22 May 2020

Coronavirus crisis has humanised law firms

This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.

For King & Wood Mallesons chief executive partner Berkeley Cox, one of the more important lessons from the COVID-19 crisis has been the "humanisation" of the workplace.

"You've got the shield of a suit and you have a very task-focused approach when you come into the office,'' says Mr Cox.

"But when people are at home – with kids in the background of video calls – you get a greater sense of who people are as humans."

Like most of the big six law firms, KWM says it has been largely business as usual since it closed its five offices in Australia and switched to remote working in mid-March.

It came soon after the firm had to evacuate its offices in the Sydney CBD after a staff member suspected they may have contracted COVID-19 during an overseas holiday. The test proved negative.

The firm will reopen its Perth office on Monday after the state government encouraged workers to return to the CBD. Numbers will be strictly limited and Mr Cox said "working from office or home will be a personal choice".

"We are continuing to plan for a phased return to all our offices, guided by advice from federal and state governments and using our experience in our Perth office to help guide us."

Mr Cox said "myths around productivity and working from home have been debunked" and the COVID-19 crisis might have been a circuit breaker when it comes to flexible working.

"What we are seeing is the institutionalising of trust as we work from home."

He conceded that law firms perhaps needed to see proof it could work on a large scale.

"Hopefully it has broken down some barriers that will stay broken down long after we start to return [to office work]."

"There might be something in that. People had reservations about the ability of the firm to operate when we weren't physically together.

"Those notions have been debunked ... the firm now has a more open mind around what this [flexibility] can do for people for managing their work and home lives."

The biggest winners could be young parents, especially women who have been been leaving private practice for in-house jobs that are more family friendly.

"Hopefully it has broken down some barriers that will stay broken down long after we start to return [to office work]."

He said one of his biggest takeaways from the past two months had been "the very strong correlation between wellbeing and performance".

"This was new and difficult for a lot of people, so the understanding of the need to provide support for our people became more evident than it did in a normal day-to-day operating environment."

He said video-conferencing into people's homes "created a sense of authenticity in the interactions that might be lost in the office environment".

"If we can connect more as humans then we are building a relationship, we are building trust, which fosters a feeling of care and support, which in turn engenders a greater sense of wellbeing, which in turn puts us in a better state to do a better job every day."

Mr Cox said part of him had enjoyed not putting on that "suit shield" each day.

"I did my second set ever of online shopping. I bought a few more polo shirts."

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