I’ve written a couple of articles recently about the negative impact COVID-19 has had on law firms. But it’s not all doom and gloom. A major positive that has come out of this, at least in my opinion, is home working.
Until the pandemic hit, traditional law firms had been slow to embrace home working. They believed they needed multiple offices and didn’t always trust staff to work remotely. This has been proved wrong over the last few months as solicitors across the UK have successfully used modern IT platforms and document management systems to work as efficiently at home as they would in the office. It’s worked so well for Slater and Gordon that they are closing their London office in September as part of a plan for staff to work from home on a permanent basis.
Vacating expensive offices will of course save thousands of pounds in rent, and law firms could sure do with saving money at the moment. Needless to say the simple act of vacating may be fraught with financial and legal issues given lease terms that may have been agreed in more settled times. Putting aside property issues like this, I want to focus not on buildings and rent, but on people. There are three important steps firms need to take before putting up the To Let signs: consult with staff, consider health and safety risks and review your homeworking policy.
I’m focussing on consultation in this article. Next week I’ll take a look at health and safety and homeworking policies.
Why do you need to consult with staff? Because you are proposing a big change to their working lives and you can’t assume everyone will be happy about it. Some lawyers will relish the peace and flexibility of working at home and the extra time they can spend with their family now they are not spending two hours a day on a crowded train. Others will hate the solitude and miss the chance to chat with colleagues about last night’s episode of Love Island or nip out for a coffee and sandwich at lunch time.
Your also risk breaching your contracts of employment. These will probably specify that the usual place of work is the office “or such other place within [area] as we may reasonably determine.” Although this gives firms flexibility to move lawyers away from the office, they still have to act reasonably or they could be in breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence. You therefore need an open dialogue with your staff. Give them an opportunity to raise any concerns and put forward their own ideas.
Some staff won’t have homes large enough to accommodate a private office or will live in areas with unreliable broadband. Others will be concerned about extra telephone costs or heating bills. These issues need to be discussed and resolved where possible. For some lawyers, it will just be a case of providing a proper office chair or company phone. Others will be strongly opposed to working at home and will at least want the choice of working in the office two or three times a week. Although Slater and Gordon are closing their main office, they are replacing it with a much smaller meeting space for those who want communal time.
All lawyers are different and over the last few months they have had ample opportunity to decide if WFH works for them. The challenge for law firms is to find a way forward that pleases as many employees as possible while still keeping an eye on the bottom line.
In our post coronavirus world, a law firm's attitude towards remote working will be a key consideration for lawyers when they are deciding to join or leave a firm.
“When we do look to return to our offices they won’t look like they used to and colleagues will be encouraged to continue working remotely for the majority of the time". David Whitmore, Slater and Gordon’s chief executive