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Working from home – future perfect? | Feature

In 1624 poet John Donne published Meditation XVII; part of his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. This contained the famous reflection that: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ But how does that affect those working from home (WFH) amid Covid-19? And with so many local government lawyers operating remotely, will 21st century technology be enough to keep corporate cohesion in council legal practices? In other words, will IT be able to make the many cellular islands feel like a real part of the mainland? 

For this pandemic has certainly wrought many changes. Among these is the widespread frequency of WFH. But will this be with us for the long haul? And what do people think of it? Will WFH begin as heaven but morph gradually into hell? And what would local government lawyers like?

Some interesting answers have emerged from exclusive research findings in Life after Lockdown (LAL), published last month by Local Government Lawyer in association with LexisNexis. During the summer, the research surveyed 70 heads of legal and 448 other local government lawyers. This indicates that remote working is likely to become mainstream after Covid-19, with only 4% of local government lawyers wanting a full-time return to the office post-pandemic.

The survey certainly indicated WFH positives: 68% of respondents said that working hour flexibility had improved; and the absence of a daily commute has been a big plus, with comments that lawyers have more time in the day and are less tired and more energised. One respondent said: ‘Even with four children in the house I have found fewer distractions than working in the office.’ That, of course, depends on the nature, type and size of home accommodation and the availability of childcare assistance. But for others, school closures had made the childcare balancing act stressful, requiring late night and early morning working to get the work done.

Others also commented on the inevitable blurring between work and home life, especially with increased workloads and reduced legal budgets. One lawyer said the fundamental flaw was that lockdown remote working became ‘living at work’. And with business calls forwarded to personal mobiles, some lawyers felt they were ‘never away from the office’. Moreover, ‘working at home all the time gets lonely without interaction with colleagues in an office environment’.

The survey indicated that most heads of legal seemed to find no particular management problems, with one commenting that ‘trainees and senior staff are more organised and focused’; and another recording that ‘remote working has proved to be far more efficient and effective than office working’. Clearly, adequate and effective technology is key to successful remote working. For when asked what would improve the WFH experience, ‘lawyers were more likely to reference hardware and connectivity issues rather than software’.

But local government lawyers recognise the need for a balance between home and remote working, with their ideal being two days in the office and three at home – ‘being able to see colleagues breaks the day up and is good for morale and learning as you pick things up from listening to others’. This is an important point. For remote working can work well for a time while lawyers retain a clear mental profile of their colleagues and ‘client’ contacts. But virtual communication cannot capture the unique face-to-face invisibles, which are better at sparking creativity and innovation, and enhancing morale and motivation.

WFH also misses the ready availability to juniors of senior colleagues for advice, guidance and learning the job. Phoning or video-conferencing a manager is much more of an ‘event’ than passing by a colleague’s desk with a ‘can I just run this by you?’, or ‘how do I go about this?’. And although local government lawyers apparently see the optimum weekly home-office ratio as three days at home, two in the office, in general three days in the office with two at home (with appropriate flexibility) looks like a more effective longer-term mix. But it seems clear that remote working availability is here to stay for local government lawyers. Some 57% of lawyers indicated that WFH availability would be a ‘major’ factor in employer choice, with a further 22% saying it would be a minor consideration.

When home becomes office more permanently, there are things to bear in mind. ACAS has some useful guidance (tinyurl.com/y4yppfhy). This covers various issues including health and safety (HSE separately reminds employers that they ‘have the same health and safety responsibilities for home workers as for any other workers’), employee responsibilities, equipment and technology, and expenses.  On WFH and wellbeing, LAL has a useful article from Lawcare’s Elizabeth Rimmer.

Extensive WFH has yet to meet winter. For while the research was conducted in summer, with long days, frequent sunshine and warm homes, winter is less benign, with increased heating bills eroding travel savings (subject to any tax reliefs), rationed daylight and no office buzz to lighten moods. As to longer-term professional development, former Supreme Court justice Jonathan Sumption was downbeat. As reported in the Gazette (tinyurl.com/yypbban7), he believes the legal sector’s move to home working has imposed a ‘significant and damaging change in traditional patterns of life, particularly among the young’. It has also had a ‘seriously damaging impact on virtually every aspect of professional formation’.  

However, flexibility is likely to be key. For while partial WFH will no doubt remain, a regular and sustainable core office presence is also likely post-Covid. Along, of course, with sufficient and regular whole department and individual team meetings to maintain sound standards and corporate identity, and to keep the creative human flame alight.

 

Nicholas Dobson writes on local authority, governance and public law


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