A recent article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson caught my eye. In the article entitled The Five Day Workweek Is Dead, Thompson opines that the future of work, at least for those not saddled with having to work at a specific place, will be radically different. The pandemic has introduced millions of workers to the new freedom of remote work—be it at home, at the beach, or Starbucks. And, says Thompson, they ain’t going back.
Instead, workers may return to the office part time-say Tuesday through Thursday. The rest of the time, they will work wherever and whenever they want.
And says Thompson, to get people to come to the office, employers will have to make the office a “destination,” an “experience.” Thompson quotes Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University: future offices will have to offer “an experience that people seek out, with terraces, and outdoor areas, and fancy gyms, and places to eat.”
Of course, as Thompson notes, this shift away from a five day in the office work week could have enormous repercussions. It could fundamentally alter everything from how we train younger workers and inculcate firm to the very nature of downtown areas themselves. Fewer workers mean less business for downtown shops and restaurants, which we have already seen.
And there is evidence that Thompson may be right. In a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, Sundar Pichai, Google CEO, said:
I think the future of work will be flexible…[W]e do think its important to get people in a few days a week, but we are embracing all options…[M]ost of our workforce will be coming in three days a week. But I think we can be more purposeful about the time they’re in, making sure group meetings or collaboration, creative brainstorming, or community building happens then…
In other words: it will be imperative to give people a reason to come to the office if we want them there.
But what about law firms? The prevailing logic seems to be that we need people, especially associates in the office, every day to train and mentor them adequately. To make sure our culture is thoroughly ingrained in them, and generally watch after them to make sure they are, ahem, working hard. (like they wouldn’t otherwise).
But I wonder. Some background: my clients were all out of town for most of my career. My cases were all out of town. My work teams were spread out between multi offices and locations. I learned early how to work remotely and by the mid-nineties, was working at home or on the road 3-4 days a week. And despite some firm push back, I simply saw little reason to go to the office or work traditional hours.
So I think lawyers today are not that much different than other professionals. We want and can work remotely. As for training, most of the time, training is catch as catch can. If we genuinely believe training can only be done in the office, let’s define what we are training for (i.e., what makes a good lawyer). Then let’s create programs geared to providing that training and determine what really needs to be done on-prem.
Let’s bring associates into the office for good structured training, and not just have them sit around the office waiting for partner insight to be randomly handed down from high. Too many firms train associates by having them assigned by happenstance to partners. Some of of those partners provide good training and mentoring, and some frankly don’t.
As for firm culture, the truth is that law firms, at least large ones, don’t differ all that much. And what culture that does exist is eroding in a lateral fueled marketplace, a glut of law firm mergers, and expansive multiple offices.
Frankly, a lot of law firm culture is terrible and ought to be done away with anyway. As a U.K lawyer was quoted as saying in a recent Law.Com article, “Law firm culture meaning long hours, presenteeism, lack of flexibility, hierarchy, micromanagement, targets based on hours worked rather than results, treating staff like children? In that case, yes, working from home is eroding law firm culture, and it’s about time.”
So will law firm offices become experiences with terraces, restaurants, and gyms? I doubt it. It’s not in our DNA. But for the time being, we have too much work and not enough people to do it. So if we want associates and happy partners, we need to meet them where they are.
And where they are is remote. If we’re going to keep them and have them in the office, we need to give them a reason to come to the office. Coming to the office to do work you could just as easily and better do at home just isn’t going to cut it.