Long working hours, presenteeism and a lack of flexibility have dogged the legal profession for so long that they were simply accepted as the norm or a badge of honour.
Leaving a jacket on the chair to show they were still at work, or sending emails out of hours, perpetuated the myth that lawyers had to work long hours and be visible if they wanted to get ahead. The result, invariably, was that many suffered burnout, or left the profession completely because they had no work-life balance. And even if they didn’t, nobody is productive day-to-day if they’re always worn out.
Much has been said about whether the past 18 months has changed this damaging culture. Enforced remote working at the height of lockdown has now given way to hybrid models for many firms, which has been broadly welcomed and research suggests that lawyers are overwhelmingly in favour of working remotely at least part of the week, citing increased efficiency, more productive use of technology and less time commuting.
But while hybrid working offers greater flexibility, technology has also created an ‘always on’ culture where the boundaries between work and home life disappear. With no train to rush for, it’s been easy to rack up unpaid overtime instead of putting the laptop away – especially where there’s been an influx of work, as happened in conveyancing due to the Stamp Duty Holiday.
If people feel like they’re ‘living at work’ when they're at home, it’s likely to impact their productivity and wellbeing, and the commercial success of the firm. This is why, when adopting a hybrid model, it’s important to tackle both new and long-standing challenges in order to create sustainable working practices for the future.
Using analytics to monitor hours worked, productivity and performance can highlight any issues and is the starting point for meaningful change.
A cloud-based solution not only makes it easier for people to work from anywhere in the first place, it also offers valuable and easy-to-act-on analytics.
The cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 stack, for instance, allows firms to track employee activity, productivity and collaboration and quickly flag any issues and explore opportunities.
Any successful law firm needs to know how long fee-earners spend answering emails or in meetings, and whether this is time well-spent or could be made more efficient. Analytics can tell you if someone is clicking on other windows while in an online meeting – which could be a sign that they’re not engaged, there are too many meetings and/or they’re trying to multitask.
Analytics also help determine whether time spent away from non-billable work, such as marketing and business development, delivers a good ROI or whether it’d be wiser to employ a full-time specialist.
Similarly, if the metrics show that collaboration across departments is poor, senior managers might ask what’s stopping people and also understand the cost of opportunity. Moving their operations to the cloud could be a worthwhile investment if it enables teams to share expertise, eliminate unnecessary duplication and cross-sell more services.
In theory, nobody should be clocking up hours at the weekend or 12 hours per day, so if they are, it needs to be addressed. Excessive workloads could be the culprit, as could over or under-utilisation of resources across the firm, or poor engagement leading to low productivity.
To be clear, this is not about snooping on employees (after all, many lawyers are high achievers and their own worst enemy when it comes to taking a break). Instead, it’s a way to make sure everyone’s workload is balanced, so they can perform well without putting in extra hours or suffering burnout in the process.
Moving to hybrid working might feel like a big step, especially for more traditional firms, because it’s easier for people to fall off the radar. But when combined with metrics such as absence rates and staff turnover, the analytics discussed above empower managers to track productivity and quality of work. This will help them to create a culture where people aren’t afraid to switch off completely once their day, either in the office or at home, is done.
Matt Newton is the Co-Founder of Oosha, a cloud solutions provider to the legal sector and part of Access Legal.