By Gina Eliadis
Director of Marketing & Business Development at Goodell DeVries
Working remotely has changed the way we relate to each other and to our careers. Personal and professional fulfillment has come to the fore, with employees insisting on flexible work arrangements and millions of Americans leaving their jobs in 2021 and 2022 – a phenomenon dubbed “the Great Resignation.” The result is a business world very different from the one in which we’ve operated for decades.
Over the summer, The Wall Street Journal published yet another think piece on the demise of the office. In her July 28 column, Peggy Noonan trod familiar territory – remote work, first necessitated by the pandemic and threatening to persist, will usher in less professionalism, shallow business relationships, more political polarization, a decline in mentoring, less spontaneous brainstorming with colleagues, and a withered sense of organizational mission. Worst of all, the nature of professional ambition may be changing. We are headed for a breakdown in organizational and national culture.
Two and a half years after COVID-19 sent office-dwellers to work from the safety of our homes, employers are grappling with the question of whether and how to enact permanent remote work policies. Skepticism about at-home productivity is an oft-cited consideration. But Noonan’s predictions get at something more fundamental – the very fabric of professional life. Per Noonan, colleagues must occupy the same physical space to learn, bond, and brainstorm. Without that shared daily experience, relationships will deteriorate, and organizations will suffer.
Dismal, yes. Credible? Not entirely.
Noonan’s piece is filled with problematic statements and assumptions. However, let’s focus on the idea that remote work erodes professional relationships.
For some people, being among colleagues is energizing. Others appreciate the opportunity to hunker down to work in quiet off-site. The response from law firms, of course, is the hybrid policy, which combines some work-from-home benefits with mandatory in-office time. We’re not moving toward a remote workforce. We’re moving toward a workplace in which there is flexibility.
Where there is flexibility, there tends to be greater satisfaction, less stress, and more productivity. Consider:
“According to the Thomson Reuters Stellar Performance Survey from 2021, 59% of law firm lawyers said that working from home positively impacted their overall well-being and job performance.”
What about law firm clients? Like their lawyers, clients have also adopted similar hybrid office routines. From the same Thomson Reuters survey mentioned above:
“…84% of legal decision-makers admitted to not being frustrated due to their lawyers being outside of their work environment.”
In fact, we’ve been managing relationships of all kinds in hybrid fashion for decades. We routinely supplement our in-person interactions with email, social media, and phone and video conferences. Consider too that almost two-thirds of the U.S. workforce is under age 50. A huge chunk of workers is long accustomed to creating and maintaining relationships at least partly online. We’re certainly capable of bonding and brainstorming with people we don’t see in person, in an office, every day. We’ve spent the past two years showing that’s possible.
It’s not only possible; in some ways, it can create deeper connections. What are some of the common, and very human, experiences we’ve shared while working from home? Commiseration about a Zoom meeting gone awry? The fun of seeing a coworker’s pet curiously eyeing a webcam? An impromptu conversation about the artwork hanging in your home office? These are the everyday things that spark real conversation, which in turn builds trust. Far from eroding relationships, remote work has revealed new ways to relate to our colleagues and clients.
And far from eroding organizational culture, remote work has transformed it into something more sincere. Removing the superficial trappings of office life creates more space for collegiality and a sharper focus on the work itself.
There is one assertion in Noonan’s column with which it’s hard to disagree: that perhaps the nature of ambition is changing.
The Great Resignation did not happen because of the pandemic, but it accelerated because of it. Switching jobs or pursuing an entirely new career is easier in a remote working environment. The virtual business world removes the obstacles of uprooting one’s life, moving to a new city, or taking on a longer commute as trade-offs for finding more satisfying work.
Remote work also gave us a glimpse of better work/life balance and more fulfilling professional lives. It is a benefit that many of us are loath to surrender.
This is indeed a dramatic, and long overdue, change in the nature of ambition.
And where could this be more welcome than in the legal industry? Law firms that have adopted hybrid policies are supporting the well-being of their lawyers and those who support them. On the whole, firm leaders have done remarkably well in adapting to the changes ushered in by the pandemic. They have united their teams amid tremendous shifts in the ways of doing business and ensured an uninterrupted focus on meeting client needs.
Contrary to what the WSJ’s editorial staff argues, this is a forward-looking evolution of organizational culture, not its demise.
This post originally appeared in the LMA Mid-Atlantic Region member newsletter, October 2022