‘The notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past,’ Barclays’ CEO, Jes Staley, said recently. And he is right. Even after the initial surge of Covid-19 cases is over we will continue to live in a world of social distancing for some time to come, and that means big changes for the legal sector and its focus on office life.
The Practical Challenge
Let’s take the example of a person who works in the commercial legal sector. Their law firm, or legal tech company, may not occupy every floor of their building, but it is within a large office where anything from hundreds to thousands of people may come to work each day.
First, there is entry to the building. With social distancing likely to remain set at 2m, just lining up in single file to get into the building and pass through security gates will create major delays. And that’s just a small issue compared to the rest of it.
Then come the elevators. Barclays has suggested that these little air conditioned boxes that go up and down inside an office all day and allow the building to function, will need to be limited to two people at a time. Anyone who has entered a building that demands elevators to get to your floor at the start of the day knows how congested this can be.
Decreasing the number of people who can use an elevator from a dozen or more to just two will, QED, increase wait times by six. And then you have the additional crowd congestion problem that will be created in the building’s entry area as people wait, but also try to remain apart from each other.
In short: this will mean even longer lines of people in single file, 2m apart, snaking out of the building, with wait times of an hour or more to get to their floor in order to keep people safe.
You could stagger arrival times, but in large buildings with hundreds of people that may not have too much impact. Also, some people will be able to walk to their floor, albeit also using social distancing on the narrow stairwells.
So, just starting work could be incredibly slow and stressful for many. Then we get into the actual office. Most offices these days have large areas that are open plan. In many cases people are crammed together. They will need to be 2m apart, again, and that will be tricky.
One solution is to forcibly reduce the number of people that can work in the office. Some countries have suggested a 30% occupancy rule for enclosed spaces, allowing enough room to be apart from each other. So that means 70% of people can’t come to the office even if they want to.
And, what happens to everyone else? Asked to work from home? Perhaps. How does the business decide? Meanwhile the rent for that big space that only 30% of staff use will still cost the same.
And, is it even really practical to social distance in an office, even with a 30% rule? Modern offices are self-contained boxes with narrow corridors that are often only just about 2m wide, with many shared facilities, and all wrapped up with a shared air conditioning system.
Look at meeting rooms, for example. While some meeting rooms are very large, plenty are not large enough to safely hold a meeting with 2m between each person. And will clients even want to come to your office in any case?
And now consider this: it can take several days for a person who is infected with Covid-19 to show any symptoms. Many people show no symptoms at all, but can still infect others.
In this confined, cheek by jowl, office environment, infecting others really has to be seen as almost guaranteed if anyone comes to work who is infected. In short, an office is a giant petri dish for the virus if it arrives there.
What To Do?
If we take the above as the baseline reality, then what can companies and law firms that work in large offices do? Naturally, there can be social distancing, plenty of hand sanitiser, regular deep-cleaning of the office during the working day and other sensible steps.
But, would that be enough? Look at this scenario: one young and healthy person comes to the office with no symptoms, they are however infected. They are responsible, but inevitably the virus spreads in such an enclosed environment. Now what does the business do?
As other people show symptoms the business can ask them to stay at home, as one would expect. But, still, others without symptoms will be there in the office.
Unless everyone who comes to work can show they have had the disease and are now clear, or can show on a daily basis they haven’t got the virus (which at the moment is impractical given the lack of testing kits and the time they need to provide results), then you have to work on the assumption that people coming to an office may be spreading the virus.
Is This What You Want?
Putting aside the real challenges of using public transport to get to work, do you want to be in an office where you know there is a realistic possibility that fellow colleagues may have the virus?
Once we have a vaccine and all 7,800,000,000 people on the planet have been inoculated successfully, things may look different. But that is a long way off.
Moreover, there remains debate about variations in the virus, the chance to reacquire it, and future waves of something similar. In short, this challenge is not going away soon. Social distancing is going to be with us for a long time as well.
A Way Out?
One way out would be for us all to keep working from home. Much as Artificial Lawyer’s staff very much enjoys working from home and embraces everyday the chance to be autonomous, that is not the story for everyone.
But, for those who enjoy home-working the longer term picture looks comfortable. For everyone else, which must be at least half, and probably three-quarters of the workforce, a job without an office could be a challenge.
Humans are a social species, and businesses have operated for generations on the basis that to work means to all come together to a specific location on a regular basis. This is especially true of law firms. While some support staff may work from home from time to time, many fee earners see the office as the centre of their working life.
And yet, for a law firm, office costs make a profound impact on the balance sheet. Law firms have even gone bust in part due to over-investment in offices at a time when revenue has dropped.
So, we have a strange dilemma: people really wanting to come to an office, even when there are risks to their health versus having an office that costs a fortune and may well be largely impractical if we want to safeguard our colleagues’ health.
How do you resolve that conflict between the habit of congregating in large buildings in order to be economically productive versus staying healthy?
The truth is, no-one has a perfect answer yet. Closing offices until an absolute all-clear where there are ZERO cases globally seems impractical, especially for the majority of people who really do want to be back in the office and can’t work indefinitely from home.
But, an office that has to function with social distancing would be a strange affair, maybe only with 30% occupancy, and with huge waiting times just to get in and out of the building, and where meetings in person would be strained and difficult. Moreover, it would be an environment where the managers of the business would have to accept that at any time someone may arrive with the virus. How do you operate like that?
Which leads to the final point: will governments around the world allow businesses to waive any liability for asking staff to return to work after the the virus has passed its most dangerous phase? One can imagine that law firms in particular are going to be a little bit paranoid about telling staff to come to work and risk some of those staff getting the virus, and then, tragically one or or two of them perhaps dying.
Would a staff member be able to prove they caught the virus while working at Smith & Jones LLP? Perhaps not. But, they may argue that their law firm increased their risks unfairly by asking them to come to the office even though the peak of the virus had passed. It’s a tricky one and a grey area legally.
As with the current scenario where a drive to promote safety has led to an economic crisis, there are no neat and tidy solutions that will please everyone.
Most people want to work from offices. The people who own those businesses generally expect everyone to eventually come back. But, how on Earth will those offices operate when social distancing and the constant risk of infection remain a reality?
The long-term result will likely be a compromise: those who are willing to return will, while those who prefer to stay at home will be allowed to do that. What that may also mean is law firms and tech companies will need a lot less useable space – while ironically still needing large offices to permit social distancing, and office life, even for those who return may never be the same again.
Artificial Lawyer would like to hear your views on this. Can you see a time when everything is 100% ‘back to normal’? And will offices ever be quite so central to our lives as they once were after this?