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When England moved to step 4 of the COVID-19 roadmap and restrictions lifted on 19 July, government guidance shifted from promoting working at home whenever possible, to endorsing a ‘gradual return’ to offices over the summer. While many will rejoice at the thought of reuniting with colleagues and clients in person, others will harbour reservations.
Hesitancy to return to the office might be rooted in health concerns, a reluctance to re-embrace the expense and exhaustion of the daily commute, or the realisation that COVID-19 enforced homeworking has been a surprisingly positive experience. Lawyers juggling work and caring roles might feel heavy-hearted at the prospect of no longer being able to collect children from school, keep an eye on adventurous teens, or support a vulnerable relative as they have been accustomed to doing for the last 16 months.
The flexibility of homeworking has been a revelation for many professionals. Without the constraints, distractions and demands of an office environment, it is possible to use time more creatively, adjusting your diary to maximise productivity while preserving your own wellbeing. The freedom to enjoy hobbies, relax with family and pets and put on a load of washing between video conference calls can be a welcome and much-needed counterbalance to the intensity of the legal world.
When I founded LSL Family Law in 2017, establishing a better quality of life was high on my priority list. Weary of endless meetings and determined to focus on the needs of my clients rather than managing a large practice, I decided that enough was enough and I branched out on my own. My family immediately noticed the difference in me, and I have never looked back.
From the outset, I invested in technology to create a paperless, remote model of working. The result has been a user-friendly, efficient, and cost-effective service for my clients, and an agile and liberating way of life for me. During the first lockdown, when many firms were facing a steep learning curve to adapt to homeworking, my team and I already had the systems in place to provide an uninterrupted service to our clients.
The pandemic has undoubtedly been pivotal in modernising both the legal profession and HMCTS, prompting the more traditional firms to get to grips with technology and compelling the courts to adopt electronic bundles. Now that the structures exist to enable legal professionals to work effectively from home, is there any need to return to the office full-time?
Ultimately, of course, that is a question for individual firms, and many lawyers, particularly juniors, benefit from the sociable and supportive atmosphere of a corporate setting. Lawyers returning to the office after almost a year and a half at home at home, should be encouraged to ease back gradually to avoid being overwhelmed by the return to ‘normality’. Indeed, bearing in mind the many and varying needs of employees and the government’s latest recommendations regarding the return to work, the hybrid, or mixed, model is sure to be on the menu for the foreseeable future.
Although employers are under no obligation to approve flexible working requests, partners are now, more than ever, likely to agree to a well-thought through proposal involving working from home or hybrid working. All employees who been continuously employed for 26 weeks or more, have a statutory right to request a flexible working pattern. Talking to senior managers within the firm and discussing your requirements should be the first step for those reluctant to return to the office.
If your request is turned down, what next? Changing jobs is an obvious option and there are plenty of firms who are on-board with flexible working. Experienced lawyers who have enjoyed homeworking might consider setting up as a sole trader or launching their own company. If going it alone sounds a little daunting, working as a consultant could be the solution: freedom to define your own hours and concentrate on your clients without the responsibility of marketing, management, or credit control.
Firms who are willing to offer flexibility to staff, adopting a blend of homeworking, hybrid working and full-time office attendance, will face new challenges. How do you keep everyone motivated and maintain a collective team spirit with so many differing working patterns? Regular and effective communication is the key. I find that daily contact via email, phone or Zoom ensures that no-one feels out of the loop. Arranging online and in-person social events is also great for morale: we are all looking forward to our upcoming team meal out!
Linda Lamb is a solicitor and director at LSL Family Law
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