Obviously, people have access to email, Slack, Teams, video-conferencing, remote log-ins to their business’s DMS and more….but, that’s not really the main issue. The real challenge is what happens when your place of work is atomised and you, and all of your colleagues, are forcibly stuck at home, not just for a pleasant day away from the office, but for what could be several months with no direct institutional engagement.
Also, (see below), we should not overestimate lawyers’ flexibility when it comes to suddenly going 100% remote and digital.
While many people reading this site will probably have been living a super agile, super flexible life with a laptop tucked under the arm and maybe haven’t printed out a piece of paper in years, not everyone is like that. So, we should not get too carried away with assumptions that all of legal land will take to this like ducks to water.
Then there are the two other major points: first is the psychological impact of being stuck working where you live for a very long time. Your home becomes your office, again, not just for a day or so, or on your terms, but on a permanent basis until we hear otherwise. And this will be happening while friends and family may be falling ill and in some cases having to be rushed to hospital.
It would be foolish to ignore that, and all organisations are going to have to consider the mental health of their workforce in this time. For example, some larger law firms have 5,000 staff or more. But, the same goes for small startups too. Within all those many lives are just as many personal stories, all of which are now under additional pressure.
As one example shows, one contact is currently going through a divorce. Both he and his partner and children are all stuck in a small apartment for the foreseeable future – with calls to divorce lawyers going on at the same time and trying to do their jobs as well. Talk about a high pressure scenario.
Then we have the governance and operational challenge. Again, a law firm, or tech company, can cope easily with a portion of its workforce in a remote state. That’s easy. But, now make it last for months, for every single person.
No personal contact with the governance structure, reporting lines existing only virtually, no ability to really talk face to face when you feel you need to, no ability for the leaders and managers of the business to rally the troops in person and provide actual, live, support. Real empathy is hard to communicate over a conference call with bad sound quality and the noise of people in the background typing out emails.
In short, the fact that you’ve been able to work on business trips or at home for short periods is not really going to be the same as entire institutions atomising into a remote status, with all the very human challenges this will cause.
P.S. here are the current results of a quick indicative survey AL did online. As you can see, around two thirds of people are now remote. Although – and perhaps surprisingly – just under 12% of the survey sample said they’ll be staying in their offices, which seems both an unsustainable and very unhealthy scenario.
Any road, after collecting more views from across the market here are a range of people in law firms and legal tech companies who were kind enough to respond to requests for their thoughts. Hopefully their views help to provide some sort of ‘New Normal’ baseline in these unusual times.
First, this example is especially significant; one contact of this site who is based in a country under strict quarantine rules sent this in:
‘It’s now ‘Day Six’ of spending 23 hours a day in my apartment with two kids. There is food on the shelves and the children adapt quickly to online learning & web technologies. But working from home with the entire family home is reducing productivity by 20% easily.’
I.e. that’s a drop in the ability to work by over 20% already, and we are only a few days into this. What will it be like in May?
Below are a range of other views:
Partner, International Law Firm
The interesting thing I see is a generational difference. The oldies like me are still paper-based, we like to know where our stuff is, and we want to print documents to read them. I don’t like open plan because it’s distracting, but I don’t like working from home because I can’t talk to people.
So I’m not at all consistent. Lawyers seem to have adopted flexible working, but not followed all the logic of it.
My tech clients are far more comfortable being ‘decentralised’ businesses. This might change that for lawyers. If so, we could work much more with our colleagues in offices outside of London and in other countries. It’s interesting to consider what that would mean.
Sam Moore, Innovation Manager, Burness Paull
‘Before the current Covid-19 outbreak I worked remotely 2-3 days a week, and have done for about a year now. As my firm has largely migrated to the cloud over the last couple of years, the day-to-day impact remote working has on my work is fairly minimal. Many colleagues will however be experiencing remote working for the first time, and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of positive legacy this could leave for the future of flexible working.
Pros: working remotely allows people to juggle their responsibilities a little easier, and not worry as much about competing demands on their time. It can also be great for focus – I tend to save up large writing tasks for days when I work remotely, as I can work undisturbed with some background music. It’s also amazing how many minor distractions simply don’t arise anymore – although you need to be alive to new distractions which wouldn’t happen in your workplace.
It’s also great to no longer have a commute to/from work. Depending on your circumstances, this can add a couple of hours of available time to your day to spend how you wish. I also love having my dog around while I work!
Cons: you miss out on those chance conversations with colleagues when you bump into them in the kitchen, or the lift. In my role, a lot of what I do involves listening to people when they’re not happy with the status quo, and often the best insights come from those casual chats.
In an emergency situation like Covid-19, people should ideally be reaching out to their innovation leads for bright ideas about how to deliver their work more flexibility, but instead it can be a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ without regular check-ins via Skype, Zoom etc. Another con is that a lot of people haven’t engaged with these remote technologies properly until now, and most meetings will move at the pace of the least technologically savvy attendee.
Senior Innovation Exec – Global Law firm
Pros are of course flexibility, autonomy, and the feeling of being treated like an adult.
Cons are as you would expect – not much human contact, can’t walk to someone’s desk and ask a quick question, harder to build personal relationships.
Probably the hardest for me, in a global role, is time zone challenges for finding a window to stay connected.
Roisin Noonan, The Law Boutique
Pros of working from home:
- Ability to prioritise and knuckle down with BAU work.
- Space to think creatively about non-BAU work.
- Ability to do a bit of life admin on the side!
- Lack of team communication – no-one to check-in with or bounce ideas off.
- No office buzz.
- I’m a big people person and although I like the odd day working from home, more than one is not good for the psyche.
- I find generally that working from home gives you a bit of runway, setting you up to really hit the ground running once you’re back in the office to discuss all the cool ideas we’ve each had and progress things as a team. You can’t really have one without the other. By working from home on a long-term basis, there’s a risk you end up with everyone building up that runway without fully being able to run on it. We get around this by having regular team hangouts to replicate our time in the office.
Other challenges are:
- Having to work in the same flat as my partner – you don’t get the same space (physical and mental) as you do when you typically work from home.
- The mental challenge surrounding the question of when this will all end.
- We’re a really tight-knit team and it’s really important for us to always be communicating with one another. It would be difficult to do without that long-term.
Shruti Ajitsaria, Partner and Head of Fuse at Allen & Overy
I work from home on an ad hoc basis and think the following, noting that [until recently] I only ever worked from home for a day at a time:
– A&O has an excellent flexible working policy which has been in place for a number of years, so for many of our staff, working from home should not involve too much of a culture change.
– Our lawyers are well equipped to work from home and have the facilities they need to ensure they can work effectively and continue to provide the usual level of service to clients. This means that working from home and staying in touch with our colleagues and clients to carry out our work should not present a huge logistical challenge.
– We are already finding our own natural rhythm and best ways to communicate with our clients and teams.
– From a personal perspective, I’m very happy to replace my 1.5 hour morning commute with a bit more of a leisurely start and a chat with my children before they go off to school (rather than the frantic, harried send off they normally get).
– Also now that my husband has started working from home, it will be interesting to see how we ‘share’ the space.
– We are currently in an unprecedented situation and I think it will require flexibility and resilience to cope with an extended working from home situation.
– Maintaining the health and wellbeing of our staff will need to be a priority and we will need to focus on how to do that in a slightly different way in order to cope with them next few weeks. As a firm, A&O is doing everything they can to ensure teams continue to communicate with each other and ensure we support everyone as much as possible.
– The logistics of working on large matters with large teams and support staff (e.g. doc production/print room etc) will likely be challenging.
– Maintaining a cohesive team culture will be very important.
– I am already missing the opportunity to pop in and pick someone’s brains in an informal way – and we will need to work hard to recreate those opportunities. It is destabilising not knowing how long this may last for, and it makes it difficult to plan for.
Note, it is very early days and it is hard to predict how things will be play out over an extended period.
Now some tech company views – which overall are much more optimistic, probably because of a more ingrained remote-working culture that is quite different to the office-centred life of many lawyers.
Kaisa Kromhof, co-founder, Contract Mill
I work remotely all the time. Pros: are saving time from commuting, and cons: lack of social contact, but that still is fine because of the video-calls and slack chats.
Also our product is cloud based SaaS, so anyone can use it from anywhere with no installation. We are also able to train and on-board new customers with video connections only, thanks to the very easy user interface and the nature of the product.
Peter Richards – Ayfie
Working from home requires several key skills:
- Time management
- Ability to disconnect from your environment, as there are always distractions
As far as Pros and Cons:
Pros: no commuting, so the work day can be 90 minutes longer. Also, I don’t have to shave every day.
Cons: not having an available room in your flat or house to convert into an office. So lack of privacy and noise from children (if you have them).
Primary challenge isn’t working from home, but that schools are closed so the entire family is ‘working from home’. This has created a mini co-working environment in the flat and there are occasional fights for internet bandwidth.
Thus we’ve split WiFi access between our router and using our phones. Since working from home last Thursday, I now eat three meals a day with my family. I think that dishwashing powder sales are going to increase dramatically.
As a software company, we could maintain a ‘work from home’ policy for three months. We are all accustomed to using various online tools such as Microsoft Teams, Slack and Zoom across our various offices in Europe. The issue is not an “internal” one as we can work as teams within our company, the issue with an extended ‘work from home’ policy is external, as meeting with customers and prospects is critical to our growth.
Tom Bangay – Juro
The pros: no time wasted on commute; increase productivity in the a.m.; better for childcare, save money on commute/lunch.
The cons: you can’t beat face to face contact in business meetings. people can get bored/disengaged. Transparency over time can be difficult. You end the day having taken about 50 steps 🙁
Also, I don’t have a monitor here and I miss my colleagues/team; it’s also harder for the commercial team to close deals
We could do this indefinitely, but I wouldn’t want to (mainly because f2f is so important).
Tom Cahn, Eigen Technologies
Like anything, WFH is what you make of it. It is great if you want time and space to focus on a major piece of work or clear a major backlog of emails. But at their best, offices allow for impromptu interaction and collaborative working. For tech businesses in particular this organic interaction is invaluable.
How long could we maintain a ‘work from home’ policy? As long as we need.
We’d miss the office environment, but if the situation is extreme enough to demand 5+ weeks of WFH I’m sure we could do it. We already work across multiple offices and time zones, so it’s just taking the status quo that bit further. In fact our people are already rising to the challenge and setting up virtual social events to make up for not being in the office.
Rick Merrill, CEO, Gavelytics
I have worked from home before and these are the pros and cons in my view:
The sole advantage to working from home, for me, is the ability to focus on tasks without interruption. Working from home can make a lot of sense if there are discrete tasks that I must work on (e.g., reports to our board, financial models, strategic planning, etc.). Otherwise, any advantage gained from working at home is more than offset by missing out on the in-person interactions with the Gavelytics team.
The main challenges are: Managing my children. I, like many other members of our team, have young children who now need to stay home. Balancing their needs with the needs of the workday will be no small task.
Fortunately, software development lends itself to working from home. I expect the development side of our business to proceed more or less as normal. The other sides of our business, such as sales and marketing, new product development, etc., will be a challenge to run if this global disaster persists for months.
We implemented a mandatory work from home policy beginning on Thursday, March 12 last week. We’ll maintain this mandatory policy for the foreseeable future.
And now some advice and offers from tech companies. Here’s some good advice from Xakia Technologies.
Plan your team communications. You will need to establish a rhythm of frequent communication; to start, plan to touch base once a day. Think this through now, and identify a time that works across time zones and working hours.
Communication is crucial in a work-from-home scenario for several reasons. It maintains a collaborative atmosphere; it informs you of workflow and deadlines; and it engenders trust.
If you know and understand what the lawyers are working on, then your ability to trust that they are doing what they need to do goes up dramatically. Further, ensure [they] know they can and should call you as needed … It should not feel any different for them in terms of access to you.
Once you have outlined communications for your Legal Department, consider your other stakeholders. How can you stay in contact with the C-suite, with your business clients, with your external resources? If you are setting up remote systems quickly, no need to dally on calendar calculus; simply circulate your alternative contact information early and often.
Make use of project management tools like a kanban board and set a cadence of sending regular reports to stakeholders to visualize and maximize workflow.
Avaneesh Marwaha, Litera, CEO
Although many firms and companies are already working remotely, being prepared with everything needed for a remote work environment is crucial. The key pieces of technology for everyone are good video chat/meeting capabilities, access to work product and ability to work securely and safely.
We all need to effectively utilize technology to avoid the disruption of service or communications with our customers and clients. At the same time, we need to leverage technology to maintain and protect our culture.
Utilizing a video first mantra will assist teams in remaining close, intimate and will allow individuals to maintain a sense of openness with each other. In times of forced remoteness, maintaining a culture and safe environment is important. Technology has a huge role in that.
And finally, Legaler – the brainchild of Stevie Ghiassi, is offering the free use of its video communication platform for lawyers at small law firms.
If you’d like to check it out the landing page for the offer is here: https://legaler.com/covid-19/
Thanks to everyone for sharing their views and advice. As always, stay safe everyone.