Shirking from home: busting that working from home myth

Edward Smith, general counsel, Telefónica UK

By Edward Smith, general counsel, Telefónica UK

Now that most of us have access to the same standard of technology, connectivity and IT security at home as we do in the office, that place you battle public transport to get to daily isn’t necessary any more. Rather, there are many compelling reasons for renting an office and having your team visit it regularly.

Working in an office is more than just a quaint habit. It helps with fostering relationships, creating team spirit, learning from each other quickly, developing a sense of mission, and facilitates useful but incidental conversations that would not happen without others in earshot. The shared space helps to ensure that nuances and messages are not misconstrued; it’s a place for holding group meetings and ensuring your teams feel supported.

Furthermore, it makes sense for your office to be near where important and relevant things happen. Accordingly, the offices tend to be quite expensive – damn that law of supply and demand.

Also the office can be difficult to get to unless all who work there are either extremely wealthy, not fussy about how big their homes are or, preferably, both.

Where technology leads...

But just because technology permits something, it doesn’t make it a good idea; nuclear war being a case in point. Further, against a phalanx of reasons to operate in an office, there are just two to work remotely: first, efficiency – for which read ‘the ability to give a better and cheaper service to clients’, and second, quality of life for lawyers.

We could just chalk up a supplemental rule for our lawyers: work from the office unless for reasons of efficiency or your quality of life it benefits you or your clients for you to work remotely.  Great news: the application of the supplemental rule makes one of the problems with offices less acute – you need a smaller office. Everyone’s a winner, right?

Wrong. In other industries this might be the end of the matter but, like the General Synod, senior lawyers seem to take masochistic delight in taking dilemmas that others have settled and opportunities that others have exploited, and agonising over them.

Trust issues with home-working

Speaking to other GCs and partners, I find that remote working is still outright frowned upon in some cases, and in others, there are rigid rules being handed out to dictate how often staff can do it. Very few have done as we have done at Telefónica UK and trusted lawyers to come into the office to get the benefits from it, but then to work remotely entirely at their discretion in order to capture the efficiencies and the benefits of that.  We trust them to use technology to do a better job, and lead a more bearable life.

The main cause for concern I come across appears to be one of trust. Some legal leaders refuse to believe that their lawyers will work as hard/at all if they are out of sight and earshot.  After all, if lawyers are in the office, they can be seen and heard working hard can’t they? The corollary is that working at home is shirking at home.

"We should be trying to increase the benefits we get from our lawyers, not ensuring the continuation of detriments suffered”

This is nonsense. I don’t say this as a dewy-eyed type who only sees the good in other humans. Far from it, I readily see the bad. I say it first, because modern workplaces are full of opportunities for lawyers to avoid work. 

Sadly there is no way to measure the beneficial impact of your lawyers at work other than by talking to them, their clients, and their colleagues, and this is the case whether they work remotely or sit a few feet from you. 

If you have hired lawyers whose motives and sense of autonomy is so lacking that you need the security of seeing and hearing them in order to be sure you have your pound of flesh at the end of the working week, you have hired the wrong lawyers.

Pros and cons of remote working

Your lawyers’ contracts of employment should lead to benefits to you and to your clients in the form of a problem solved, or an hour billed, but they will also lead to the detriments suffered in the form of money or time spent commuting, and hours spent working that could otherwise have been spent elsewhere.

As leaders, we should be trying to increase the benefits we get from our lawyers, not ensuring the continuation of the detriments suffered. We should not require the pound of flesh for the hell of it.

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