They call it the “Great Resignation.” It seems that 18 months of remote work has changed value priorities for many employees, a term that here includes both lawyers and administrative personnel. Few people want to go back to the office full time. A Prudential survey found that 87 percent of people working from home wanted to continue remote work post-COVID, and 42 percent of remote workers said they would find a new job if told to work in an office full time. Members of Gen Z (ages 9–24) are more likely to want to remain remote some of the time.
Interest in time flexibility, work-life balance, and corporate values began long before COVID-19 arrived. As Adam Grant recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal,
The Great Resignation is the “culmination of a long march towards freedom. More than a generation ago, psychologists documented a generational shift in the centrality of work in our lives. Millennials were more interested in jobs that provided leisure time and vacation time. . . . They were less concerned about net worth than net freedom.”
Today’s employees are similarly less attached to the 2019 concept of traditional work.
Yet employers desperately need employees. Employees are in the catbird’s seat. This power inversion is totally at odds with the traditional top-down, hierarchical law firm universe. In most law firms, equity partners make decisions without asking for input from anyone else. Yet new employee requirements offer an opportunity to rethink traditional law firm structure.
The first crack in tradition appeared when law firm leaders realized that work continued and productivity even increased while everyone worked remotely. There seems to be universal agreement that technology-augmented remote work will continue post-pandemic. The second crack is acceptance of hybrid office arrangements as a compromise.
Hybrid offices offer many management challenges. Issues range from tangible changes such as scheduling to intangibles such as cultural biases that can impact the careers of remote workers and delay progress toward an inclusive, gender-equal, diverse workplace. “Woke” leadership is essential if firms are to move successfully into the new reality.
Responding to Employees
“Coming out of the pandemic, employees are looking to get more out of their work and their companies,” Shannon Hardy, LinkedIn’s vice president of flexible work, told CNBC. “If employers do not communicate about what the future of work looks like for their company, they risk their employees losing trust in the organization. [They] may risk losing their employees altogether.”
Leadership begins with leaders’ openness to listen carefully to what their employees want— what they say and, more importantly, what they mean but leave unsaid. Personally, leaders need to employ active listening skills and empathy. Leaders interested in using this inflection point to create a less stressful, more effective workplace need to court opportunities for conversations with as many employees as possible, especially informal employee leaders, to get a sense of what their workforce wants. Institutionally they can garner employee opinions through anonymous surveys and focus groups.
To begin the dialogue, leaders need to address employees’ fears, stress triggers, and uncertainties with transparency. Take the firm response to the Delta variant. Decisions to open offices or wait a bit longer change from day to day as CDC prognosticators offer ever-evolving advice. When leaders share plans for reopening and offer time for parents and caregivers to prepare for their return to the office, employees can feel that their concerns are being heard. “It’s all about communication. Even sharing where you are in the planning process or what criteria is being used to determine plans will help employees feel seen and prioritized.” 
Currently, the most important issues are plans to address workforce safety and the need to design effective work processes and procedures for a hybrid environment.
- What COVID-19 requirements should the firm enforce? What are the guidelines for outside visitors? Client meetings?
- How will office space be reconfigured for personal safety?
- What will offices be used for—traditional individual work spaces or communal spaces that encourage personal interaction and collaboration? Can and should office space be reduced?
- Who will need to be in the office full time and why? How will time flexibility be created for these workers?
- What will flexibility mean? Can employees choose their remote work days or will patterns with set days be established? If the latter, on what basis?
- How will performance be measured?
“Most employers appear to be attuned to the fact that prioritizing the wellbeing of their workforce is a key determiner of job satisfaction, productivity and retaining top talent. . . . [A] renewed focus on employees’ needs could be what defines the post-pandemic experience of work.”
- Consider “core hours” as a way to reduce employee burnout and meetings overload by setting time periods when everyone has to be available for collaborative activities balanced by other meeting-free time periods. Establish quiet hours when people know they can work uninterrupted.
- Help employees set boundaries between work and life. Mandate vacations and days off. Moderate the intensity of 24/7 communication by banning work emails and texts between certain hours.
- Calendar schedules around the work to be accomplished. Should team members all take the same remote work days? Or should certain days, say Tuesday and Thursday, be available for those who want the flexibility to choose when they work remotely?
Norms, policies, and practices will change as firms create a new culture for the new normal. Firms will have to experiment and learn from their mistakes. Key questions remain:
- What should the role of the office be?
- What work is more effectively done in the office than remotely and vice versa?
- How should work be organized? Do teams need to be physically together to work productively on projects? If yes, then how should team schedules be arranged in a hybrid office?
- How can you avoid a two-tier system in which people working remotely are less valued and rewarded than those working in the office in close physical proximity to their bosses?
- How can meeting leaders ensure equal participation opportunities for remote workers?
- What changes should be implemented to address expectations of 24/7 availability, lessen employee burnout and address work-life balance issues?
- Can leaders recognize and control innate biases that waylay plans to create an equal, inclusive workplace?
The pandemic gave people a chance to see work in a new way—as another segment of their lives rather than separate from their life. And they liked it. Tuned-in, modern thinking leaders will use the new thinking about work as a jumping-off point for firm modernization. “Work isn’t just a livelihood. It can be a source of structure, belonging and meaning in our lives. . . For several generations, we’ve organized our lives around our work. . . It might be time to start planning our work around our lives.”
In my next article I will discuss suggestions for long-term changes in law firms.
 Jennifer Liu, “More than one-third of remote workers are still waiting for their employer’s return-to-office plan,” CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/16/linkedin-36percent-remote-workers-await-employer-return-to-office-plan.html, August 16, 2021.
 Owen Hughes, “A better future of work is coming, but only if we make the right choices now,” TechRepublic, https://www.techrepublic.com/article/a-better-future-of-work-is-coming-but-only-if-we-make-the-right-choices-now/, May 27, 2021.