Managing The Return To The Office In The Legal Sector

Alistair Craig, Managing Director at Anabas, explores how the legal sector should manage the return to the office post-pandemic. 

Since the start of September, there’s been a slow but steady influx of people back into London’s law firms. But while the corridors of legal practices are starting to buzz again, full occupancy won’t happen until early 2022 in the majority of cases. And the jury is still out as to what the long-term future looks like for office v home working. Some of the legal firms we support are planning full-time office working, while others are exploring a more hybrid approach with lawyers working from home anything from 20-50% of the time.

While there may be some reticence from both firms and individuals to return to the office full-time, there’s been no such hesitation about holding client events. In September alone, our legal firms were hosting daily client events, using the easing of Covid restrictions combined with the new academic term to entice clients back to their offices for meetings, lunches, seminars and parties. The lack of face-to-face client meetings and events has undoubtedly driven a reduction in client spending over the past 18 months and these events are seen as crucial to rebuild client relationships which have become less relationship-driven and more transactional. 

That understandable drive to use the workplace to entertain clients could be a nod to the future use of the space for colleagues. The recent PwC 2021 Law Firms Survey reported that three in four law firms expect to reconfigure their office space as priorities change towards collaborative, team-friendly spaces that encourage relationship building, client interaction and coaching/learning. But how can law firms navigate this return to the office for both colleagues and clients while keeping morale and productivity high, and client loyalty strong? 

Listening To What People Want

The key is to listen to what people want from their working environment. Some will be desperate to get back and escape busy homes, while others will be reluctant to start commuting and work alongside others again, risking distractions. Anonymous colleague surveys combined with working groups and one-to-ones will give firms an idea of what their people want. This means they can create a working pattern that supports both colleague productivity and fee earning potential but also their work/life balance and therefore recruitment and retention. Offering a level of flexibility makes good business sense at a time of a talent shortage in the industry. It’s also important to understand how people are using the environment currently – as the reality is often different from what people say. Desk sensors can provide a picture of how the workplace is currently used. This data can then inform the level of workplace support available. There’s little point in having a full catering or cleaning team on hand on a sparsely populated day. 

Whichever model firms adopt, what’s key is to provide a variety of working areas. While the PWC survey referred to creating more collaborative working environments – from break-out spaces to project areas – practices shouldn’t ignore the large numbers of people who come to work to perform concentrated work. Quiet spaces – whether cellular offices, enclosed pods or library-style environments – where people can work uninterrupted need to be built into the post-Covid environment. 

Not All Clients Want An Office Visits  

Client events are back in full swing, but not all clients will want to come to an office. Health concerns, travel restrictions and a change in business travel culture will see some client meetings continue to take place virtually. Lawyers need to have plenty of spaces where they can effectively run virtual meetings from small teleconference pods to sophisticated board rooms with video conferencing embedded. We’re seeing a new type of video meeting room, away from windows which can create problems with natural light on camera, and with enhanced acoustic technology making a virtual meeting as seamless as an in-person one. This type of technology will require investment but the PWC report showed that IT investment is high up the list for the legal sector. With the focus more on cloud solutions, law firms shouldn’t forget workplace technology.  

High standards of facilities services have always been key in law firms – fee earners don’t want to spend time on the phone to a help desk to resolve a workplace or IT issue. But that’s even more crucial in a post-Covid environment. The workplace needs to be frictionless or people will vote with their feet and stay at home. By investing in concierge-style services such as the Anabas floor captain role, clients, partners and staff alike have a ‘go-to’ person for any issue or query. Being on hand to help set up client meetings and manage internal and external posts, we find that our clients in the legal sector who introduce the floor captain role avoid unnecessary issues and are at their most productive. 

A Reason To Come To The Office

Legal practices need to give people a reason to come to the office. They need to create a fear of missing out. For younger lawyers, that might mean the opportunity to meet, and learn from, senior partners. For senior people, it’s the chance to meet clients and young talent. By creating opportunities for colleagues to come together in a way that’s not possible virtually – through town halls, training, celebrations, chance meetings in the corridors – law firms can give people a reason to come to the office. Senior partners need to lead by example. If they’re seen to be in the office more, then the rest of the firm will follow suit. 

The PWC report showed that almost half of law firms expect to reduce their office footprint in the short to medium term. There has always been plenty of churn in law firms – particularly with trainees on rotations moving from department to department – and that’s only likely to increase. Covid has given the legal profession, often seen as a traditional office environment, the chance to rethink the office. Let’s use this opportunity to rightsize the legal workplace for today’s lawyers.

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