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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

The end of the mandatory Work-from-Home era

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

This week (on 15 June 2021) the Financial Times reported that Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman sent a tough message to New York-based employees who do not want to return to the office, arguing that if they are comfortable dining out in the city, then they should feel safe working at the bank’s headquarters. “If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office and we want you in the office,” Mr. Gorman said the bank had learned it could operate “with a little more flexibility” during the coronavirus pandemic. But he signaled that he would take a dim view of employees who did not work regularly in the office.

In the financial services world, Morgan Stanley, certainly is not an exception. Notably Goldman Sachs has been very vocal and explicit that they want to see their bankers back in the office. Already early May Goldman CEO David Solomon distributed a memo notifying all US staff to be ready to report to the office by last Monday 14 June, while UK employees would be called back one week later. In other parts of the world where more progress in combating the coronavirus pandemic has been made, like the Asia-Pacific region, the bank’s offices are nearly full with returnees. JPMorgan Chase has sent a similar notice to all bankers and staff, as have several other big international banks.

Little over a year ago, the pandemic left most of us with little choice but to work from home. For most law firms this represented an almost complete break with the work-from-home policies that existed by which working from the office was the rule and few exceptions were allowed. When this changed overnight, law firms quickly adapted and most were full up and running within a week. It is fair to say that the quality of the work did not suffer and that service to clients has remained uninterrupted. This as such is a major achievement of the legal industry as a whole. As the pandemic subsides we are faced with the question ‘what next?’

When we will make up the balance after one-and-a-half year working from home, there will be lessons to be learned. For starters, lawyers can be super-productive if there are no distractions and no ordinary workday limitations such a regular office-hours. Working from home, lawyers recorded more billable hours than ever before. The flipside of that coin does not shine as much, as the omnipresence of ‘the office’ in the home has vaporized the boundaries between work-life and private-life, causing widespread burnout and mental-health issues. Lawyers are feeling fatigued and exhausted.

Lawyers should be called back to the office

There is clearly one category of lawyers that suffered the most as a consequence of the mandatory work-from-home, these are the trainees and the junior associates. As any lawyer remembers, after you graduate from law school, you have to go through a steep learning curve before you begin to have a basic notion of what you are supposed to do as a lawyer. This type of training can only be done on the job by getting instructions, asking a lot of questions and mirroring behavior. Working from home makes this process very hard and partly impossible. There is no such thing as online apprenticeship. Young lawyers must be called back at the office as soon as possible. No exceptions. This requires the presence of those who teach and mentor them, so they should also be in the office, but perhaps not all of them all of the time.

As some of you may know, one of TGO Consulting’s core concepts has to do with what we call ‘Swarm Intelligence’. This concept is derived from the observation that creativity, innovation and the ability to find solutions to complex problems, thrive when people meet, interact, communicate and share insights and ideas. This process functions best when everyone is in the same office. Also the so called ‘watercooler’ or ‘coffee machine’ encounters have proven to play a pivotal role in firm-culture, teambuilding and internal communication. True value is created when people meet and interact. Another argument to get everyone back at the office as soon as this can be done in a safe manner.

And then there is the slight matter of all the cost of the expensive real-estate that law firms occupy. After salaries, for law firms housing is the highest cost. Invariably business law firms are in expensive locations and attach great value to having an impressive super high-end office to convey a message of success to visitors, clients and staff. This makes law firm offices very different from normal corporate headquarters or offices. For the legal industry, a power-office is very much part of the identity. Speaking to partners at different firms about the possibility that they could split offices, share offices and economize on their real estate expenditure, not one of them was interested in doing it, neither for themselves, nor their firm or associates. And definitely not the partners. This is yet another argument to ask people to come back at the office, it is there anyway and it costs a lot of money, so use it.

Returning to the office will also reinstall the natural boundaries between work life and private life, and with the return of business lunches and watercooler breaks, it will also make the workload more bearable. Requiring lawyers to return to the office might help prevent burnout, stress and mental health issues. Also because it allows to watch-out for one another.

The office should be different from how it was before

I guess its clear that I am a strong advocate of lawyers getting back to the office. This however does not mean that I think we should go back to as it was before. I strongly believe that we should use the pandemic to change for the better. Working from home has taught us to that many meetings do not require in-person presence in order to be effective. Specially purely operational meetings can more efficiently be held online. This holds for internal meetings as well as meetings with clients. This will save time and by reducing travel, it will also help save the planet.

Another thing I feel we need to get rid of are the standard office-hours. They date back from the early 20th century and they totally make no sense for a modern professional services firm. In this day and age we should give lawyers the freedom to come and go as they deem fit at any time of day and at any day in the week. Lawyers should be monitored for output, not for sticking to the 9-to-5 regime.

Lastly, I would encourage law firms to partially redesign their expensive offices in a way that focusses on enabling interaction between people, rather than isolating them in small rooms or cubicles. An office will have most added value if lawyers frequently meet and interact without prior planning. Just sitting a whole day behind ones desk does not make sense. Then you could as well be working from home.

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