Derek Bedlow looks at what the results of the Life after Lockdown research will mean for the future of working life for local government lawyers.
To gauge the effect and future impact of remote working on the professional lives of local authority lawyers, Local Government Lawyer and LexisNexis ran two surveys in the summer of 2020 - one of legal department management and another of all lawyers working in local authorities. Seventy heads of legal took part in the manager survey, while 448 lawyers completed the general survey.
As well as providing a snapshot of lawyers’ attitudes to remote working, the research also looked at the potential long-term consequences of the accidental experiment in remote working imposed by the Covid-19 epidemic.
The scale of remote working in local government legal departments during the first period of lockdown was near total: 89% of local authority lawyers’ hours were worked remotely during the lockdown period over the spring and summer of 2020. To some extent, many local authorities were more prepared than other organisations for remote working, given that many councils already operated flexi-working schemes – pre-Covid, on average 29% of local authority lawyers’ time was already worked remotely. However, the speed at which lockdown was imposed by the government back in March meant that, for many, remote working was not without its teething problems.
Table 1: How do the following aspects of your work compare to pre Covid-19 days? (General survey)
The survey found, however, that by the summer some of these issues had been resolved or ameliorated, and that, on balance, more lawyers have found the experience positive than negative.
One consequence of remote working is that the number of hours put in by local authority lawyers has increased, but that the flexibility of when the work is done has improved. So while twice as many respondents (29%) to the general staff survey said that the number of hours they were required to do since lockdown had got worse or much worse rather than better (Table 1), more than two-thirds (68%) said that the flexibility of working hours had improved. This may explain why, despite the workload of lawyers going up, far more feel that their work-life balance has improved (57%) than deteriorated (26%) during lockdown.
One big factor in this improved perception of work-life balance is the lack of commute, which apparently almost nobody is missing. “I have more time in my day. I am less tired,” said one. “Not having to travel to work is a huge benefit and means I feel more energised,” said another.
For lawyers, another advantage of home working is (children permitting) the ability to work in peace.
“It has been a dream working from home!” said one respondent “I get so much more done and some peace and quiet!”
The regular surveys by Local Government Lawyer in the Legal Department of the Future series have consistently found that the open plan office space that most lawyers are increasingly required to work in has serious implications for productivity and is generally disliked.
“Even with four children in the house I have found there are fewer distractions than working in an office,” said one local government lawyer.
Table 2: Overall, do you feel that the quality of your work output has... (General survey)
This goes some way to explain why, despite the sudden implementation of the lockdown, the survey found that productivity has for most remained at least stable and, in many cases, has improved (Table 2). More than half of respondents (51%) said the quality of their work was unaffected while 28% said that it had improved, compared with 17% who said that it had suffered.
Likewise, (when asked in a seperate question) to estimate the quantity of work being achieved at home when compared with the office, overall respondents said that they were producing an average of 97% of their pre-lockdown output. Some said that they had increased their output by as much as 50%. Where output had fallen, this was put down to slow technology, childcare responsibilities or delays in the court system.
Dealing with the downsides
For all of the positive experiences, remote working has its downsides too. In the initial months of the lockdown, schools remained closed and for those with children or other caring responsibilities, lockdown was a different story.
“The workload has stayed the same but childcare responsibilities whilst schools are closed is making the balancing act stressful and meaning some late nights/very early mornings to fit work in,” noted one respondent.
Likewise, some of those that live alone have found the isolation more difficult. “I am clinically vulnerable and normally have adjustments in the office; I live alone, have been very isolated and am in a small flat so very difficult to manage working from home on big files and without the usual resources and my team around me. This would have been OK if it lasted two months but it is dragging on and on. I am in my flat 23 hours a day and it feels like a jail sentence.”
More generally, the key concern is the blurring between work and home life that working from home inevitably creates, especially at a time when workloads for many legal departments have risen as a consequence of Covid-19 and budgets are under further pressure.
“The fundamental flaw with ‘Working from Home’, is that in these lockdown conditions it soon becomes ‘Living at Work’,” said one lawyer. “The added complication of office phones being forwarded to personal mobiles means that you are never away from the office.”
Table 3: To what extent have each of the following been an issue since you started working from home? (General survey)
When asked which specific problems were encountered with remote working, two stand out – a lack of technology and the isolation of it (Table 3). However, even these were rated as ‘major’ issues by less than a fifth of respondents and for most local authority lawyers, remote working has been, on balance, a positive experience. Little wonder then that only 4% of those who took part in the general survey respondents said that they would like to return to their offices full-time when the pandemic is finally over.
Managing the lockdown
For heads of legal and others in management positions, lockdown has created a host of other issues, not least the monitoring and motivation of staff working remotely, against a backdrop of rising legal work and uncertainty about future budgets.
However, as we saw earlier, productivity has held up very strongly and more lawyers consider the quality of what they produce to have improved rather than deteriorated since they have been working remotely.
Table 4: Based on your experience of the lockdown so far, how difficult have the following management challenges been when staff have been remote working? (Management survey)
Some of the potential problems that might have been expected to cause significant headaches for management have proved to be less challenging than might have been expected (Table 4).
Only around 1-in-10 heads of legal consider the supervision, monitoring and training of staff to be “much” more difficult remotely and when it comes to maintaining the efficiency of their departments, heads of legal are more likely to find it easier when their staff are at home than when they are in office, with 35% believing that improving efficiency is better when done remotely compared with 24% who find it more difficult.
“Trainees and senior staff are more organised and focused,” one head of legal recorded. “Remote working has proved to be far more efficient and effective than office working,” said another.
Client relationships do not appear to have generally become strained either, although they have changed for many. In particular, a number of both management and other legal staff have found that easy access to client departments via video call has changed the dynamic, for good or ill.
“Access by clients appears to be more intensive remotely,” said one head of legal. “You are going from one meeting to another because you don’t need to book a room and the assumption is you don’t need as long a break between meetings when you are working at home.”
“The reliance on email has meant that messages can be misconstrued which wouldn’t happen face to face,” says another. “Staff needs have increased and they want quicker responses, as do clients.”
According to a further respondent, this may not be a bad thing. “Our clients accept us working remotely whereas beforehand some had a rather old-fashioned notion that we had to be present in their building to be their legal team. Those days are gone!”
Amongst local government lawyers in general, some of the suggested improvements for continued remote working mostly revolve around the provision of better technology, especially matter management software and video calling.
And while efficiency and productivity seem to have survived lockdown surprisingly well, there were also a number of comments from staff that the structure and reporting lines of their departments need to be reviewed if remote working is to become a permanent feature of the landscape.
“What is needed is an organisational framework for working remotely,” said one. “Protocols to help avoid silo working and suitable support mechanisms – how can we show we value people when they are remote, especially in these challenging circumstances?”
The survey says...
“Unless I have a court hearing I have found my day is much more flexible. I now go for a run every other morning and actually have a lunch break - something that was impossible in the office.”
“More productive, much improved work / life balance, exercising, less stressed, more family time, no travel, win/win!”
“Working at home all the time gets lonely without interaction with colleagues in an office environment.”
“Working longer hours, in large part because of the increased workload as a result of the government’s legislation and guidance that appeared, and still appears, ever changeable with little notice and with shorter breaks all on a laptop.”
“The hours and pressure don’t feel so different; the big change is how I interact with people.”
“Work levels have been unmanageable at times due to the increased need for legal advice and no change in staffing levels. The expectation is that a reply will be given immediately which means I am literally working 12 hour days.”
“I feel isolated from my team for professional and emotional support, which is my biggest concern as this impacts on stress levels and coping mechanisms. I work longer hours because I sit at home in front of a computer all day.”
“At the outset of the pandemic the need to pull together to deal with the crisis gave a different sense of purpose. As things start to revert to a more usual workload there is a fatigue that sets in.”
“WFH gives better work life balance avoiding commuting hours but not being around colleagues and less support means minor issues build up to cause more anxieties.”
“Compared to working in a busy open-plan office environment, WFH provides an abundance of ‘quiet time’ which makes it easier to carry out drafting and research tasks that require more concentration.”
“Sitting in our own homes you do not always pick up on the client side their thinking or what they may be saying to other colleagues, so there can be a risk there as clients sometimes present different information to legal hoping to get the answer they want.”
“We need an updated management structure that would enable better allocation of work to experience/capacity and improve teamwork. The current structure leads to absent/ineffective management and a duplication of work,” said another.
Communication with remote working staff is also key, although in this respect some legal department management may feel that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In the general survey, for every lawyer who felt isolated and forgotten about, another was complaining of micromanagement and too many online meetings. Clearly, the on-going management of remote staff is going to require some adjustments on all sides.
Tech teething troubles
So how has the technology available to legal teams coped with the lockdown? Even allowing for the rapidity of the lockdown, the answer seems to be good, but not great, with both practice and matter management software damned by faint praise although there is some evidence that the deployment of technology has improved as lockdown has progressed.
Table 5: To what extent has the technology available to you helped in each of these aspects? (Management survey)
Specialist legal software tends to be less well-regarded than applications – such as the much-praised Microsoft Teams – designed for general use. Online research, video conferencing (especially Microsoft Teams) and training tools do much better, with over 90% approval ratings from management and similar from other staff. Document automation is only used by a minority but where it is used, most respondents consider it to be useful.
Table 6: Of the following types of technology, how has each performed during lockdown? (Management survey)
Amongst management, most technology applications were considered to need either some or significant improvements (Table 5 and 6), although very few were regarded as inadequate.
On average, rank and file staff were less impressed with the technology on offer than management (Table 7), with 27% rating matter management systems as ‘poor’ or ‘inadequate’.
Table 7: Of the following types of technology, how has each performed during lockdown? (General survey)
Amongst staff, almost 20% say that the available technology does not adequately support remote working (See Table 3).
“The sheer enormity of getting 70+ staff, the majority of whom were not that IT savvy, out of the office to home working within a week of the PM’s lockdown announcement was a major challenge,” said one head of legal. “The scale of what was necessary was way beyond business continuity planning.”
Matter management systems are key to successful remote working and came in for quite a lot of criticism. More surprisingly, almost a third (29%) of heads of legal do not use matter management software and approaching half (44%) have not used practice management software.
“Working remotely means not creating a hard file and therefore it is critical we have a program in place for officers to create effective electronic files,” said one lawyer. “This is widely used in bigger councils and private law firms but we’re a bit behind here.”
There is also a common theme that those applications which are accessed directly from the internet – such as research and training tools – are perceived as more practical and effective than those that have to be accessed via the authority’s own network. And there were a number of requests from respondents for matter management systems to be made available directly through the ‘cloud’ as well.
“Most of the issues we have experienced with our case management system is due to slowness of use of it via remote access and not the CMS itself,” said one head of legal.
When asked what would improve the remote working experience, lawyers were more likely to reference hardware and connectivity issues rather than software. Common complaints and requests included the need for larger (and often multiple) screens, better printers and scanners and, in many cases, better internet connectivity and more reliable VPN networks. The IT support provided by many councils also came in for some criticism.
“I found it difficult to work on the small laptop screen compared to dual large monitors, and had to wait a month for a monitor,” said one. “I also did not have access to a printer so had to read lengthy commercial documents on the screen.”
“I think the most frustrating aspect is not having access to decent printing or scanning facilities and not being able to move files back to the office,” said another.
Despite the problems experienced with specific aspects of IT, the maintenance of lawyers’ productivity recorded earlier demonstrates that it has more than proved its worth and would benefit from further investment by councils. If the pandemic had arrived ten – or even five – years earlier, it might have been a very different story.
Brave new world
In common with many other occupational groups, local government lawyers have found remote working a better experience than they expected and, by-and-large, they want to keep doing it, at least for part of the week.
“I manage a team of 33 lawyers,” a head of legal told the survey. “All but one has said that they want to continue to work remotely (with some element of office working) post-pandemic. Many who were previously sceptical about home working are now converts.”
Table 8: How would you personally prefer to work once the crisis is over? (General survey)
This is borne out by the survey results. The vast majority of lawyers want to spend more time at home in future – just 4% want to go back to the office full-time. Neither, however, does the vast majority want to be away from the office all of the time, with just 13% saying that they exclusively want to work remotely. The most popular pattern is two days in the office, three at home (Table 8).
“There needs to be a balance,” said one local government lawyer. “Being able to see colleagues breaks the day up and is good for morale and learning as you pick things up from listening to others.”
Table 9: For remote workers, how much time per week would you typically expect to be spent at the office in future? (Management survey)
78% of legal staff expect their employers to provide more remote/flexible working in future. Only 3% expect a return to the status quo, with the rest unsure at present. “There has been resistance to home working [in the past],” said one respondent. “I think this will now change as management will realise that people are working when they are at home – not taking advantage.”
Table 10: Proportion of hours worked remotely. (Management survey)
Heads of legal broadly agree. When asked to anticipate what proportion of lawyers’ time would be worked remotely, the average figure came to 68%, compared with 29% before the lockdown (Table 10). As with lawyers in general, the mostly likely working pattern (for full-time workers) will be two days in the office, three at home. Only 2% of heads of legal expect staff to work exclusively at home (Table 9).
“There does still need to be knowledge sharing and understanding by team members of other legal disciplines which is best achieved by direct interaction,” said one.
Any local authorities that try to resist the trend towards home working may find themselves at a disadvantage in the recruitment market – 57% of lawyers told the survey that the availability of remote working would be a ‘major’ factor in their choice of employer and a further 22% said it would be a minor one.
“I have saved three hours per day on commuting and circa £500 per month,” commented one lawyer. “If we go back to office working, I would now look for alternative employment closer to home or with more remote working.”
Conversely, the rise of remote working may enable some councils in more remote or expensive locations to recruit more easily if candidates no longer need to re-locate.
The survey says...
“I don’t really need to work in the office to do my job. Zoom and Teams have proven that meetings of large groups of people work extremely well remotely.”
“I think some face to face office time is required to catch up with team members. One of the hardest things about remote working is supporting and bringing on staff when you can only interact virtually — working 1-2 days in the office per week would allow those physical discussions to take place.”
“Personally, if the office was available to attend if needed i.e. if we were going to court or needed documents printing etc, I would work from home the majority of the time — it is far easier than attending the office full time.”
“I have embraced working at home – it has reduced travel and cost and I work harder.”
“In the office you have a proper desk with adequate space and, importantly, supportive chair. You also have screen and keyboard at good levels for health and safety purposes — we cannot all achieve that at home, assuming you have space for ‘office work’ in any event. In addition, I am singularly unhappy with having to undertake video calls — my home is my private space, it is not for public consumption but this is being forced upon us by the requirement to work at home.”
“Freedom from commuting by train is a life changing improvement.”
“To work as a successful team I think you have to have face to face contact. The small social niceties help oil smooth working — the daily chat about the weather, what cases people have going on, how the weekend was etc are very missing on working from home.”
“Doing child care work, there has been no let up, we have been busier than ever, with hearings being rescheduled. The team has coped incredibly well, but I do hope that there will be a time when people can have a proper break as working at this pace is tough.”
“I think in the age of climate change and pollution from traffic, local authorities and all public sector should lead the way and continue to ensure our employees are not on the roads to and from work unnecessarily, causing pollution and wear and tear on the roads. It’s a giant step to the future that many were reluctant to take but has been forced on us and is now shown to work very well.”
Making it happen
There are a number of hurdles in the way before this can be successfully achieved, however. Firstly, as detailed earlier, spending on IT – especially matter management systems – needs to increase if efficient remote working is to be maintained.
Secondly, a number of responses to the survey noted that care needs to be taken with the management of workflow to ensure that the burden is shared equally. Employee performance will increasingly need to be measured by outputs rather than inputs such as time spent in the office. Additional efforts will need to be made to ensure that knowledge and experience can be shared with the team, and especially with new joiners and less experienced staff. Possible resentment between those in practice areas that require more office-based working and those that do not would need to be managed too.
Further down the track, some respondents requested changes to their core hours (typically 10am to 4pm) to enable them to work at the hours that suit them.
So, after coping with lockdown, legal department management have another challenge on their hands – to meet their employees’ demands for remote working. Given the success of the response to the pandemic back in March, there is no reason why it should not be achievable. For local government lawyers, the lockdown may provide a new freedom in their working lives that nobody could have anticipated even a year ago.
Derek Bedlow is the publisher of Local Government Lawyer.