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Is the Push to Return to the Office a Macho Thing?

June 18, 2021, 3:07 PM

I’ve been dodging the subject of returning to the office. That’s because I can’t think of a less sexy topic—all that discussion about office logistics: scheduling, ventilation systems, hand sanitizers, and plexiglass. Frankly, it sounds about as exciting as reading the instructions to my new vacuum cleaner.

What I didn’t realize is how much emotion the subject packs. Apparently, returning to the office is a hot button issue—and it’s getting hotter by the day as the Covid vaccine becomes more prevalent and normalcy returns. Somehow, it’s touching a nerve that encompasses culture, gender, the generational gap, autonomy, respect—you name it. You could call it the kitchen sink issue of the day.

From what I’m hearing, this is the division: On one side are the partners—usually male and older—who want the troops back in the office. Then, there’s everyone else—women (both partners and associates) and associates overall—who are much more ambivalent about returning to the fold.

So do gender and age determine how we feel about returning to the office? Well, sort of.

Those who think it’s time to get back to the good old [male] days usually argue that longstanding corporate values are at stake. That’s essentially what Paul Hastings chair Seth Zachary and managing partners Greg Nitzkowski and Ronan O’Sullivan messaged in their May 25 memo to the foot soldiers: “This return to office is as important for helping to nurture and strengthen our sense of culture, teamwork and collaboration as it is for serving clients at the highest levels.”

I hate to say men lack empathy about the challenges of returning to the office—but some are clearly clueless. One New York-based partner tells me that his firm was ready to mandate that everyone return to the office after July 4, but then one of his female partners gently reminded him: “‘Uh, you know school doesn’t start until September, right?’” alluding to possible childcare problems.

And I don’t want to suggest that women are more enlightened on those issues, but it is striking that Ropes & Gray, which is led by a woman, Julie Jones, announced a super-progressive policy in May. Though the firm recommends three days in the office by November, Jones told lawyers, “we endorse flexibility post-pandemic. We don’t expect that we’ll ever mandate a five-day a week in-office environment.” Jones told my colleague Rebekah Mintzer at the time, “I feel strongly that in periods of crisis if you give people agency and you empower them to make decisions it is really helpful in mentally navigating a crisis,“ adding that the pandemic prove that “people can do a great job from wherever they are, and we need to tell them that.”

Firms that order/suggest/hint at a pre-pandemic style return to the office can also expect pushback from millennials. Sullivan & Cromwell learned that lesson when it announced in late April that it expected employees to return full time to the office after the July 4 holiday. According to Above the Law, that set off a mini rebellion by associates. Although S&C chair Joseph Shenker later denied that the return was “mandatory,” the firm’s communication “appears to go a step further than just an optional first step to office life,” according to The American Lawyer, noting that the firm “is strongly encouraging the July 6 return.”

I don’t know whether S&C backpedaled or associates overreacted to a meek suggestion to go back to the office, but many firms are treading lightly. (Cooley, DLA Piper, Dechert, Gibson Dunn, Reed Smith, White & Case, and other firms all say they’ll take a flexible approach). And maybe they should because research suggests workers, particularly millennials, would rather quit than be forced to show up at the office every morning. One survey by Morning Consult, reports Bloomberg, finds that 39% of 1,000 Americans polled in May say they might quit if their bosses didn’t allow work flexibility, and that number jumped to 49% among millennials and Gen Z.

There’s no data yet on whether Big Law associates are jumping because they’re being pressured to return. But can anyone blame them after this crazy year? All things being more or less equal, having the autonomy to work remote could be a big differentiator in job choice.

Though almost every lawyer I’ve spoken to this past year tells me they’re working much more efficiently than their pre-pandemic days, many are worried that associates, particularly lawyers of color and women, might be missing out on mentoring and relationship building. On the other hand, though, some women and minorities might be relieved not to have to deal with the microaggressions of the office.

One New York-based associate says he’s noticed that some associates who started at his firm during the pandemic are leaving, adding “they don’t feel part of the group.” He cautions, however, “it’s hard to say whether it’s because of the [market] demand, higher salary, or never feeling rooted.” He adds, “those with confidence about their work have thrived, including some introverted people with good abilities. But if you need assurance about your position or work, it’s harder.”

In other words, remote work isn’t nirvana for everyone. That said, it’s clear that associates want firms to take a more individualized, less dictatorial approach. “It’s about being treated like an adult,” says the New York associate, noting that most people have been working effectively—and hard—without showing up at the office.

After the hellish year we’ve been through, is that too much to ask? Besides, who cares where lawyers work so long as they’re logging in those 2,200-plus hours of billable time?

To contact the columnist: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

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