Nadia Biles Davies looks at some of the questions law firms need to ask themselves and their people now to prepare for returning to work after lockdown

For the last seven weeks, the vast majority of the legal workforce has been working from home and not in the office. This has thrown up challenges, but also new learnings and successes. The government has now announced a provisional plan moving towards the end of lockdown, but in the meantime, law firms are presented with a very rare opportunity; an empty office, a new mobile workforce and an opportunity to reimagine what work might look like when lockdown is over. The reflection and planning should start now.

Now is the time to explore with your wider workforce how they would like to work in the future, what successful new working practices have sprung up, and what learnings your people want to take back into the workplace.

This will help you address all areas of management and infrastructure impacted by more mobile, remote-working teams. It will also help identify what hasn’t worked so well and needs to be resolved.

Asking yourself the right questions now about how to redesign your firm to more mobile working will focus minds on expectations and innovations – a soft start for any change management process.

But what are those questions?

What do your people think?

How would your workforce like to work in the future? What successful new working practices have sprung up and what learnings do your people want to take back into the workplace?

Has the technology supporting working from home worked, is it well supported, should it continue, is further training needed?

What business support are they making the most of at the moment? What are they doing without (and are they managing or struggling without it)? What support do they think they will need when the office reopens?

How can you save money and increase revenue?

The post-lockdown period presents opportunities for significant cost savings – all the more important as firm struggle to get back on their feet following the pandemic. It might well be that specific support roles, once seen as necessary, fall away as solicitors work more remotely. A move to a mobile workforce might not only mean savings on rents and rates as the office footprint is reduced, but also a reduction in ancillary overheads such as postage costs, stationery, printing, and costs of leased equipment. This will lead to significantly leaner firms.

Equally, there may be ways to increase revenue and efficiency through innovation. Could you move teams together who are likely to cross-refer work? Could you create spaces that encourage collaboration and socialising, to encourage cross-firm communication and understanding of work practices?

What should you do to enable future remote working?

Management concerns about mobile working are unlikely to have fallen away completely, but there is likely to be an expectation that more working from home should not only be possible, but probable. Management will have some difficulty refusing requests for flexible working or working from home where not only have individuals or teams been able to demonstrate productive and effective working from home, but where firms have already been forced to put in place the equipment and technology to enable them to do so. Law firms need to respond to these new expectations and plan accordingly.

Has the experience of working from home changed the way that teams would like to work in the future? Would your people like to work more from home when they are able to return to the office? What are their expectations and, crucially, do they fit in with yours as a business?

All too often, law firm managers talk about flexible working or remote working from a solicitor / fee-earner perspective, but how will your business support teams work? How will their work arrangements fit with any new expectations of your solicitor and wider fee-earning teams?

How do you need to reprioritise investment in your business to support future remote working? Cybersecurity and IT security have become even more essential and robust during lockdown – this will continue, and firms need to keep prioritising this as threats change. Marketing strategies will need to become digital and mobile focused – if they aren’t already. Case or practice management systems, as well as processes and procedures, will need to be fit for a workforce that could be working from anywhere.

Where will your people sit, what equipment, hardware, software, space or storage will they need? Should you consider hot-desking, quiet zones and/or collaborative workspaces?

How will management and supervision change?

How has working remotely from home changed how people interact with their teams, junior supervision or delegation? How has management changed in practice? Are there changes in how individuals manage, are managed, or communicate with each other. Do they want to continue any of these new practices when people begin to work in the office again?

How will you handle the post-lockdown transition?

After lockdown restrictions, employees will be understandably nervous of shared spaces and equipment. They will be reluctant to use collaborative workspace if social distancing within the office is expected. How can you introduce innovations and reduce the cost of office space while ensuring employees’ feel safe and confident to return to the office?

If offices reopen but schools or nurseries don’t, how will or should employers respond? It might well be that the new mobile workforce is working effectively and productively from home, and there is no pressing need to return to the office for this transitional phase. Either way, considerable thought will need to be given to any transitional arrangements and how they impact on a newly imagined use of space and way of working.