The times are a-changin’ with COVID-19 – and law firms show they can adapt

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] May 28, 2020

During the past few months, lawyers and their teams have been forced to make significant changes to the way they work on a day-to-day basis because of the COVID-19 crisis, but is this just a temporary hiatus in change resistance for the profession? Mark Andrews urges firms to think about change beyond the pandemic.

Change resistance is a natural human disposition, and considerable literature and research identifies the legal profession as being more change-resistant than most.

However, across the globe in recent months, we have witnessed change resistance being demolished because of the COVID-19 outbreak. COVID-19 does not negotiate, it does not canvass opinion, find champions, or rely on client pressure – it just is, and it has forced law firms, among others, to respond. In this article, I will discuss some of the things that have changed as a result of the pandemic and consider the potential implications and long-term impacts on change resistance within the profession.

What’s changed, at least for now?

There are some obvious changes occurring across the legal profession, but they are worth stating for context. My list is by no means exhaustive. Some of these trends have been occurring to a lesser degree for some time, and have accelerated as a consequence of COVID-19. Other trends are new.

The trends:

  • Most lawyers are working out of the office, primarily from home;
  • Attention is now focused on output and productive hours, as opposed to time spent in the office;
  • Individuals in some practice areas and supporting functions (such as IT and business development/marketing) are being very stretched in terms of work volume;
  • Some people have reduced their exercise levels;
  • Some people have increased their alcohol consumption;
  • More time is being spent checking the fridge and snacking between meals;
  • More flexible work patterns have emerged;
  • There has been little to no interstate or international travel;
  • The level of care and support for children who are home from school has increased;
  • Printing volumes are down;
  • The use of technology to collaborate, discuss, share and socialise is far more extensive;
  • Part-time work has increased, and in many cases hours have been cut;
  • There is better recognition of the challenges of part-time work, caring responsibilities, working from home and simply what it is like not being in the office;
  • The focus on mental health is greater;
  • Some deeper social connections have been created through seeing home environments, partners, children, pets etc;
  • Communication from leadership teams is more focused on people;
  • More people are asking ‘R U OK?’;
  • Connectivity is better across teams; that is, teams are talking more than they would otherwise; and
  • Information sharing has evened out, with people no longer missing things by not being in the office.

In formulating plans for 2020, few would have predicted this many changes. What is more, they would not have contemplated this list emerging in the space of just two to three months.

All of this change has been driven by the non-negotiable nature of COVID-19 and its economic impact. The legal profession has had little choice but to make the changes. We would never wish this instigator of change upon anyone, but it is here. What we do next, and beyond, the current situation is what will really matter. We should consider what changes we want to stick, and how we might improve the chances of them becoming the norm.

The future of workspaces

In Australia and a number of other markets, firms have over the years invested considerably in corporate office spaces that promote collaboration, social gathering and a more open work environment (that is, the office as ‘a place you want to be’).

In recent years, many firms have shifted to hybrid designs (mixing open plan, offices and common areas) rather than adopting a full open-plan workspace. Firms have also tended to avoid hot-desking or hoteling-type arrangements. The story is a little different for in-house teams where space design can be driven more by corporate needs than the requirements within the in-house legal team.

Post COVID-19, I think the ‘office as a place you want to be’ trend will continue and, if anything, strengthen. However, within this phenomenon we may well also see some trend reversals. In my view, the voices calling for extensive, high-density, open-plan offices will fade. It is already widely believed that full open-plan workspaces tend to reduce collaboration.

When we couple this with health concerns, I don’t think the future is bright for such an environment. We may start to see the pendulum swing a little more in favour of individual offices, although well-spaced, separated, light-filled, lower-density open-plan workspaces still have a good future.

Communal space is likely to be reviewed and I think less space will be communal on the basis that people may no longer want to sit in groups over lunch or coffee. In time this may come back, but not in quite the same way.

Law firms will, I think, move to at least an 80 per cent desk-to-people level, meaning there will be spaces for 80 per cent (but no more) of the staff to be in the office at any one time. Some firms may take this percentage considerably lower.

I do not believe this is the end of the office in the CBD, or the end of high-quality space, but I do think the trend is clearly not going to be about 1-to-1 mapping of people to space. There will be a desire to reduce the real estate footprint.

As money is saved on real estate, we will see a greater preparedness to invest in home-office setups and related support for the home (such as in-person technology support). If the home starts to be seen as a genuine extension of the workplace (rather than working from home being viewed as a staff benefit), increased investment may follow.

Past the point of no return

The longer we work from home, the more that change resistance is eroded. I think we have already gone past some key inflection points. My sense is that had this been a three-week work-from-home period because of COVID-19, then a number of changes would not be very sticky and change resistance would rear up.

However, many lawyers have now been working from home for six or more weeks and I think it is reasonable to assume we will get to at least 10 weeks in some parts of the world (and probably longer for some). There will also be those who opt not to move back to the office quickly.

All of this goes to the point that some of the changes are going to be sticky. From an IT perspective we are seeing true benefits being realised from technology investment. This is also helping to combat change resistance. There is a greater preparedness to treat technology teams as key business partners, rather than cost centres. More lawyers are likely to think about how they can apply new technology, rather than resisting the change.

Technology teams can position themselves very strategically as we gradually emerge from some of the current pandemic-related restrictions. This positioning will depend on them staying as business partners/advisers and also on their ability to focus on technology investment – it may well be easier to obtain the investment, but technology teams need to set a higher bar to ensure genuine benefits are realised, even in the absence of non-negotiable driving forces.

I think I can…

Some may know the famous fairytale The Little Engine That Could and may perhaps recognise the risk-averse nature of some of the engines in the story as being akin to the change resistance that is often encountered within firms.

The legal profession has, I think, proven something to itself in the past few months – we really can cope with large-scale rapid change. There may still be change resistance, but given the right climate and drivers, change will happen and people will discover new ways to work.

As we consider the longer-term implications and approach to addressing change resistance, the idea of non-negotiable change is one to be embraced. Firms and in-house teams would be well advised to identify the key non-negotiable changes they need to make and then make them. This is not to suggest rushing change, but once you have the target identified and the change designed, then go forward confidently and with resolve.

When it comes to change, adopt the mindset – I think I can, I think I can, I think I can … I thought I could, I know I can.

Mark Andrews is Director – Global IT Service Delivery at Baker McKenzie. He has a varied background, including time in the public and private sectors, along with considerable professional services experience. He has held roles ranging from HR to management consulting and has previously been a guest lecturer as part of University of Technology, Sydney’s Executive MBA program.