Adopting flexible working will help keep the best talent and help attract the highest-quality new recruits

Cast your mind back to those weird early days of the pandemic when we all wondered what the effects would be of sending home the entire workforce.

It wasn’t long before the pitfalls of video conferencing became meme-worthy, providing light relief for workers going stir crazy at home.

However, 19 months later we in the legal profession, along with the rest of the business world, are dealing with the more serious fallout and trying to navigate what’s next.

Proclamations about “the death of the office” have proved premature. Yet those employers who blithely insist that things will quickly return to a pre-pandemic “normal” are also looking exposed.

What we are actually left with is a world of complexity, beset by second order effects that few could have predicted, particularly when it comes to staff retention and recruitment.

Certainly, I don’t know anyone who foresaw the legal sector getting to October 2021 with retirements and senior departures accelerating, employees bitterly split over what work should look like and a recruitment crisis of epic proportions.

Legal job boards are awash with unfilled positions and law firms are struggling to find candidates. I’ve spoken with recruitment experts in multiple sectors and the same pattern is being repeated in other professions as diverse as public relations and financial services.

Ironically, many legal firms fared well in terms of financial performance during the pandemic. However, that shouldn’t distract from the staffing problems ahead.

One of the biggest challenges has been described as the “Great Attrition” by global management consulting giant McKinsey. It published a report this month suggesting workers across every sector are reassessing what they want out of life – and for some that means quitting their jobs.

This could be particularly bad news for our profession, which over-indexes on two key cohorts– time-served veterans who are financially secure and up-and-coming younger staff, who face a punishing workload to make an impact.

Look around you. It shouldn’t take long to spot a partner for whom the pandemic has brought forward the appeal of retirement. Or a young lawyer who no longer relishes the prospect of 14-hour days to get up the greasy pole.

On disillusioned employees, the McKinsey report is emphatic: work has to matter more to them and be more meaningful; they want to feel valued by bosses while enjoying a sense of belonging; poor work-life balance is not worth the physical or mental toll it exacts.

I suspect this rings bells with many in Scottish law firms who came through a culture which demanded that we dash our 20s and 30s on the rocks of ambition and advancement. The Great Attrition may well put paid to that once and for all.

Again, McKinsey’s report was emphatic: while employers think they can throw money at fed-up workers, this isn’t about increased compensation. Many of those quitting don’t have jobs to go to.

What’s clear is that the fallout of Covid is having a profound, nuanced effect on employees. For every worker desperate to get back to the office, there is a colleague keen to hold on to the benefits of homeworking. For every salary-driven go-getter prepared to ignore the clock, there is a colleague whose motivation – and productivity – crashes when working hours telescope.

Legal firms have long been skewed towards those prepared to sacrifice quality of life for long hours. The pandemic has empowered workers to walk away rather than suck up working practices no longer deemed reasonable.

This doesn’t have to be bad news for our profession. Attrition can be turned into Attraction, particularly for those firms prepared to listen to employees. Adopting flexible working will help keep the best talent and help attract the highest-quality new recruits.

Workers have realised it is totally acceptable to value culture and flexibility over financial rewards. Lockdown has demonstrated that hard work and professionalism are not dependent on being in the office. Well-run businesses monitor effectiveness based on what employees do, rather than where they do it.

For managers it’s important to realise what these changes mean. If you don’t trust your team to work at home you may be tempted to think you’ve got the wrong team – but it’s increasingly more likely that the business has the wrong managers.

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