The Summer of 2021: The Tale of “The Employer Who Cried Return to the Office.”
We all remember the fable, right? The boy who cried wolf over and over again just to mess with his neighbors, until the joke was on him when the wolf actually came, the villagers ignored him, and all his sheep got eaten.
Lately it feels like we’re reliving this tale, except with employee headcount instead of sheep and WAY too many “boys.”
The first sign of trouble came courtesy of WeWork’s CEO, who in a flash of brilliance declared that the most motivated workers WANT to be back in person, therefore back to the office we should all go. The villagers, having run to hear this return-to-work “insight,” rightly and roundly trashed this self-serving nonsense and went about their days.
Then the fable went totally off the rails as more boys popped out of the woodwork--and they weren’t just calling wolf, they were calling lion, and elephant, and giraffe, and basically an entire zoo. Of course, in this extended metaphor, the boys were BigLaw leaders crying “[insert wild animal]” to their associates about returning to the office, setting arbitrary and changing dates with rationales ranging from vaguely disingenuous to blatantly self-serving, stirring up confusion and frustration among associates still grappling with the pandemic in their own lives and just generally acting like we could all go back to work and pretend this never happened.
Associates aren’t buying it.
Firm leaders are forgetting a few important facts: 1) the pandemic has demonstrated that our technology is advanced enough to fully support entirely remote offices and firms; 2) the vast majority of law firm associates possess the work ethic to stay motivated and productive even when fully remote; 3) thanks to said technology and work ethic, associates have successfully been working completely remotely for approaching two years; and 4) the pandemic ain’t over, and no one feels safe yet.
Associates know all this, and they’re starting to lose patience. But the “sheep” in danger here aren’t the associates -- they’re the headcount the firms need to get the work done. Firms trying to force everyone back into the office are basically inviting the wolf in. But why? Didn’t we learn anything from Red Riding Hood about wolves??
In fact, a rare opportunity is staring firms right in the face, thanks to the bizarrely level playing field that exists in BigLaw thanks to lockstep salaries and bonuses. Firms suddenly have a rare chance to offer a valuable perk to employees that comes with a shockingly low price tag and almost no additional effort. Amazing, you might say, what is this incredible bargain?
Why, let them keep working remotely, of course.
One of the biggest sources of associate dissatisfaction and attrition in BigLaw is lack of flexibility and work/life balance. The ability to work from home has always been hugely popular, and as we’re learning anecdotally, it’s also very efficient. Attorneys are able to maintain their billable hours but still reclaim time to themselves, time previously spent commuting and/or inevitably wasted in an office, leading to happier attorneys.
Let’s also not forget the populations who are disproportionately impacted by a lack of flexibility. Working mothers have long struggled to remain professionally competitive, failing more often than not through no fault of their own (especially during the pandemic, in depressingly large numbers). And what about the diverse talent that firms fall all over themselves to recruit and then fail to support through the endless microaggressions or tokenism prevalent in even the most enlightened workplaces? Working remotely represents freedom from these burdens and could prevent significant career derailment.
Ergo: BigLaw employers can set themselves apart, take a significant step towards reducing inequity, and generally make their associates very happy simply by keeping some form of remote arrangements in place even after the pandemic wanes, with almost no sacrifice on their part.
Let’s be clear, no one is suggesting that 100% remote arrangements should be the norm from now on. There are numerous benefits to being in an office: inexperienced attorneys legitimately need face time to learn the ropes and/or build their networks, experienced attorneys need to be available to provide that mentoring, and some people just prefer the office.
What we do know is that remote work, well, works, in ways that business leaders never would have imagined or conceded pre-pandemic. And while it’s too soon to tell, we should absolutely expect to see shifts in the demographics of attorneys who are succeeding in this new world--that is, as long as firms don’t wipe out the gains by stodgily demanding a “return to normalcy.”
We implore firms to jump at this chance to revolutionize the legal industry--because the effects of preserving flexibility WILL be revolutionary, even if the steps to achieving them are small. We can already see the impact: the handful of firms already embracing remote work going forward are rapidly attracting record numbers of talented candidates.
Need one more reason? Remember this: it won’t be long before the associates you want to recruit are the kids who spent multiple school years in remote learning. Change IS coming. Don’t lose your sheep.