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We (still) need to talk about the office

The Professional Practices Alliance hosted an interactive discussion on the future of working arrangements and professional firm space.  Attendees benefitted from the insight of excellent panellists Oliver Richards (Director, Orms), Beth Hale (Partner, CM Murray LLP) and Rob Millard (Cambridge Strategy Group) and the discussion was chaired by Corinne Staves (Partner, Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP). The discussion also drew on data collated in a survey and our thanks to those who participated.

These are just a few of the interesting points raised.

  • Prolonged periods of enforced working from home have proved the resilience of the professions and the surprising ease with which we adapted quickly and smoothly to significant change. Few people miss regularly commuting and, unlike face-to-face, there are rarely latecomers to Zoom meetings.  Global firms are finally able to provide an equal platform for those based outside the London HQ. This was highlighted by attendees joining this 9.30am (UK) webinar from Malaysia, Toronto and Rotterdam.  But many miss the collegiality and energy of working alongside clients and colleagues in a shared work-space.
  • In our webinar poll, nearly half of attendees predicted we would be spending 75% or more of our time working from the office. This contrasts with the survey, in which the majority suggested 60/40 office/WFH (and the largest minority said 40/60 office/WFH).
  • Epidemiologists report that we will live with COVID forever, so we will need to evolve and a year at home has already altered everyone’s horizons. Firms need to reflect this in their long-term strategy and identify how to motivate their teams to be productive and best serve their clients.  As ever, understanding how clients expect to evolve and how the firm can support their evolution is at the heart of that planning.
  • A successful workplace will have a good ‘buzz’, provide a sense of companionship and promote discussion and communication internally and externally.  It is thought that 1/3 occupancy is probably the minimum required to achieve a buzz. It is not an easy balance – good buzz quickly becomes too much noise if it compromises acoustic privacy.
  • Another challenge will be properly supporting the new hybrid of office-based and remote working, probably through investment in office technology and thoughtful office re-configuration.  Simply re-designating the entire office space as hot-desks wont work: most people hate the uncertainty and disruption of working from a different, impersonal space each day.
  • The UK’s legal framework was not designed for pandemic recovery, so in most cases firms have significant flexibility to impose new arrangements on team members. That is not to say the landscape is not complex: consideration will be needed of COVID secure work-spaces, regular risk assessments and compliance with data protection rules when handling thorny questions such as whether or not to communicate about illness and/or vaccination levels across the business.
  • Firms can probably however impose change on team members, but should they?  Firm culture has become more fragile during COVID and permanent damage is easy. Good listening and communication is vital so everyone understands the firm’s strategic priorities and their individual role in achieving the firm’s success. The survey suggested that around 30% of respondent firms will distinguish between partners and other team members. If this affords partners greater flexibility than they are prepared to offer staff, this could have a damaging impact on the firm’s culture and success. (Equally, partners who feel undermined because they don’t understand why they have less flexibility than their assistants may choose to vote with their feet).
  • Firms need to decide how their firm should manage their partner body. Tensions may emerge if there has been a disparity in contribution during COVID and if this is not addressed as some form of normality returns.  Firms would be well advised to review their LLP or partnership deeds and/or partner KPIs. If some sectors simply do not recover, drastic change may be needed involving ‘redundancy’ style exercises for groups of partners and this is very difficult to manage without effective powers.  The survey suggested that only 50% of firms had a 'no cause' removal power. This approach was common a decade ago but is now quite rare so perhaps these firms need to review and update their deeds.  Equally, the survey and anecdotal evidence has shown that some teams have thrived during COVID, and protection against the impact of team moves is vital. Finally, do the LLP/partnership deed and the firm’s policies accommodate and support the new working arrangements that the firm has decided best supports its objectives?  

A recording of the webinar (excluding the break-out discussions) will shortly be available, and the survey data will be circulated to webinar invitees.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues arising from this webinar please contact Corinne Staves (corinne.staves@MTGLLP.com or 020 7786 8724) or your usual Alliance contact.

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