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Unintended Consequences and Surprising Developments from Return-to-Office Mandates

August 23, 2023

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Over the past year or so, as COVID-related restrictions have eased, law organisations have begun instituting various ‘return to office’ (RTO) policies. Some of the first garnered headlines in the industry press, particularly those severely restricting (or, in a few cases, eliminating) work-from-home (WFH) arrangements. Many law firms have justified their mandates as best for business and employees. Numerous articles have reported a backlash from lawyers and staff displeased by having to give up the flexibility of work-from-home in exchange for commutes, dress codes, and the other impositions that returning to the office inflicts.

All of this creates an impression, first, of a general and justified consensus that return-to-office arrangements necessarily benefit law organisations and, second, that many – most, perhaps – lawyers dislike RTO mandates. Yet, from what my Elevate Flexible Resourcing colleagues and I have seen, things are not so clear-cut. In reality, the push for RTO creates business risks, and attitudes towards RTO mandates diverge along generational lines.


The Business Downside of RTO

Conventional wisdom seems to be that RTO increases productivity that boosts the bottom line. But this ignores the tremendous opportunity costs that curtailing or eliminating WFH incurs. My colleagues and our customers have seen first-hand the unprecedented availability of remotely situated mid- and senior-level lawyers with extensive expertise in critical practice areas. Blanket RTO mandates unavoidably eliminate immense swaths of talented legal professionals with skills, knowledge, and expertise that provide myriad benefits – including reduced compliance-related risk, a greater ability to successfully compete for particular types of matters, lower labour costs, and increased profitability.

Another overlooked cost of RTO comes from its impact on diversity, equitability and inclusion. Allowing remote work means a more diverse talent pool. It also benefits inclusion when returning to an office means entering an environment that individuals experience as non-inclusive. Moreover, requiring physical presence in a specific location may impose insurmountable burdens for individuals with limited physical mobility. Given the demonstrated business benefits of diversity, equitability, and inclusion – on attracting and retaining talent, increasing innovation and productivity, and winning and holding on to customers and clients – law departments and law firms are unwise to disregard the business impact of RTO mandates that affect DEI.


Enamoured With RTO…or Not 

As for attitudes towards RTO, my Elevate colleagues and I have seen a somewhat unexpected divergence of opinion. Most (though not all) junior legal professionals welcome RTO, while the majority of those further along in their careers prefer remote arrangements.

Reports of fierce resistance among ‘Generation Z’ members to RTO mandates have been greatly exaggerated. How can this be? Younger professionals were at the forefront of the WFH revolution – what happened?

Several reasons explain it:

  • Social Connection. Many junior professionals feel they have missed out on the camaraderie and social connection that in-office work fosters.
  • Professional Development. Those early on in their careers want the chance to learn ‘by osmosis’ and receive mentoring from colleagues with more extensive experience.
  • Office Amenities. Perks (such as onsite gyms, coffee shops, restaurants, etc.) remain of interest to professionals with limited experience working in environments that offer more activities and variety than in WFH settings.

Lawyers know that most legal rules have exceptions – and that, very often, those exceptions exist for good reasons. Similarly, law department and law firm leaders would do well to resist a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to RTO. Flexibility around where legal professionals do work benefits law organisations and lawyers alike.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that RTO increases productivity and thereby boosts the bottom line, there are significant opportunity costs from curtailing or eliminating remote work.

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