25 Feb 2021

Permanent shift to home working will boost productivity but may impact mental health, poll finds

More than three quarters of respondents to The Global Legal Post survey expect less office-based work once pandemic recedes

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More than three quarters of business lawyers are anticipating a permanent shift to home working once lockdown restrictions end, most of whom believe this will improve work life balance and productivity, according to a The Global Legal Post poll.

However, there is less agreement over the impact of this change on diversity and particularly mental health with more than a third of respondents worried mental health  – already the subject of concern within the profession – will deteriorate.

Seventy-seven percent of the 98 respondents to The Global Legal Post Snapshot Survey on Covid-19’s impact on working practices said there would be a slight (45%) or substantial (32%) shift to home-working with just 23% expecting a full return to pre-Covid norms. 

Nearly as many (69%) said they believed this change would improve work life balance with 50% believing it will boost productivity; that compares to just 17% who expect work life balance to deteriorate and 16% who feel the same about productivity.

Half the respondents were law firm partners with a quarter in other law firm roles, while 16% were in-house lawyers of whom 7% were general counsel.

Breaking paradigms 

“The pandemic was an opportunity to break paradigms,” said Maria Cibele Crepaldi, managing partner of Brazilian firm Costa Tavares Paes. “Working in home-office is possible for lawyers, on-line meetings with clients are possible, closing transactions, such as M&A deals, remotely is possible, reducing the size of the firm's facilities is possible.”

There were, however, concerns that junior staff are coping less well under current lockdown conditions with office work not permitted at all in many jurisdictions. While 41% of the respondents believed their own productivity had improved under lockdown compared to 22% who felt the opposite, they were much less confident about associates (or their equivalent) with nearly half (46%) believing this group’s productivity had deteriorated against 37% who felt it had improved.  

“We are seeing a huge difference between the experience of partners, many of whom have been happy to convert their commuting time into recreation and billable hours, and the associates and business professionals whose experience has been less positive,” said Moray McLaren, partner and co-founder of Lexington Consultants. “The younger generation always list personal development, learning from their seniors and growth opportunities as their biggest motivator and of course that has been more challenging.”

Looking ahead there was less agreement among the respondents about the long-term benefits of more flexible working arrangements on diversity and inclusion and mental health and wellbeing.

Thirty-five per cent of the respondents said they thought diversity would improve against 17% who thought it would get worse; only 38% were optimistic about mental health improving against 36% who were worried it would get worse.

“Despite the burden felt by working mothers during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Christine Strutt, a partner at South Africa firm Von Seidels, “I do believe the flexibility and proliferation of remote working will benefit women in the long term. Even before the onset of the pandemic, working mothers were less likely to take advantage of flexibilities in their work environment which have now become more accessible and an accepted part of professional life. “

Anxiety

A significant minority of the respondents (22%) are anxious about returning to office-based work and business travel (30%) with roughly equal numbers in the ‘can’t wait’ category (24% and 34% respectively). 

A majority of the respondents (53%) will ‘go with the flow’ when it comes to returning to the office; but a smaller number (36%) are equally relaxed about business travel, perhaps because they fear being stranded or catching Covid-19 abroad.

Mari Cruz Taboada, Lexington's head of client management and legal innovation, said: “While Covid-19 has brought so much disruption to law firms, the results show how lawyers have kept their productivity high and when looking at the future, 45% believe that there will be more home working. That is why technology and collaboration systems are now at the forefront of every law firm, looking at how best to avoid risk while involving young lawyers eager to be mentored and supported in their career development.”

Meanwhile, the respondents are in almost universal agreement that there will be less business travel than before. Just 6% said lawyers would be spending as much time travelling than before with 51% anticipating a slight shift away from travelling and 43% a substantial shift.

Thirty-six per cent were based in continental Europe, 23% were working out of the UK with an equal proportion based in the US. The remainder were spread over Asia and Australasia (13%), Latin America (10%) and the Middle East and Africa (6%).

Further reading

Scottish firms must improve tech and flexible working offering to attract talent, report finds

Squire Patton Boggs unveils flexible working plans ahead of London office move

Herbert Smith Freehills sets 60 per cent baseline for office work under flexible working revamp

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