Effective RTO Strategies: Prioritize Flexibility to Strengthen Culture

As legal employers contemplate return-to-office (RTO) policies, we must accept that we are not returning to the world that existed prior to March 2020. Our greater understanding of both the challenges and benefits of remote work (and the ever-shifting public health landscape) means that to be effective, law firm policies must embrace flexibility to allow for people to work both inside and outside of the office as needs fluctuate. Firms can mitigate this unpredictability by developing clear communication and strategies that foster efficiency, promote engagement and support sustainable work practices. By pairing technology with clear lines of communication, firms can nimbly serve the needs of clients while also investing in personnel and team culture.

The key to preserving your firm’s culture is to design an approach that is guided by your organization’s key values. As you contemplate your path forward, take into account the following guidance:

1. Realize that one size no longer fits all

Recognize that the needs of teams and individuals will continue to fluctuate, often in unpredictable ways. Even those attorneys who prefer to be based in the office may unexpectedly need to work from home if they or a family member is quarantined due to COVID exposure or illness. Collaborate with individuals to establish practices that balance the needs of the firm with the unique needs and challenges of attorneys and staff.

2. Be clear when rigid adherence is necessary — and when it is not

While certain policies may need to be applied universally, resist the temptation to treat this approach as the default position for all decisions. As you institute new practices, question what is gained (and lost) by rigid application and consider whether there could be another, more accommodating option. Communicate the rationale behind your decisions clearly so that your intentions are understood.

3. Expect the unexpected

Invest in technology and communication practices that enable people to shift their work location with minimal interruption. Establish communication protocols that promote predictability among team members so that clients and colleagues know when personnel are available and how best to engage with them. If teams or practice groups have periodic in-person meetings, hold these on a predictable schedule that enables those who typically work remotely to plan in advance and make the necessary arrangements to attend.

4. Develop a culture of trust and extinguish the attitude that equates remote work with a lack of commitment  

Prior to 2020, law firm leaders were often skeptical of those who wanted to work remotely, assuming such individuals were prioritizing personal needs over those of the firm. Thanks to the last two years, we now have robust evidence demonstrating that attorneys can and do deliver excellent client service while working from home. Indeed, by eliminating commutes and other obstacles, many find that they are better able to focus their attention on their client matters when working remotely.

Be open to collaborating directly with those attorneys and staff who need an alternate arrangement. Take a problem-solving approach by inviting them to suggest options that could meet their individual needs as well as the firm’s. In addition to generating creative solutions, this type of collaboration instills in your people a deeper level of trust, loyalty and ownership over their matters.

5. Recognize that different people flourish under different conditions

Some extroverts might be eager to return to the office, especially if they have felt isolated working from home. On the other hand, some introverts may find that they are more productive working in quiet environments where they are not interrupted by frequent visitors and impromptu meetings. Trust people to recognize the conditions under which they perform at their best and allow them to match the environment to the task at hand.

6. Allow for different geographic approaches

Local public health conditions and mandates will continue to vary widely and fluctuate frequently, necessitating different approaches in each geographic market. Build in flexibility when designing firmwide policies to allow individual offices to account for these local demands.

7. Respect individuals’ different risk assessments

Recognize that each person has a different level of risk tolerance regarding potential exposure to COVID due to individual and family circumstances. Even if your office embraces heightened safety protocols, those who formerly relied on public transportation may no longer feel comfortable elevating their risk of exposure on their commute.

8. Be attentive to those who feel disconnected

Attorneys and staff who joined firms immediately prior to or during the period of remote work say that they feel disconnected from their colleagues. Leaders should reach out to these individuals routinely and develop specific practices to help newcomers build connections with members of their local offices, their practice groups and firm leadership.

9. Design opportunities to attract people to the office

People are eager for a sense of connection to each other, to the firm and to your clients. Draw attorneys and staff to the office by offering periodic opportunities to congregate on a team, practice group, affinity group and office level. Utilize these gatherings to foster interaction and fortify connection in a way that is hard to replicate via technology. Prioritize both work-oriented and sociallyfocused events, and where appropriate, consider integrating clients to facilitate their connection to the firm. Offering these high-impact, in-person experiences will attract people to the office and deepen their sense of belonging to the firm.

Your firm prides itself on its customized, high-touch approach to client service; investing in your organization’s culture requires the same level of deliberate care and intention. By embracing a flexible and pragmatic approach to your RTO policies, you are investing in your firm’s ability to serve clients while enhancing your ability to engage, retain and attract strong talent.