Managing the Hybrid Workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted us in many ways, including how we work. Hybrid workforces with flexible hours have become part of our everyday practice and, in many places, even expected.

Managers and leaders need to make changes to shift law practices to a modern hybrid workforce. There are three notable changes that law firms should keep in mind when considering this shift.

First, the criteria senior lawyers use to monitor the performances of junior-level lawyers is changing, and it’s one of the larger cultural shifts happening in the profession at the moment. Junior level lawyers were previously measured on criteria such as billable hours and realization rates, but the move towards outcomes-based management, a change made necessary by more reliance on remote supervision, renders traditional methods of supervision difficult to maintain.  Outcomes-based measurements, such as work quality, turnaround, and client satisfaction, are necessary when supervising a remote workforce. It will challenge us as owners and managers to re-think the role of quality in the production environment, and in some cases, require more investment of time, money, and energy to implement effectively.

Moving from paper-based systems to digital-based systems is the second change that needs to happen to support hybrid workforces. The legal profession has been grappling with the challenges of moving a paper-heavy profession to more paperless methods, but the pandemic is pushing lawyers, firms, and the courts in that direction. Paper ticklers have been replaced by calendar alerts and memos by emails. The move to digital reporting systems must also consider best practices as we shift from email to chat-based communication modes, like Microsoft Teams.

Third, mindfully facilitating communication is important for lawyers and law firms, especially when managing a hybrid workforce. In many organizations, teams are brought together by informal communication networks such as seeing each other in the hallway or being able to walk into a partner’s office. That informal communication is lost in hybrid workforces, so leaders must foster communication in other ways, like regularly scheduled virtual team meetings, with time built in for informal, social engagements.

Implications of Moving to a Hybrid Workforce

Building a successful hybrid team will require a paradigm shift for law firm leaders. We must formally and intentionally think about our role as managers, and not just as leaders in the profession. 

As managers, lawyers need to set expectations for the office, such as encouraging employees to attend team meetings. We must invest in training employees to use digital systems to track their work. A law firm leader in a hybrid workforce needs to be more explicit about making sure everyone is following the same practices, so teams can consistently record and share information across the firm, whether they are working on the premises or externally.

Managing a Hybrid Workforce

There are key requirements to managing a hybrid workforce successfully. First, there needs to be firm infrastructure in place. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to run a remote knowledge-based professional service without some form of electronic case and evidence management or document management system. We must invest in electronic systems to replace paper-based systems which require a physical presence at the office.

Second, we need to have ongoing, deliberate conversations about leadership and management topics. Leadership and management can have many definitions in varying workplaces. Law leadership may involve client selection or industry selection, but law management involves scheduling people, scheduling workflows, and planning approvals for your expenses, receivables, and payables. These processes need to be explicitly redesigned and team members trained to use the systems, ensuring smooth organizational flows whether team members are in the office or working offsite.

Mentorship in a Hybrid Workforce

A common opposing argument to hybrid workforces is the assumption young lawyers need face-to-face experience with senior lawyers for mentorship and training. Physical presence is not a substitute for mentorship, and the two are often mistakenly equated. Mentorship involves feedback, the availability to answer questions, and guidance, whether constructive or supportive. 

When I talk to young lawyers in our community, they often express a desire for constructive and supportive feedback on an ongoing basis, and a willingness from a senior lawyer to answer questions - neither of these require in-person face time. 

Benefits of a Hybrid Workforce

There are many compelling reasons for the legal profession to move to a hybrid workforce, the most pressing being compliance with public health orders and the importance of safety. However, it can also be a solution to many of the challenges the profession has been grappling with for some time.

The law profession has an advantage as we move to hybrid work arrangements: it isn’t an industry where people have to be assembled in a physical place to create ideas or processes. The idea of being involved with founders on a day-to-day basis, especially in a profession as demanding as law, isn’t necessary.

Real estate is one of the profession’s most costly line items, particularly in major urban centres, and arguably one with the least returns.  Large firms and corporations have already been reducing their footprints, moving from private offices to open plans and dedicated meeting spaces. A hybrid workforce model presents opportunities to invest less in physical space and more in people and systems, building profitability.

Additionally, a hybrid model may better meet the needs of a more diversified workforce. People of all ages are requesting more flexible work arrangements. Especially since the pandemic, people are expressing their desire to do excellent work and spend more time with their families, their children, and their ageing loved ones. 

The BC Law Society has numerous reports discussing why our profession has struggled to retain young lawyers, particularly women, LGBTQ2S people, and people of colour, even though they represent a significant portion of law school graduates. The hybrid workforce model allows us to develop flexible work arrangements and implement outcomes-based performance evaluations, key best practices in meeting the needs of and retaining a more diverse workforce.

Flexible arrangements are expected in the modern workforce and these expectations need to be met in order for law offices and organizations to attract and foster the next generation of young professionals. 

The Future of Hybrid Workforces

The pandemic has changed our lives in many ways, and the shift to a hybrid workforce is a change that is here to stay. Professionals and paraprofessionals become accustomed to flexible hours, and it’s been proven that a hybrid workforce can be efficient and effective. Many law firms have now realized the power and the efficiency of a fully digital, automated workflow, as opposed to their paper-based models. There is no going back. The pendulum may swing back to more in-person interactions, but many people only want to come in a few times a week if they can work from home the remainder of the time. The hybrid workforce is here to stay and it’s important to learn how to manage hybrid models to make them sustainable.