Navigating Office Returns & Rebellions


After several attempts to find a new normal over the past few years, the current climate represents a shifting pattern in workplace culture. The office is increasingly resembling pre-pandemic life, which comes as a reality check for junior workers who have been used to a hybrid way of working. Law firms are a great example of these changes, where traditional values of client work first and a five-day office week seem to be making something of a comeback.

Amid a challenging economic climate and uncertain deal flow, corporate directive makes clear that executive leadership wants workers at their desks. Clients are asking what they are paying for in their service fees, and there is a strong emphasis that presenteeism will underpin a successful and sustained company culture. Meanwhile, there are continued mass layoffs and restructurings as businesses weather the turbulent economic storms and are trying to let the dust settle.

In the legal industry, it was initially US firms in London that led the shift back to office-centric working, with mandatory four-day weeks common post-summer 2023. This was met with a mix of surprise and annoyance by their employees. Indeed, some UK and international firms initially adopted more flexible policies as a point of pride and difference, hoping to entice candidates in the hiring process. But they are now beginning to align with their American counterparts, with some Magic Circle firms even tracking the number of tap-ins and -outs to the office. No doubt artificial intelligence (AI) will also begin to feed into tracking tools, bringing with it new considerations for human resources practitioners and the overall employee experience—it is a hard tightrope to balance.

Employee resistance

Throughout these announcements, employees are asking: what are we getting in return? Hybrid working now has a proven successful track record, making it harder for organisations to disregard flexibility. There is still a talent exit risk, with people either seeking more flexible workplaces, or new careers altogether. Loyalty is dwindling and job-hopping is far more common than it used to be. On the flipside, if a return to a culture that values physical presence in the office and long hours is expected, it is likely that those who conform will be rewarded with opportunities like partnership promotions and access to high-profile work.

Contrary to current narratives surrounding the younger workforce, it is often the senior associates and partners who are most resistant to returning to the office at present. They have come to appreciate the benefits of reduced commutes and additional family time, while also running busy practices and bringing in key clients without the extra stress of the office. Conversely, many junior lawyers are eager for time in the office, seeking mentorship and learning opportunities directly from their seniors. This gap creates frustration, particularly when younger lawyers present in the office find their senior counterparts absent, thereby missing out on critical informal learning and networking opportunities.

The challenge extends to the effectiveness of virtual training, too. Justifying high law firm fees becomes problematic if clients perceive they are engaging with an under-trained and under-resourced virtual team. We have seen some investment banks pushing back on why their suppliers are remote working and this has had a domino effect across industries. This situation potentially places US firms, known for their leaner operational models, at an advantage by enabling them to win the return to office race.

Managing the return

Successful implementation of a full return, however, requires a dedicated workforce that focuses on creating both effective virtual and in-person learning and development opportunities, and manages the operational side of things. In London, demand for office space is at an all-time high, as companies look to increase their office footprint.

Organisations are upgrading their fit-outs or moving to new locations to create more agile working spaces to facilitate the changing dynamic of meetings in the hope that staff will be encouraged to come in. In coming years, we can expect to see a surge in the importance and size of learning and development teams, particularly in those firms genuinely committed to adapting to evolving culture.

Leadership plays a crucial role in this transition. If leaders expect their teams to be physically present, they must lead by example. Without this demonstration of commitment, efforts to bring employees back to the office are likely to be met with scepticism and resistance.

Finally, the success of fully flexible policies, such as those offering 100% remote roles in exchange for a pay cut, remains to be seen. Young lawyers especially may question whether these firms are simply paying lip service and whether in practice, this offer is really on the table.

Companies are at a critical juncture. The challenge of re-integrating office-based work culture involves navigating a complex web of training and development issues, employee expectations, and leadership responsibilities. Firms that successfully manage this transition will be those that recognise and address the nuanced needs of their workforce while maintaining high standards of client service and operational efficiency. The road ahead is not straight, but it is a necessary journey for any company to adapt and thrive in the post-Covid era. 


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