A new Law Society study contains warnings, however, that this brave new world comes with risks.
The report – The Future Way We Work – was commissioned as a result of an initiative by the Younger Members Committee (YMC). The survey of just over 1,200 solicitors (carried out by Smith & Williamson) found that 91% of the profession would prefer a mix of remote and office working in the future.
The finding that only 5% wanted to work from home full-time, however, shows that there are some aspects of office life that solicitors do not want to be lost in the transition.
Recognising that the results could be skewed if the survey were addressed only to newer members, the YMC decided to seek the views of all practising solicitors, over a two-week period from 19 July to 3 August 2021.
The respondents represent around 15% of the total number of solicitors in Ireland, while the fact that a quarter of the respondents were either partners or sole practitioners meant that the perspective of employers was also captured.
At the time of the study, almost 40% of respondents had been working exclusively on a remote basis since the outbreak of COVID-19, with another 40% operating a blend of remotely and on-site.
The figures for remote working were markedly higher among those working in larger organisations, in-house, and the public sector.
There was a notable gender-based difference among those still working in the office – 26% of men were on-site, compared with only 14% of women. Location also appeared to be a factor, with 26% of those based outside Dublin still working in the office, but only 13% of those in the capital.
Points of authority
The findings indicate that, for most solicitors, the benefits of remote working outweigh the costs. Almost 70% of solicitors agreed, or strongly agreed, that they were more productive when working remotely.
This is backed up by other findings: just over 40% of solicitors said that they put in more hours when working remotely than they had in the office (almost half felt that they were working the same number of hours).
Almost 80% of those surveyed were also responding to out-of-hours work-related communications, with the figure topping 90% for those working in larger organisations (those with ten or more partners). For just over one-third, this was done by choice – for another third, it was due to their workload.
More than 80% of the respondents agreed, or strongly agreed, that remote working made it easier for them to manage family or care responsibilities. The reduced cost of commuting was also welcomed by a significant number of solicitors.
Overall, the survey did not uncover increased stress levels among those working from home, with just over three-quarters reporting either lower stress levels or no difference.
The main downsides of working from home were broadly linked to the reduction in social interaction – and this appears to worry solicitors in both a personal and professional sense.
Most solicitors (70%) felt feelings of isolation from colleagues, with the figure slightly higher for those working in bigger organisations.
The question of whether working from home increased expectations about availability appeared to divide opinion almost equally – with only a marginal majority agreeing with this proposition.
From a professional point of view, almost two-thirds of respondents expressed concern about the ability to learn from senior colleagues while working remotely, while more than 70% worried about the effect of a lack of mentoring on their junior colleagues.
More than half of those in managerial roles were also concerned about the impact of off-site working on staff training.
While most respondents who worked remotely were provided with equipment by their employers, the survey found that just over 60% spent some of their own money – the median figure was a not-inconsiderable €300, and the practice was more prevalent among newly qualified or younger solicitors.
The vast majority of those surveyed were reasonably satisfied with how they were set up for remote working (only 13% described this as ‘poor’). Not surprisingly, the figures were higher for those working in bigger firms with more resources.
One step closer
For employers, the message from the survey is loud and clear: offering the opportunity to work remotely will be key to attracting and retaining staff.
Almost two-thirds of solicitors stated that the ability to provide such arrangements would influence whether they would remain with their current employer. For women, the figure was even higher, at almost 70%.
When asked what factors would influence their thinking about work in future, more than a third cited ‘work/life balance’, with ‘flexible working arrangements’ important to almost 30% of respondents.
There is little desire, however, to cut the connection with the office completely, with only 5% of respondents preferring to work full-time from home in the future.
More than one-third of the profession would prefer to work one or two days a week from home, while a quarter would like to choose their own arrangements.
Solicitors seem to be split on whether remote working would affect their career progression, with 45% expecting no impact, but almost 40% believing that absence from the office would ‘mildly adversely’ hit their future prospects. Only around 10% thought their progress would be ‘severely’ affected by working from home.
For those at a managerial level, two-thirds believe remote working will have no impact on employees’ career progression, although a significant 28% see it as having a negative effect.
How should the Law Society respond to the findings? The report makes several recommendations – including measures on training and wellbeing initiatives – to help employers and staff to move to more flexible arrangements.
It adds that the Society should press for continued remote access to the courts, and also look at promoting tax incentives to reduce the costs of the equipment needed for long-term remote working.
The survey throws up a wide range of other suggestions from respondents, with protocols on remote-working policies and guidance on data-privacy requirements among some of the most important.
Many solicitors also want guidance on the right to disconnect. “Emails sent after 8pm should not be delivered until 8am the next morning, subject to an exception,” one respondent suggests.
For employers in general, the main message is to communicate their remote-working policies more clearly to staff. This should include assurances on training and career progression, an explanation of how staff performance will be monitored, and the firm’s expectations on out-of-hours communications.
In the end
In all, 40% of management respondents – mainly in larger firms – believed that remote working had had a negative impact on the culture of their organisation. The report calls on employers to take steps to address this – including regular review meetings, adequate training for junior staff, and social and team events.
A similar number of managers saw remote working as having negative consequences on collaboration and communication, with this view again more prevalent in larger organisations.
“The larger the organisation and team size, the more difficult it is to maintain cultural influence and engagement,” the report says.
Despite these concerns, however, 70% of managers say that they are ‘likely’, ‘very likely’, or ‘definitely’ going to facilitate remote working in the future.
Responding to the findings, junior vice-chair of the Younger Members Committee Maeve Delargy said that the pandemic had changed the way solicitors work – perhaps forever.
She urged employers to take a pragmatic approach, stressing that setting out expectations, and providing assurances on issues such as training and career development, would help to eliminate some of the main concerns identified in the research.
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