T o start with a disclaimer, this is not an article about the popular TV show that many people have been binge watching since the pandemic began. This is an article about the other office – the one that many remote workers have not seen since March. With vaccines developed and in distribution, many companies are starting to talk about the “new normal” and what a return to the office will look like.
1. Social Interactions.
Whether you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert, you need some level of social interaction. The office is a place where you can interact with others and ideally, enjoy the chance to have new conversations, build friendships and support one another in life’s challenges and joys.
2. Collaboration and Innovation.
Most of us are better able to collaborate when we are with other people and ideas can flow naturally. Ideas are transformed and become better through this interactive process. Although video is great, it is hard to do real brainstorming by video, especially when not everyone will feel comfortable throwing out ideas in that forum. Being together, and working toward a common goal, creates a level of enthusiasm and engagement that cannot be replicated by employees working alone.
3. Information Flow.
Maybe it’s just me, but I am finding my email to be overwhelming! I was puzzled about why I was so unable to keep up, when I realized that many of those emails would have been simple conversations if we were all in the office. The response would have been instantaneous, rather than an electronic back and forth. Obviously, it is easy to have conversations by video, but I also find that my calendar is so packed with videoconferences that it is hard to have the impromptu conversations. The result is more emails and more time spent trying to find or convey basic information.
The remote world can result in the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality which both derails careers and prevents individuals from fully contributing, an impact which I suspect is felt more by women and diverse employees. This, when coupled with the pandemic-related demand of childcare and remote schooling, could be pointing many qualified employees toward the exit, to the detriment of their employers and the legal profession.
5. Training and Mentoring.
Newer employees, including lawyers who are just starting their career, need to work with others. They are developing their areas of expertise and need on the job training. They need the opportunities that come from being given special projects just because they happen to meet a senior partner in the hall or visiting client sites for diligence. They need to be able to watch more experienced lawyers interact with clients, opposing counsel and each other. They need to learn the culture of the firm or company in which they work. Newer employees in any profession miss out on the chance to develop crucial soft skills like leadership and communication if they do not have the chance to interact with and observe more experienced employees. High potential employees also might be overlooked or might leave if they do not develop a bond with their coworkers and company. It is not just newer employers who need to be in the office. Newer employees cannot learn from more experienced employees if those more experienced employees do not come to the office.
6. Tech and Tools.
Unless you worked from a home office prior to COVID, your office likely has better technology and tools than your home. Think about the printer/copier, your dual monitors and your ergonomic desk chair. The office might have better internet, and likely has IT support. Although our children have done an admirable job providing IT support during the pandemic, your office staff can do better and can likely do it in a way that better supports cybersecurity goals. We also cannot forget that some employees are working in less than ideal physical conditions – in one bedroom apartments, shared space or in the same room as their school age children.
7. Closing the Deal.
For many companies, the office is an expression of the company’s culture intentionally designed to attract and impress clients, customers and potential new hires. A business meeting in an office has a level of gravitas that is missing with the “Brady Bunch” video format. It allows decisionmakers to get to know one another and to read body language and tone as they negotiate. Ultimately, it allows people to develop a sense of trust. While as lawyers we emphasize the importance of the contract documents, it is the underlying relationships that allow deals to close and succeed for the long-term.
8. Growth and Strategy.
Remote work lends itself well to solitary tasks, like writing a memo or a brief. It creates a transactional culture, however. Each employee is doing their job and checking tasks off a list. For many companies, and I would say particularly for lawyers, it is not a culture that lends itself to strategic initiatives or growth as a firm or enterprise. For lawyers practicing in-house, it creates the risk of returning to the lawyer as scribe mentality, rather than lawyer as business leader with legal expertise.
Not everyone has the ideal home environment. Domestic violence and abuse have not gone away, and even absent these extremes, some people find themselves isolating in situations which are less than ideal for their mental, emotional or physical health. The office provides a social safety net of colleagues and a place where someone in need can more easily reach out for help. And if you personally are in an unsafe home situation, please reach out for help!
10. What does the new office look like?
I will end with a question. What will our office look like in the future? I doubt that any company is going to do a massive office redesign now, but I suspect that companies will be more cognizant of personal space as a safety measure, rather than trying to minimize the square footage per employee as a cost saving measure. Light and open spaces for collaboration are not going to go away, nor are amenities like cafeterias. In fact, collaboration and interaction will be seen as key elements of the office experience. Many offices likely will be designed around fewer people present on a daily basis, with hoteling concepts becoming popular – perhaps more people will have access to an office with a door, just not on a dedicated and daily basis. Hopefully, we have seen the last of the floor plans that make employees feel like they are eavesdropping every time their neighbor picks up the phone!
So, I will end by saying the era of the office is not over (although you have probably binge-watched the entire TV show during the past 11 months). I think the ideal for many of us would be to enjoy our office time by focusing on what is most important – those things like interaction and collaboration that we can only get in a group environment – and have the freedom to make decisions about where to work based on our schedule for the day and our personal and professional goals.
Until next time…
Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, The Andersons
Christine M. Castellano is Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of The Andersons (NASDAQ: ANDE), located in Maumee, Ohio. Founded in 1947, The Andersons is a Fortune 500 diversified company rooted in agriculture that conducts business across North America in the grain, ethanol, plant nutrient and rail sectors.
Prior to joining The Andersons, she served as Senior Vice President, General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Chief Compliance Officer for Ingredion Incorporated, a NYSE listed Fortune 500 company. She additionally served as a non-executive director and member of the Audit Committee of Rafhan Maize Products Co. Ltd., a public company listed on the Pakistan Stock Exchange.
Christine currently serves as a co-chair of the Business and Industry Committee of the NW Ohio V Project and on the legacy board of The John Marshall Law School. She previously served as a Trustee of the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, and as a member of the Womens’ Board of the Chicago Zoological Society. She is a member of The Economic Club of Chicago and The Chicago Network. In April 2019, Christine was certified as a diversity professional by the National Diversity Council.
Christine is a member of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the Toledo Bar Association, the Illinois State Bar Association, and the North Shore General Counsel Association, and participated in The Conference Board Council of Chief Legal Officers and the MAPI Law Council. She has served as a member of the American Bar Association International Section Publications Committee and Corporate Counsel Committee, and was formerly Communications Officer and Division Chair of the Americas and Middle East Division of the Section. She was named by Diligent Corporation to the 2020 Modern Governance 100; by the Legal 500 to the 2019 GC Powerlist: United States; by the Illinois Diversity Council in 2017 as one of the Top 15 Business Women in Illinois; and by the Ethisphere Institute as one of the 2016 Attorneys Who Matter.
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