Profits-per-partner is a crucial metric for success for law firms, as an indicator of financial health, profitability, competitiveness and rate of growth. In order to run an efficient and successful legal practice, it’s important that firms have the ability to focus on achieving optimal PPP. But the onset of hybrid working has made this harder than ever. Most workplaces now use an ecosystem of different communication channels – Slack, Teams, Zoom, email, phone – which means that attention is often fragmented and distractions are frequent.
In addition, remote work has fostered an always-available culture, with employees keen to be seen as visible and productive. Which may sound like a galvanising force in terms of output, but in fact may have the opposite effect - eating into personal time and leaving your team feeling overstretched.
So how can your firm avoid the pitfalls and embrace a work culture that contributes positively to PPP? Here are some useful tips.
A study by the University of California found that it takes an average of 25 minutes to refocus after an interruption. Even if the time you spend answering emails and jumping on Zooms doesn’t sound huge in terms of minutes and seconds, the cumulative effects of lost focus add up to a significant amount of squandered productivity over time.
Busy offices are prime environments for in-person interruptions (the same study found workers are distracted every eleven minutes on average.) But working from home comes with plenty of familiar distractions as well: the Amazon driver at the door, the noisy neighbour, perhaps even a needy pet. Once the flow is broken, it’s tough to get back to the task at hand. Giving your team the trust and flexibility to decide how and where they work is a good place to start, along with ensuring your office has plenty of quiet areas for disturbance-free work. Making sure you have a culture that allows them to properly manage time helps too. For example, 32% of people have found themselves thinking “this meeting could have been an email”, according to SurveyMonkey.
Using a dedicated team to handle potential interruptions – for example, an outsourced switchboard service to field your calls – is also a great way to ensure that your team is able to operate at maximum concentration. A responsible, empathetic switchboard team can answer all inbound calls on your behalf and filter them according to urgency, keeping distractions to a minimum.
Streamline your tech stack to beat the ‘toggling tax’
Your team will need to use a variety of programs for their work – productivity tools, scheduling apps, research databases, word processors, document management software, and much more. Harvard Business Review notes the adverse effects of the so-called ‘toggling tax’ - the time and mental energy lost to flicking between different tabs and programs. Even a simple task might require visits to a practice management platform like Clio or Denovo, a storage solution like Dropbox or OneDrive, plus a handful of other apps – DocuSign, Outlook, Word – all to complete one small job.
Because the different platforms all have unique user interfaces, purposes and layouts, the cognitive effect can be significant. The Harvard Business Review calls it “context switching”, and notes: “Psychology and neuroscience have shown that…even switching or toggling between two applications increases the brain’s production of cortisol (the primary stress hormone), slows us down, and makes it harder to focus.” There is no easy way around context-switching in a modern office environment. But making sure your practice’s workflows are as efficient and user-friendly as possible – with modern, intuitive software and integrated I.T. systems – can help lessen the stress.
Prioritise ‘useful hours’ over ‘visible hours’
Equity partners have undoubtedly experienced ‘responsibility-creep’ in the last few years. The need to manage costs, hold onto business, hire associates, develop relationships with clients and stakeholders, and generate billable hours increasingly fall under the aegis of the equity partner, as well as the usual responsibilities of counselling, research, and analysis.
Since the pandemic, there is an additional expectation for senior partners to be ‘visible’ – in other words, to be contactable outside office hours. There has been plenty of discussion about the tendency for hybrid working styles to blur the lines between our personal and professional lives, but for senior partners – who are managing a complex, high-pressure, ever-expanding set of responsibilities – it can have a significant impact on productivity. Partner roles are time-consuming and mentally draining; proper downtime must be available to ensure your team are working at maximum ability. Again, a switchboard outsourcing service can be an ally here – you can rest assured that professional, trained representatives for your firm are available for out-of-hours call handling, so your senior partners don’t feel like they’re always on call.
Keep your equity partners focussed on the most profitable work
With so many software packages and personal devices to help with self-management – from productivity suites to instant communication to the notes and voice-recording functions on our phones – there is arguably less justification to keep extensive secretarial staff on payroll. But every small errand – from picking up lunch to fielding calls to taking down notes – is time that a partner isn’t spending on specialist work. The more time they’re able to allocate for tasks that can’t be delegated, the more value they provide for the firm. This is where a switchboard can really prove useful – you can protect your partners from responsibility-creep. No more fielding cold calls, responding to progress update requests from clients, or following up on voice messages. Your switchboard team can triage inbound calls according to importance, so your partners are always focussed on chargeable work – not admin.
Looking for a switchboard solution?Here’show ComXo can help
ComXo are industry-leaders in transformational switchboard and business support services, committed to redefining the switchboard for law firms. With a combination of technology and great people, we help you deliver exceptional experiences during every call and communication you receive. Our 24-hour switchboard service lets you filter cold calls, triage calls according to urgency, direct enquiries to the right people or department, and allow partners to focus on what matters – billable work.
Why not talk to our team about how we can support your firm to boost productivity.
How to deliver world-class client experiences
According to the Solicitors Regulation Authority there are 9,465 solicitors offices in the UK, of which 71% are incorporated companies or LLPs. The UK legal market is one of the largest in the world, with the majority of prominent global law firms maintaining London offices, alongside prestigious Magic Circle firms.
While there are definitely benefits to being part of an ecosystem of world-class firms – from market stability to regulatory relationships to innovation – it’s undeniable that competition is stiff. Since the rapid digital transformations of the pandemic years, law firms must contend with changing client expectations, the demand for higher productivity and growing competition. In a competitive marketplace, client loyalty isn’t a given – so how can companies make sure clients keep coming back, or better still, that they refer your services to their contacts?
Defining outstanding client experiences
Law firms have a commercial imperative to deliver the best client experience possible. Of course, nobody sets out to provide bad customer experiences – so what are the key factors that define excellent service? How do you make sure you’re keeping clients happy and giving them what they’re looking for?
Here’s a few ways you can be sure you’re delivering the best possible service for your clients.
First impressions matter
Great customer service is all about attention. When new clients walk through the door of your offices, they’re often greeted by a receptionist, and subtly reassured by the professionalism of their surroundings. But how can you replicate that experience in a post-pandemic world, when many first impressions will be via telephone or email? Every point of contact could be your client’s first impression of your practice. You wouldn’t dream of leaving a client waiting in your reception area – nor should they be left on hold for long periods, or being passed around between departments, or having their calls ring out. Attention to every client – whether they contact your business in person, via phone, or by another channel – should be prompt, professional and consistent.
People don’t usually turn to law firms unless they have a problem – something that could be affecting their relationship, their livelihood, their business operations, or even their freedom. Whether your client is a legal department or an individual, it’s important that they receive regular updates, and that any potential issues are flagged in advance. Good business communication is both proactive and reactive, of course – as well as providing updates, you need to be ready to receive and return client calls and emails when they ask for an update. That means ensuring you have enough resource to take calls and return messages. Some legal firms even use outsourced switchboard services to make sure there’s always someone there to pick up the phone, even during busy periods or out of hours.
People value the personal touch
There is a time and a place for self-service portals. Few clients prefer to wait on the phone to find information they could access much more quickly online, or to provide a piece of documentation they could easily upload via your website. In other words, self-service is great for efficiency. But many of your potential clients will be seeking assistance for complex, urgent, or personal matters. Your team must be ready to demonstrate understanding, empathy and professionalism when assisting with difficult cases, and that means ensuring clients can always get through to a real human – someone who can instil a sense of confidence and reassure them of your ongoing support. Leaving them chasing an elusive team member when they need an urgent update is unlikely to leave a favourable impression.
Success can – and should – be measured
When a customer calls you, their experience on the phone can be measured in terms of “call quality”. High-quality calls are polite, professional, prompt, personable, and problem-solving (although every business might have its own KPIs). The quality of calls matters. Historical research suggests that 50% of clients consider “poor communication” a key source of dissatisfaction in their working relationship. Research from the 2019 Legal Trends report bears this out, finding that responsiveness has a “strong impact” on a client’s decision to hire a firm, and that while 79% of clients expect a response within 24 hours, most law firms fall “far below” these expectations. Responsiveness has an impact on a firm’s Net Promoter Score, too. In today’s competitive commercial environment, poor communication standards can easily mean losing a referral, or even a client’s business, to a more attentive competitor.
Your firm can benefit from monitoring the quality of your calls and implementing Service Level Agreements to ensure that customers who try to reach you on the phone always have the best possible experience – getting through to you quickly and receiving a high standard of service when they do.
Setting yourself up for success
Using an outsourced switchboard service to unify communications across your business can benefit you in a number of different ways. From ensuring there’s always a human available when they pick up the phone – even out of hours – to helping you communicate case progress to managing high call-loads professionally and empathetically, the right switchboard solution provides the attention to detail that defines truly outstanding service. In a competitive market – where a missed call could mean another client for your competitor – a central switchboard team that understands your business could be the difference between unsatisfactory and outstanding in your client’s eyes.
How ComXo can help
ComXo are industry-leaders in transformational switchboard and business support services, committed to redefining the switchboard for law firms. With a combination of technology and great people, we aim to help you deliver exceptional experiences during every call and communication you receive. Our 24-hour switchboard service offers industry-leading service-level agreements – 95% of our inbound call traffic is answered within 3 rings. We act as an extension of your team to provide knowledegable, empathetic and professional service from a real human. Ideal for making a perfect first impression.
Ask Andrew – Why are we all so curious about ChatGPT?
ChatGPT is new. It’s AI, but in a seemingly more accessible format than the ‘artificial intelligence’ of old – think of those strange prototype robots at corporate events that weren’t really helpful at pouring drinks but were certainly talking points.
Since November when it was launched, ChatGPT has already piqued interest in every sector and whilst it has been in our consciousness for just a few months, I suspect more has been written about its potential to transform or adversely destroy our norms, than any other topic since the invention of printing in the 14th century.
The big question is how it will affect our industry. Do we need to worry about it and what should we be doing to maximise the advantages that it may present?
Chat GPT is different. No question about that. I tried it out as soon as it was available back in November, and I had a similar epiphany to when I experimented with the internet back in 1995: “This is a game changer”. But disruptive tech comes with its challenges. Here’s my thoughts on the risks, and potential rewards of using ChatGPT.
What is ChatGPT?
ChatGPT is an LLM (Large Language Model, which is the term for generative tech that powers chatbots). It’s simplicity is that it accesses data and then rationalises what appears to be insight from a culmination of data sets. Data is interesting and on occasions enlightening but it lacks complexity and multi-dimension. In contrast, the human brain is one of the most complex and extraordinary structures in our known universe. It uses electricity and chemicals (amongst other elements) to create conscious thought. According to google, our brain has more neuron connections than there are stars in our galaxy – sixty million or thereabouts. That surely cannot be replicated.
And this is where the use of ChatGPT must be strategically planned and implemented.
The brain uses multiple data sources in decision making. Our left brains are logical and rational, right brains creative and emotional. Human output and decision making is never determined just from data, no matter how rich the source. From my perspective ChatGPT is just surmised data. It is impressive in its speedy and prolific output, but don’t for a second believe it is ‘right’ - it is only reiterating data, and this is not necessarily factual. ChatGPT is one dimensional. It is an automaton unable to triangulate data with emotion or that very human trait – feeling. And for that reason, I cannot see it being trusted, and I’m not alone.
What does this mean for our industry?
If all is to be believed, the use of AI is growing exponentially, with benefits to productivity, efficiency, and client experience. So confident are some that this is the next tech revolution, predictions are being made that AI will raise annual global GDP by 7% (Goldman Sachs Research).
Whilst I agree that productivity and some automated processes could no doubt be enhanced in some areas, I challenge the concept that customer experience can be bettered when not using human experience, empathy and feeling.
In fact, if we take the legal industry at present, according to Reuters those in the legal profession “do not fully trust generative AI tools — and particularly the public-facing ChatGPT tool — with confidential client data.” (Reuters)
In service industries, where cases are often complex, high value or emotionally charged, can an organisation risk the loyalty and trust of their customers by putting them in the hands of artificial intelligence?
This leaves law firms in a situation where they are doubling down on client experience, and adding value at a human level, rather than risking tech in a bid to be innovative. My prediction for the future is that legal and consultancy will continue to help individuals and businesses navigate their world with the nuances and strategic insight that only experience can bring. What will likely disappear is the grunt work that they currently charge for, as AI will take over tackling document changes, policy writing and research.
At ComXo, we’re moving towards leveraging AI engines to help us analyse data patterns and enable our people to act quicker and more decisively, but we will not be replacing them. Our industry is human at its core, and I believe its interactions will continue to be so too.
Andrew Try, Founder & Managing Director
How Data is Disrupting the Legal Industry
ComXo were joined by five legal tech experts from various technology providers in a virtual roundtable discussion, moderated by Andrew Lewis, Head of New Business at CTS. The discussion's aim was to examine the importance of data and analytics in the legal sector, as well as how law firms should use them to overcome sector-specific challenges and gain a competitive advantage.
Participants in this roundtable discussed data and legal analytics, law firms and new technology, client service, and the current hot topic in every industry: AI and ChatGPT.
In this roundtable, Andrew Try was accompanied by:
Ivan Packer, Consultant, Agilico
Rob Lawson, Strategic Sales Manager, Perfect Portal
Graham Moore, Founder & Managing Director, Katchr
Andy Lewis, Head of New Business, CTS
How is data disrupting the Legal Industry?
Complete your details below to download our free e-book.
Ask Andrew: The forecast for 2023
As we settle back into the office, we asked CEO Andrew Try to reflect on 2022 and talk us through predictions for the year ahead.
2022 can be best described as a discombobulation. So much of what we all considered normal was already out of kilter, and whilst this time last year I expected it to be a year of returning to norms, I think few predicted the rollercoaster of influences that affected work, personal, national and international sentiment.
As a business owner and manager, trying to forecast and predict in normal circumstances is hard and through 2022 it was harder still. However, sticking to key strategic anchors of creative, energetic people with a passion for being the best, challenging the status quo and building a better future' served us well at ComXo.
Here are my top 3 headwinds that we navigated as a business last year:
With a workforce that is fully hybrid, the business focus was to support the physical and mental health of our entire team, including those we could no longer see. ComXo is a boutique specialist delivering high service levels and market leading innovation, and for this a strong culture is required. Investment went into flexible shift patterns, "come into the office" events, wellbeing packages, parties , training and development, video team culture, resident mental health practitioners, and my weekly CEO video check in.
2. Change in workforce and workplace utilisation for clients.
As a workplace service partner to some of the largest professional service firms in the world, 2022 was uniquely challenging. The WFH (Work from Home) to WFO (Work from Office) ratio was difficult to forecast as "new normal" working practices evolved rapidly throughout the year. The spring saw the rebound from Covid and lockdown and war in Ukraine. The summer had the extra Jubilee bank holiday and 40C temperatures. In Autumn we mourned the death of the Queen, whilst numerous prime ministers came and went. Finally, Christmas was marred by strikes. How could we forecast this, and what normal would look like?
3. Inflationary forces, cost of living and the focus on value delivery.
Retaining and incentivising our dedicated and experienced teams has been essential. Searching for more value for customers as prices had to go up was, and remains, our focus. We have been helped by a tight labour market making customers look to outsource as an answer to their own staff troubles, but most importantly it's our continued effort to make ComXo a great place to work. We delivered 9 new team induction groups last year compared to an average of 5 per year, and our staff turnover is around 10% less than industry average which I'm very proud of.
This year what are my predictions?
It is impossible to second guess the macro except to say that complexity, global shock, fast moving trends and fluidity will continue to dominate. The companies that have the most flexible structures and elastic outlooks will benefit; those trying to hang on to the past will not. As the saying goes "When the big waves rain down upon you, the person who's smiling is the surfer!".
From the ComXo standpoint, creating flexible workplace and workforce environments is about the ability to "Centralise, Optimise and Virtualise". Central, virtualised services sitting on digital platforms, enabling AI and delivering data driven insight saves lots of money, increases workforce productivity and transforms client experience. As a business that thrives on managing complex challenges and streamlining them for a great result, we will continue to facilitate our customers on this journey, whatever 2023 and beyond throws at us.
Andrew Try, Founder & Managing Director
Ask Andrew: Investing in innovation during uncertain times
Andrew Try, Managing Director of ComXo talks about how technology can help through uncertain times.
What is the future of the workplace over the next 5 years? When so much big change is happening in the world and influences such as environment, war, economy and COVID, this is a difficult question to predict. However, there are certain companies who are pioneering people, process and technology that are sign posting where the market is heading.
Technology is an obvious enabler, however poor adoption or platforms that do not achieve traction cause huge friction in organisations and user frustrations cause productivity to drop with time and money wasted.
At ComXo a combination of software platforms, re-engineered processes and the expertise of virtual teams are combined to provide personalized business support services 24 hours a day which support technology adoption and drives productivity and return on investment.
The ComXo mantra of "centralise, optimise and virtualise" your business support services cuts costs typically by 30% and transforms client experience which drives revenue and profitability.
At the heart of these virtualised services, used by 9 of the top 20 law firms and the likes of PWC is the ComXo Gateway.
The Gateway is an client branded app available from the app store that gives a workforce access to client specific services, information and workflows available as a combination of self-serve and as a managed service.
The outcome is that any member of staff at any time can access their organisation business support services to reserve a resource, register a request, use a service or find out information. The apps are branded, personalised and self-serve, however in the event that the user cannot get something done instant access to an expert (who knows who the user is and where they are) can pick up the request and complete it for the user.
This 'Self-serve' as a managed service drives 100% outcomes and enables large complex business to deliver an on-demand culture that enhances workforce satisfaction.
The reporting that accompanies the functions allow super users access to dash-boards that return real time information on services such as space utilisation, ground transport use, help desk tickets and new business enquiries through switchboard.
The Business Services App is able to changed and adapted in real time such that new work flows or reaction to a crisis or event can be delivered into the user interface instantly making it perfect for business continuity or highly bespoke set piece occasions.
ComXo integrate into 3rd party software and API to enable easy outsourcing and virtualisation of existing services such as IT and Facilities Help Desk, Meeting Room booking, desk management, ground transport, concierge service, switchboard and business continuity management.
ComXo's Business Services Mobile App is a client branded "Super App" that combines Software as a Service capability with an on-demand 'expert layer' that enables any user to get things done without fuss or friction.
With talk of "post-pandemic challenges" now feeling passé , and businesses re-focusing on the longer term future, legal firms are looking to build efficiencies into sustainable hybrid work processes, and ways to further enhance and develop their client experience for competitive advantage.
The use of "lawtech" including AI and chatbots has been hyped over recent years as the solution to all problems, with chatbots in particular seen as the "quick fix, easy to scale, friendly face of Artificial Intelligence".
Some predictions have estimated that more than 85% of customer interactions will NOT include a human being in the legal sector. But we ask the question:
"Are you ready to hand over your valued customers to a client experience which is totally hands-off?"
Are you ready to hand over your valued customers to a client experience which is totally hands-off?
This insight, written by conversational intelligence expert Andrew Moorhouse, takes a look at balancing the risk of losing human interaction, alongside the reward of combining better tech and processes for a highly personalised managed service.
In this insight you'll find:
Insights from over 10,000 conversations across sectors
Analysis of call volumes and qualified leads for the legal sector
How to balance risk and reward when introducing AI technology
Hybrid Working-Making it a success for your law firm
The change-averse legal sector has slowly been moving towards digitisation for years. However, since the global pandemic and the accompanying government-enforced lockdowns, the sector has been forced to review their working habits and embrace remote working.
As the world enters "the new normal", and Freedom Day in the UK seems a long way behind us, offices are reopening, and businesses are accommodating a blend of home and office working: the hybrid-working model.
Research has found that a large proportion of employees expect a level of "hybrid" working in the future - with just under half wanting to work from the office for 3 days or fewer each week. Additionally, results also found that over half of employees now believe the office to be unnecessary, with these numbers increasing since the first lockdown.
The legal sector needs to understand what's happening on the ground to ensure they are attracting new talent, providing a competitive working environment for staff, and proactively identifying concerns or issues amongst their employees - to provide the best experience to their teams.
Working in partnership with CBRE and CTS, we've provided a guide to help you do just that.
In this guide, we cover:
Why you should embrace hybrid working
The benefits of a hybrid working model
What employees want from hybrid working
What you should consider when developing your hybrid working strategy
Designing a successful hybrid working strategy: The best of both worlds
Complete your details below to download our free Hybrid Working e-book, with access to our ‘Finger on the pulse’ webinar on how to measure success.
3 key points to prepare for the worst and deliver the best in business
In March 2020 I returned to work from my honeymoon in Australia, well and truly still in holiday mode. Given the extent of Australian news coverage at the time I boarded my flight aware of little more than "There's a toilet roll shortage". I was fairly oblivious as to what faced me upon my return to the office.
Expecting this toilet roll emergency to blow over while I tortured everyone with holiday pictures, I was ushered into our boardroom and given a pandemic reality check. I was asked to prepare for our offices to close and get ready to support all of our clients as they faced the same challenge.
So how do you move over 1 million calls and 70 Virtual Switchboard staff to a remote working environment, and continue to achieve an industry leading service level, with 95% of calls answered in 3 rings? We were of course apprehensive, but we found that our business continuity planning had left us well prepared.
Without giving away the ComXo crown jewels, here's my 3 key recommendations to enable your organisation to prepare for the worst in order to consistently deliver the best:
Plan and TEST your BCP measures constantly.
For the past 5 years, ComXo has had a unit of remote working operators logged in ready to support calls in the event there was a crisis with the office.
This team of operators had tested our tech, software and logistics ready for a wider scale rollout of remote working.
Our disaster recovery site is regularly tested on a scheduled and unscheduled basis.
Look after your people
Rather than increase operator workload, we introduced more team huddles, 1-2-1s, training time and regular "check ins" to ensure the team were coping with the pandemic. Parents were given some extra, much needed TLC.
The business took a VERY open stance to the uncertainty of the future and the roles we would all need to play in order to ensure that ComXo and our clients prospered during this period.
Educating our staff on "The grief curve" allowed teams to meet, discuss and share experiences.
The Zoom Christmas cocktail party and online bake off/pizza making competitions kept up team spirit. These were planned sensitively, especially once it became clear that the pandemic was going to loom for a substantial period of time, and we were conscious of Zoom fatigue.
In return, our indomitable staff responded in kind with sickness and absence levels dropping to next to zero!
Our service levels actually increased to 97.7% of calls answered within 3 rings and adverse feedback dropped to an all-time low.
Understand your true capacity
If the workload demand of your team regularly exceeds 80% of their maximum work rate, it's possible you are heading for burnout and staff churn. Look to schedule at least 30% capacity for breathing room, shrinkage, creativity and sudden spikes in workload.
Diversify your workforce: working with parents, students and full time professionals to align their wants and needs with your own workload forecast is a powerful thing.
Recruit ahead of the curve - if you wait until you need the staff, you are already too late.
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it. Understand the scientific equation that predicts your working capacity. If you don't have the tech, you can do this by simply and consistently checking in with your team and asking "Hey, on a scale of 1 - 10 how busy have you been this month?"
Ultimately, we have been very lucky that our clientele have had a mostly prosperous two years and we are proud to have been able to support them on this journey. Looking back, what would I change about ComXo's approach to the pandemic? Not a lot. But on a personal note, maybe I would have invested in some more toilet roll when I landed back in England. They weren't joking about that part.
Richard Gostelow, Director of Customer Service
Returning to a Hybrid Workplace
As October rolls around, and the usual 'back to work' messages are coming through, we take a topical look at what it means to return to a hybrid workplace, in collaboration with dedicated HR specialists, Kane HR.
From July 19 the UK government announced the move to step four of the roadmap which included the removal of most COVID-19 restrictions across England. Later, in early August Scotland and Wales also followed suit. Whilst the changes meant that workers are no longer required to work from home, government guidance recommends that employers follow a gradual return to the workplace over the coming months. This approach allows for the variant infection rates to continue to decline and appropriate plans and measures to be put in place by employers in readiness for return.
Employers have a statutory duty to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of their staff. This duty of care places a legal obligation on employers to plan any return carefully, consider their individual environment, conduct risk assessments, and implement context specific risk mitigation plans as appropriate; in short, employee safety and wellbeing must be a priority. Employers should take extra care of those with any potential protected characteristics and discuss with workers most at risk any reasonable adjustments that can be made to the workplace or working arrangements so they can work safely.
Whilst there is no mandatory government expectation on the specific measures that employers should take, the government has published guidance specific to each industry. The guidance includes certain measures that employers could consider, including;
Minimising unnecessary visitors
Ensuring social distancing
Extra hand washing facilities
One-way systems to minimise contact
Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face)
Staggering start/end times
Requiring a facial covering to be worn in enclosed space
A small number of requirements remain in force for employees and must be observed by employers also. Anyone testing positive for coronavirus must self-isolate and should not attend their place of work. Anyone in close contact with someone who tests positive must also self-isolate although, from 16 August, under-18s and those who have received a second COVID vaccination at least 10 days before the contact no longer need to isolate and may continue to attend work as normal.
Employers should note that employees who have been employed for 26 weeks or longer have the right to request more flexible working arrangements, which could include working from home, but they are under no obligation to agree to such requests, particularly where cost, quality or performance may be adversely impacted.
All employees have an obligation to obey lawful and reasonable instructions given by their employer, which includes instructions relating to a return to work. However, employees may refuse to attend the workplace if they reasonably believe that it poses a danger to them, and, if so, they have certain protections under employment legislation. The protections also apply if an employee takes appropriate steps to protect themselves or others from danger.
Having a "reasonable belief" varies from case to case, depending on the facts. There have been a few Employment Tribunal judgements in cases regarding employees' concerns about COVID-19 which have shown that employees have faced little difficulty in establishing that they have a reasonable belief of significant or imminent danger. However, provided an employer is following the Government's working safely guidance, indications show that a "general" fear of COVID-19 may not be considered reasonable and an employee would have to demonstrate on what grounds they believe the workplace to be unsafe.
The future - a new hybrid model?
Looking ahead beyond the pandemic and current period of limited restrictions, the government is clear that re-opening businesses is essential for a healthy economy. Taking people back from furlough reduces the financial burden on the country and allows them to continue a normal working life. Studies by the University of Cambridge demonstrate how working can have a positive impact on mental health as well as the financial benefit. Encouraging people to return to the office may also be helpful in reinvigorating city centres where businesses have been adversely impacted by the absence of office workers whilst restrictions were imposed.
With that said however, companies and their employees have a clear opportunity for change, creating a new normal rather than reverting to "as was". Having experienced a fundamental shift in ways of working over the last 18 months, people have found new ways to be successful, maintaining productivity and sustaining operations. As a result, expectations around work have changed for both employers and employees. Employees' thinking related to how they fulfil their role and how they balance work and domestic responsibilities may have changed dramatically. For employers, there are new opportunities relating to how and from where they can source talent for their business too.
This is an ideal time for employers to think more creatively about effective ways of working, and harness more agile and flexible working practices to meet individuals' changing expectations and business needs.
New research from the Institute of Workplace and Facilities Management has found that a large proportion of employees will expect a level of "hybrid" working in the future - with just under half (44%) of the workforce wanting to work from the office for 3 days or fewer each week. Additionally, results also found that 63% of employees now believe the office to be unnecessary - this was a rise of one-fifth since the first lockdown (51%).
The poll, which surveyed 2,000 office workers across the country in March 2021, shows that demand for hybrid working is especially prevalent in the younger demographic. Two-thirds (66%) of 18-24-year-olds confessed that not being offered flexible work patterns would cause them to look for another job. Yet disturbingly, over a third (38%) of this demographic feel their employer is putting pressure on them to return to the office - risking losing new talent.
Benefits of remote or hybrid working
There are many benefits to well thought out, agreed, and communicated hybrid ways of working. The research appears to indicate that job satisfaction may be one of the key benefits. Allowing better work life balance and increased flexibility is an attractive value proposition for most employees which could lead to reduced attrition benefiting both company, reduced cost to hire, and enhanced career prospects. Happy employees are far more likely to focus on getting the job done, which in turn will lead to better productivity benefits.
Research during lockdown periods has also shown that typically employees worked at least as many hours if not longer whilst working from home, using what was once commuting time more productively. This has brought about a concerning blur between the boundaries of work and home life. Taking this into account, it's important that in planning for a hybrid working model, the benefits that come from greater flexibility are not eroded via "work creep" and encroachment into personal lives. A successful model will therefore be partly dependant on employers and employees agreeing on reasonable expectations for availability, contact times and meetings; one way to address this is in laying out a remote or hybrid working policy, which we look at in more detail later in this article.
Another benefit associated with hybrid ways of working include the reintroduction of social interaction. Whilst lone working allows for greater focus time on specific tasks, both individuals and teams will have missed the real social dimension. Seeing real bodies from which to gauge body language, perceive what has and hasn't been said, the development of natural learning opportunities and a sense of belonging that grabs people's hearts as well as minds is important, not least because it will enhance retention. From a productivity point of view also, the "osmosis" effect of employees learning by being with and around others has enormous value for productivity and employee sense of satisfaction; this is equally applicable to new starters or those needing more support in their role.
This sense of productivity from being together can greatly enhance the work of those in creative functions. Brainstorming or "co-creation" can be an incredibly powerful way of fast tracking to new ideas but works best together where employees can create a buzz and bounce off each other. This notion of being together may also be applicable in highly detailed, time pressured environments, perhaps an investor presentation with multiple iterations, a budget presentation or a business-critical deal that needs to be delivered at pace.
Finally, the benefit of social and casual interactions like a chance meeting in the hallway or bathroom, should not be underestimated in building networks. It's well documented that networking can underpin a greater sense of "can do" in organisations, knowing someone who can, but also helps in career pathing. This is particularly relevant in retaining key talent, giving them a sense of visibility, that what they are doing is being noticed and will help them get the next job. It's also useful for line managers to become familiar with employee talent making it easier to fill new roles as they become open.
Each of the above ideas points us to a sense of purpose.
Why do we need to be together? Where do we do our best work? What factors will support our productivity and ultimate success both for the business and the employee?
It's this sense of purpose that should help shape an employers' thinking around planning for a return to work or hybrid working.
Taking the most simplistic view, for employees to work efficiently and be productive from home, they will need access to the right equipment and tools to deliver the requirements of their job role. This ranges from basic desk, chair, lighting requirements through to computer equipment, internet access, headphones, and software tooling to facilitate collaboration or another role-specific functionality. Stating the obvious, employees should be provided with training on how to use the tools required for remote working and have access to a helpline for when (inevitably) something goes wrong. They will never feel more isolated and remote than when stranded at home unable to "connect".
Whilst it's easy to imagine that employees should have all that they need after such a long period of being away from their regular place of work, it's likely that many will have "made do" and to continue working from home on a more regular formal basis may need additional support. Employers need to consider how that support should be provisioned and what is appropriate. As they do this, it's important to remember that they have an obligation to safeguard the health and wellbeing of employees and will be responsible for ensuring that whatever provision is made, the working from home environment is assessed and found to be compliant with health and safety legislation.
Continuing to consider purpose, the way employees use an office in the future may suggest employers need to reconfigure office space. Whereas row upon row of desk space with a small contingent of meeting rooms may have been appropriate in the past, perhaps more open collaboration space will be required. If employees manage focused work from home and come to the office for broader project collaboration, team meetings and updates or social events, traditional space may not be fit for purpose and need to be reconfigured. Potentially the space requirement may also be smaller allowing companies to reduce their property footprint, making savings whilst facilitating improved productivity. With this change in footprint and potentially less desks than total employees, employers may need to consider an easy access booking system to manage available space.
With so much change it's essential that business leaders act as role models for new ways of working. A leadership team that is in the office 5 days a week every week may set an unspoken or perceived expectation that to succeed, employees must be visible in the office every day. Being vocal about how often and why they come to the office will help leadership give "permission" to or enable employees to feel comfortable about their own choices on when to work remotely versus in the office.
Crucial also is a clear articulation of expectations from management on what they expect from employees working remotely. This can be facilitated with a well written remote or hybrid working policy which should aim to address the following topics:
Suitable locations for remote working
Working abroad for prolonged time periods may expose the company to unintended tax liabilities
Employers and employees should consider the appropriateness of a given setting, particularly regarding sensitive material. As an example, internet cafes or pubs may not be appropriate locations
Protection of IP is also important if employees are going to access material on personal equipment or print documents outside of the office environment.
Expectations regarding working hours
Is a traditional 9-5 timeframe still expected or are there flexibility parameters within which an employee may choose to work to get the job done?
Outline for regular contact
What may an employee expect from their manager?
What is required of an employee?
Are there timeframes within which it's acceptable, and conversely others where it is unacceptable, to expect this contact to occur?
How will this be managed, how frequently and by whom?
What happens if there are issues?
Career planning and support
Support for home working
Who manages provision of required equipment?
Who funds home working expenses? E.g., internet, increased utility bills, insurance obligations, travel to and from office if this is no longer an employee's default location
What to do when things go wrong
IT support and how to access?
Who to contact if an employee experiences any issue with functional work, other team members or managers.
Mental health support for those feeling remote, isolated
Any changes or amendments to contractual terms, benefits, or incentives
Note the above is not exhaustive.
In addition to the above, managers need to consider that not everyone's model of hybrid will be the same. It's possible that not all employees will be in the office together and so consideration must be given to how to manage a team that is partially remote and partially in the office. It's important that all employees feel that they are treated equally and justly regardless of location. Simple practicalities relating to this would include taking care in managing team meetings, with attendance split between face to face and remote participation. Things to be conscious of are as follows;
Everyone should be clear about purpose of the meeting, whether that be decision making, a chance to catch up, information sharing etc, and check it's suited to a hybrid working approach. If so, it's important to communicate the intended outcome to the team so everyone has a chance to prepare.
Try to ensure each attendee has a consistent experience by actively taking steps to involve participants working from home - don't default to those in the room with you. This could be done by addressing everyone by name and giving everyone a chance to contribute. Chat and hand-raising functions can be useful in doing this.
The need to refresh or provide training in meeting facilitation for each type of meeting.
Encourage teams to establish their own rules and way to conduct hybrid meetings. For example: choosing a primary platform to use, ensuring everyone knows how to use it, and deciding on ways to ensure communication is inclusive of all.
Make use of tools such as the Microsoft Teams chat function to allow teams to communicate from different locations without having to be in a meeting.
Avoid the use of equipment in the room that team members who are working from home cannot properly see - present slides via the chosen technology will be more inclusive and easier for remote members to engage with.
Save in-person conversations for another time, rather than just before remote participants have joined, or after they have left.
In conclusion, it's safe to say that the trend towards hybrid working is an evolving situation, one which all employers should be mindful of when considering future plans. Whilst there is no single right or wrong answer, employees will have an opinion on what works for them and the employers likely to be most successful in navigating this challenge will be those that consult and communicate with their workforce to understand exactly what is going to work for everyone.
Holding purposeful consultations will help to steer formulating solutions as will being mindful that the right answer is likely to be a framework which will evolve over time rather than a rigid one size fits all answer. Most importantly, as always, clear communication of any agreement and expectations between both employer and employee is critical.
If any of this resonates and you'd like to discuss your hybrid workplace strategy and how we can support you, get in touch here.
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