In the weeks leading up to so-called ‘freedom day’ on 19 July, when the majority of covid-19 restrictions were finally lifted in England, the business world had already been making concerted moves to bring workforces back to the office.
A handful of businesses have a preference for staff working wholly from their premises, while most are content for employees to work from home for at least some of the time.
Freshfields, Clifford Chance and others are allowing lawyers a form of hybrid working – half in the office half from home; while Dentons is allowing all its staff to work home permanently. Baker McKenzie is proving more imaginative – intending to adopt a post-pandemic approach (‘bAgile’) that would allow employees to work from home two days a week, from the office two days a week – and the remaining day where the lawyer chooses (depending on client needs).
And lawyers do want to continue agile, remote working according to a Thomson Reuters survey carried out in the spring. It found that 65% of lawyers in the UK said remote working had a positive impact on wellbeing. Why would they want to resist a mode of working that supports mental health and wellbeing?
So what’s changing post-freedom day? The key points is that the government’s working from home guidance is now lifted and it’s up to the law firm as employer to decide working arrangements in the office.
In practice, not much will have changed on the ground in the immediate term – most law firms have undoubtedly settled into an effective and sustainable working model that protects fee-earners, staff and clients with minimal impact on the business itself.
Further, given the increasingly high rates of covid-19 cases across the country, we can expect that the majority of firms will want to retain some restrictions on their premises while the pandemic still has a grip in the UK. That will include the continued use of face-coverings when moving around the office and social distancing in busy office spaces. Note that the latest government guidance recommends a gradual return to the workplace over the summer.
Whether or not firm leaders will be facilitating a gradual return to the office, a few points are worth considering:
- Communicate with employees – Everyone in the office needs to know what is expected in terms of where they can work and any covid-19 restrictions that will continue in the office space. Keep up the dialogue, particularly when things are under review.
- Minimise the risk of discrimination – Firms must take extra care to avoid discriminating against vulnerable people and those with protected characteristics. For instance, is it reasonable to expect fee-earners with auto-immune issues to return to the office in the foreseeable future?
- Protect mental health – The issue of lawyers’ mental health and wellbeing has never been so important and should be a key factor in any plans to require staff to return to the office.
- Conduct risk assessments – Not only in the office but in home-working environments. Businesses still have a legal duty to manage the risks; and their health and safety obligations apply whether or not a worker is on business premises or working from home. Any risks identified should be dealt as far as reasonably as possible to minimise the risk of harm.
What is clear is that home working for lawyers is here to stay. What’s less clear is the extent to which legal professionals will be back in the office – and for what proportion of their working life. Flexibility and understanding on the part of the firm and individual lawyers may become increasingly necessary.