Regrettable rollback of remote work | Breanna Needham

By Breanna Needham

Law360 Canada (July 13, 2023, 12:01 PM EDT) --
Breanna Needham
Breanna Needham
Remote work appears to no longer be on the rise, at least in the legal profession. While working remotely had a meteoric ascension by reason of necessity in 2020 due to the ‎COVID-19 pandemic, many law firms and legal employers are now beginning to mandate multiple days of attendance in the office each week. The reasons provided for the return to office mandates vary, and include a variety of justifications, from firm culture to increasing collaboration.

This is a regrettable rollback to a workplace model that didn’t work all that well to begin with. For example, research on the reduction in microaggressions faced by members of equity-seeking groups with the increase of remote work has been reported on broadly. The flexibility inherent in the ability to make the space you work in work for you (or at least having the option to), whether in an office or elsewhere, is important for everyone. Much like any other matter in the workplace, people get out of remote work what they put into it; being committed to mentoring, engaging, collaborating, and building relationships is just as important when working remotely as it is in physical office buildings.

While there are some lawyers who prefer to be in the office regularly (if not daily), and others who work best with a blended or hybrid approach, this is not the case for everyone. For some lawyers, working remotely is necessary for physical or mental health, and return to office mandates may not adequately take these factors into consideration. For others, the ability to work remotely has become a deal-breaker, even more so than compensation, particularly for people who find that their productivity is bolstered by working remotely, in addition to an enhanced ability to manage and engage in their lives outside of work. In a profession plagued with concerns about overwork, lack of work-life balance, and mental health struggles for legal professionals, flexibility in the way lawyers work is a tool for addressing these issues.

While many firms, both large and small, have been implementing requirements for working in the office a certain number of days each week, these mandates are not without dissension.

This is particularly the case among more junior members of the legal profession, even if the disagreement is perhaps not being expressed (in part for fear of the potential consequences of doing so). In private conversations, concerns and complaints range from the commute and a reduction in work-life balance in an already demanding job, to the constraints, such as the lack of flexibility and attending at the office only to spend the day on video calls which could have been taken anywhere. In many of these discussions, any senior member of the profession who steps up and supports continued remote work for those who want it is spoken of with some reverence.

If it hasn’t become clear by this point, I am a strong proponent of the ability to work remotely and flexibly, and am one of those lawyers for whom it has become a foundational part of working efficiently and effectively, including when it comes to collaboration and mentoring. I had the experience of joining a workplace remotely during a time of heightened pandemic restrictions; the fully remote nature of the work was never a hindrance. As a result of the timing, I did not meet many of my colleagues in person for months after we began ‎working together, and there are many I have not yet met in person, but still work, collaborate and engage with regularly regardless of the distance or digital nature of our connection.

I am fortunate to work closely with senior colleagues who bring their extensive experience both in law and in life to the discussion in support of the notion that remote work does, in fact, work. Stephen Gleave, a senior member of the bar who describes himself as “old enough to remember what a 1985 office looked like” (and can recount all the problems associated with such office structures), is in favour of continued remote work for those who choose it: “In my view, the way forward is to work from home and be with your family and chosen community, and only be in the office when critical. … While we may be working in better conditions today, we experience an equally negative existence: to ‎commute to skyscrapers in a dense urban core through massive traffic jams and poorly constructed ‎public transport, causing stress, anxiety, loss of production and, most importantly, the constant wear ‎and tear on our personal and family relationships.”

It remains to be seen what the future holds for workplaces of legal profession. Hopefully, this future includes remote work, rather than a retirement of it.

Breanna Needham is a lawyer who practises commercial litigation with a focus on investigations and civil fraud matters in Toronto. A few of her favourite things include her cats, naps, books and snacks.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, 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.

Photo credit / EvgeniyShkolenkopicy ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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