Associates prioritized work-life balance far before this pandemic began. Many thought the ability to work remotely was a necessary part of this.
Now that we are months into working from home, many associates are realizing that working from home does not equate to work-life balance. Instead, the expectations of when to be available have been blurred into a stage of perma-availability.
The issue stems from the lack of consistency across firms on work-from-home expectations and policies.
Before this crisis began, law firms were at a crawl at instituting work-from-home policies. Many in law firm leadership were resistant to the idea because there was an assumption that remote working would compromise efficiency, not allow for groups to work cohesively, and impact the ability to maintain and service clients successfully.
Instead, law firms worked tirelessly to develop an office work culture that distinguished them from their peers. Firms often emphasized their open-door policies, collaborative teams, focus on professional development and respect for one another. They invested time and energy into developing and maintaining these characteristics, which was challenging even when everyone was in the office.
Since many firms lacked formal remote work policies, they were forced to quickly adapt when states began instituting stay-at-home orders earlier this year. Without clear policies and procedures in place, it's no surprise that the boundaries between work and life broke down.
In this environment, associates have been forced to try to impose boundaries for themselves, including working with associate resource managers, blocking their calendar, talking about expectations with their partners, and communicating limitations in their schedules due to their own individual circumstances.
Now, as states begin the process of reopening, law firms are, for the most part, proceeding with caution. However, regardless of when offices reopen, it is increasingly clear that remote working is more widely accepted and will likely become a permanent part of every law firm's culture.
So the question many firms should now be asking is how does the culture they worked so hard to cultivate before coronavirus translate into an effective remote working environment? And how can law firms lay out clear and concise expectations for a remote working environment that are consistent for all associates?
The good news is this pandemic has demonstrated that law firms can operate successfully in a fully remote environment. Firms have found that associates are incredibly efficient, produce quality work, maintain strong client relationships, and preserve group cohesiveness and comradery.
Given these results, firms have the opportunity to take a step back and do what they should have done before this crisis began: take the time to develop formal remote working policies so that they can begin shaping what their work-from-home culture will look like moving forward.
Now is the time for reflection to decide how successful — or unsuccessful — the last few months of working from home have been. Instead of leaning into the reactive policies that had to be adapted at the start of this crisis, firms can now take the time to identify areas for improvement and provide guidance to their attorneys about the firm's work-from-home expectations.
This includes clearly identifying work hour expectations, laying out guidelines for how attorneys should communicate times of unavailability, deciding what technologies they will use to allow teams to work cohesively, investing in technology to ensure that client confidentiality is protected, offerings trainings for staff, and more. These policies need to come from the top down so that expectations are consistent across the firm.
This crisis pushed firms to make drastic changes swiftly, but it has become clear that many of those changes are here to stay. Firms now need to reflect and assess whether their quick responses to the pandemic truly align with the cultures that existed when they were in the office.
There is likely room for improvement. As firms transition to being more work-from-home-friendly, it is vital that partners and associates alike are aligned with the expectations of one another.
Summer Eberhard is a managing director in the associate practice group at Major Lindsey & Africa. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.