The last eighteen months have been…a lot.
I know that’s a clear understatement and particularly for those who have truly suffered through the loss of family members, friends, jobs, their way of life – the heartbreak is incalculable. But each of us has been changed in ways we haven’t yet come to terms with.
Because we were forced to move so quickly from our pre-pandemic lives into a quarantine-office work-from-home situation, many of us still haven’t processed those feelings or those changes. We simply packed up, attempted to adapt to keep moving forward, and doing the work that needed to be done. In the US and in some other countries, we are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s led to discussions of what post-pandemic work life will look like. Many law firms had one of their most successful years ever last year, despite economic fears, and their firms working remotely. Partners, associates, staff, leaders – everyone is discussing what the future law firm will look like.
A partner said something to me recently that has stuck with me. He said that among all of this talk about hybrid working and changing offices, he wondered if there wouldn’t be pressure to return to the “way things were.” That the partners who liked being in the office may say to their associates that they didn’t have to be in the office, but when they were in the office for 80, 90, 100+ hours a week, the associates would feel the pressure to be there just as long, that the hybrid hours didn’t apply to them either. And soon we would be back to where we were pre-pandemic again.
To be clear – pandemic working was not “working from home.” I have worked from home for almost 18 years, and working from home in a pandemic is an entirely different experience. Being quarantined in your home without the option of leaving in many cases is not the same as choosing to work from home. Many people were working in small environments, balancing laptops in places that were not meant to be workspaces. Many people who work from home will often choose to work some of the time in their home offices, some of the time in coffee shops or outdoors or where they are comfortable and inspired. They aren’t sharing the space with spouses and children, while trying to oversee their children’s schooling. Their pets are used to their schedules, because they’ve developed them already. You don’t have constant low-grade anxiety because you’re wondering what the next crisis is that will unfold, or how long the pandemic will last for. This wasn’t working from home – this was attempting to work from home during a pandemic.
Hybrid working will also require an adjustment and intentionality, should that be the path we choose to follow – and I do believe that the pandemic has shown us there are tremendous benefits to it, both for our personal professional lives and our firms. Some firms may go to an entirely remote model, though I suspect that the other thing the pandemic has shown us is the importance of human interaction, real and in-person (yes, even for us introverts). But the familiar is comfortable and it’s, well, familiar. So the temptation is there to slip back into what we were already doing and what we already knew – we all know the legal industry’s famous line, “we’ve always done it this way.”
But we’ve already proven that the legal industry can pick up and go remote in two weeks or less, and then have its most successful year while facing a terrible global pandemic. So folks, as my niece once said to her sister when her parents left on a date night, “I’ve got some bad news to show you,” it turns out we can do anything we put our minds to, if we’re forced. It turns out we just need the right motivation.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll go over some strategies for how to address the barriers to change that we’ve discussed before, in light of these new challenges. But we’re in an exciting transition in 2021 and the years to come – and it’s not just about hybrid working either. If we can make THAT change, then there are so many more powerful things we can do as an industry that will drive us forward and add value for our clients. Let’s see what happens.