company culture, collaboration and development. To employees, a mandatory push for office working could appear as a manifestation of the corporate anxiety that employees cannot be trusted. The Joy of Work author Bruce Daisley illustrated it well: ‘It begs the question, what is work? Is the employees’ job to get something done… or is it to look like they’re getting something done?’ Monitoring office working runs the risk of creating ‘distrust, which can lead to anxiety and stress, undermining mental health and job performance’, according to LawCare chief executive Elizabeth Rimmer.

Linking mandatory office attendance to performance reviews could demotivate lawyers who have achieved great wins for the firm while working remotely. A recent LinkedIn poll by CIPD titled ‘people management’ found only 27% of employees were more productive working from the office. In a separate study, it was also found that chatty colleagues, internet issues and too many meetings were among the main in-office distractions. No wonder some lawyers remain unenthusiastic about mandatory days, given the pressures of legal work which requires high concentration and minimal distraction.

The opportunity to work from home through lockdowns led some lawyers, who previously could not work remotely, to realise they could get more done from home with less stress. Working from home allowed lawyers to better balance other responsibilities such as childcare with the demands of client projects and long hours. According to studies, job satisfaction in the profession has increased. Because lawyers have been able to improve work-life balance, the reluctance to give up some flexibility for mandatory office days is no surprise. These are some of the main reasons why people have sought a contract lawyering career at providers such as our own.

So, how do you engage staff with mandatory office days and perfect the hybrid working balance for the bottom line? There are countless studies which show remote working can have huge benefits for workforces when structured properly.

Working in some law firms and in-house teams requires the willingness to work long hours, but maybe it needs to be re-emphasised by firms what is expected from working in the office, and what lawyers can focus on working remotely in order to get the most value from engagement with hybrid working cultures. For example, hold essential meetings and team socials on office days, while focusing remote working time on document reviews and emails. A degree of acceptance needs to be communicated to employees that working in the office may mean they cannot work as methodically as they do at home, going from one task to the other, sometimes without interruption, and that this is OK.

Law firms should also be assessing and reassessing individual needs in order to retain talent. Employee working habits need to be contextualised to understand why mandatory office working is difficult for them. Is your company culture generally discouraging about flexible working for school pickups, for example? Are the practice heads really promoting the firm’s ethos of flexibility day to day? If your lawyers are willing to put in the hours but need some flexibility, listening to their concerns and making adaptations means you may improve their mandatory office attendance because they want to give back.

Managing this issue remains a huge challenge for firms and in-house teams. However, it is worth considering how internal processes could be changed to recognise individual challenges – and how office monitoring could be perceived – in order to get the most from a hybrid workforce.


Matthew Kay is partner and managing director of Pinsent Masons Vario, London

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