Striking the Balance in Law: Remote Work and In-Office Presence

By: Matthew S. Thiese, PhD, MSPH

Remote work, often synonymously referred to as telecommuting, involves employees working outside of the traditional office environment. This trend has been on the rise due to technological advancements that enable seamless communication and collaboration. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this shift, with numerous organizations adopting remote work to ensure business continuity. A 2021 study published in Nature Human Behaviour (“The Effects of Remote Work on Collaboration Among Information Workers”) highlighted that remote work can increase productivity and decrease commuting time, thereby promoting a better work-life balance.  However, there are disadvantages of working remotely, including social isolation, lack of productivity or efficiency, and the physical conditions of the home (“Six key advantages and disadvantages of working from home in Europe during COVID-19,” International Journal of Research and Public Health 2021).

As the legal industry adapts to the future of work, it is met with a crucial challenge: balancing the convenience and flexibility of remote work with the traditional requirement of physical presence in the law office. This balance is essential to harness the advantages of both work settings while accommodating the diverse needs and preferences of legal professionals. This article offers strategies for achieving this balance in a law firm context.


Flexibility: The New Legal Norm
The first crucial strategy is to promote flexibility. The American Bar Association (“The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” 2017) has highlighted that legal professionals increasingly value the autonomy to choose their work environment. By allowing lawyers and legal staff to decide their work setup, law firms can cater to individual preferences and circumstances, such as family commitments, lengthy commutes, or productivity patterns.

Flexibility might mean allowing lawyers to work remotely on certain days, offering flexible work hours, or even adopting a primarily remote work model with optional in-office days. However, any flexible arrangement should come with clear guidelines on communication, expected availability, and performance expectations to prevent miscommunication and ensure productivity.


The Hybrid Law Office
A hybrid model, which integrates remote and in-office work, is emerging as a fitting solution for many law firms. In this arrangement, legal professionals split their time between working remotely and in the office. For instance, they might draft legal documents or research case law from home and come into the office for client meetings, court preparations, or team brainstorming sessions.

This model allows law firms to enjoy the benefits of remote work—like improved work-life balance, reduced operational costs, and increased productivity—while still maintaining the advantages of face-to-face collaboration and teamwork, especially crucial in complex legal cases.


Rethinking Law Offices for the Future
In the new era of legal practice, the traditional law office’s role is undergoing a transformation. Instead of being the default place for work, it’s becoming a hub for collaboration, networking, and professional development.

Adopting an “activity-based working” approach could mean law offices have a variety of spaces like quiet zones for focused tasks (e.g., contract analysis), collaborative areas for team activities (e.g., case strategy discussions), and social areas for informal interactions. This makes the law office a destination for specific purposes, encouraging in-office attendance without making it obligatory.


Continuous Feedback and Adaptation
Regular check-ins and feedback are key to continuously fine-tuning the balance between remote and in-office work in the legal field. Managing partners and team leaders should frequently communicate with their teams about their work arrangements, ensuring they align with both individual and collective needs.

Further, law firms should be prepared to adapt and evolve their work policies over time. As legal practices advance and remote technologies improve, the optimal balance between remote and in-office work will likely shift. By maintaining open lines of communication and demonstrating a willingness to adjust, law firms can create a dynamic and responsive work environment that keeps pace with the evolving legal industry.


Occupational Health Challenges in Remote Work

Physical Health

  1. Ergonomic Issues: Remote workers often do not have access to an ergonomically designed workspace, which can lead to musculoskeletal disorders. A study in the International Journal of Occupational Safety and Ergonomics (“Can working at home be a hazard? Ergonomic factors associated with musculoskeletal disorders among teleworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic: a scoping review,” 2022) revealed a relationship between non-ergonomic workspaces and increased rates of musculoskeletal complaints among remote workers.
  2. Sedentary Lifestyle: Remote work can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, which is associated with various health issues such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.
  3. Eye Health: Home offices may have lighting or other issues that may have a negative impact on digital eyestrain.
  4. Healthy Eating: Easy access to treats and snacks may encourage poor eating habits, which can be compounded by work-related stress.


Mental Health

  1. Social Isolation: The lack of social interaction and the feeling of isolation can have adverse effects on mental health. A study published in PLoS One (“Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Impacts of Disease, Social Isolation and Financial Stressors,” 2022) reported that social isolation is associated with a significantly increased risk of depression and anxiety.
  2. Work-Life Boundaries: The blurred lines between work and personal life can lead to burnout and mental fatigue.
  3. Increased feelings of Anxiety, Depression or Burnout: Other factors aside from work-life boundaries may lead to negative affect. These include difficulty communicating with co-workers, fatigue/exhaustion from working longer hours, lack of professional boundaries, and technological limitations can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression and burnout.


Recommendations for Firms and Organizations

Set (and Reset) Expectations
Regardless of whether you are considering going with a flexible schedule, a hybrid office schedule or something else, setting clear expectations is a cornerstone of effective remote work arrangements.  This is particularly true in industries such as law that often rely heavily on meticulous attention to detail and strict adherence to deadlines. With staff working away from a central office, it’s essential that everyone understands what’s expected of them to maintain productivity and ensure that all work is completed to a high standard.

The process should start with clarifying the basic parameters of remote work, such as work hours, response times, and preferred communication channels. For instance, a law firm might specify that remote workers should be available during certain core hours, respond to emails within a set timeframe, and use video calls for client meetings and detailed case discussions.

Next, expectations regarding job performance should be clearly defined. In the context of a law firm, this might mean outlining the quality and quantity of work expected within a given timeframe, such as completing a certain number of case briefs per week or conducting thorough and timely legal research for upcoming cases.

Specific roles and responsibilities should also be explicitly stated. For example, a legal associate working remotely should know exactly what tasks they’re responsible for, whether it’s drafting contracts, negotiating with opposing counsel, or preparing documents for court.

To maintain accountability, it can be beneficial to set up regular check-ins and progress reports. This can help ensure that everyone is meeting their objectives and provide an opportunity to address any issues or concerns.

Remember, these expectations should not be static. They should be regularly reviewed and adjusted as necessary to adapt to changing circumstances or new insights about what works and what doesn’t in a remote working context. By setting, communicating, and periodically reviewing clear expectations, law firms can help ensure a successful and productive remote or hybrid work arrangement.


Addressing Physical Health Challenges

  1. Promote Ergonomic Practices: Companies should provide guidelines and resources on setting up a home office ergonomically. This could include educational materials on correct posture, ideal computer and chair height, and proper keyboard and mouse placement. Some companies may also consider providing financial assistance or reimbursement for employees to purchase ergonomic furniture.
  2. Encourage Regular Movement: Long hours of sitting can be detrimental to physical health. Companies can encourage regular movement breaks throughout the day. This could include integrating stretch breaks during long meetings, promoting the use of standing desks, or encouraging employees to take walks during breaks.
  3. Address Eye Health: To combat digital eye strain, companies could share best practices for reducing screen time and maintaining eye health. This might include the 20-20-20 rule (every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds), adjusting screen brightness, and ensuring proper room lighting.
  4. Support Healthy Eating: Companies can encourage healthier eating habits by sharing nutritional tips or even providing virtual cooking classes or workshops. If feasible, they could also offer food delivery stipends for healthier meal options.


Addressing Mental Health Challenges

  1. Promote Work-Life Balance: To prevent burnout, companies should encourage employees to maintain clear boundaries between work and personal life. This could include setting “core hours” for meetings while allowing flexibility at other times, discouraging after-hours communication, and promoting “unplug” time.
  2. Provide Mental Health Resources: Companies should ensure that employees have access to mental health resources. This could involve offering Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), providing subscriptions to meditation or wellness apps, or arranging virtual workshops on stress management or mindfulness.
  3. Foster Social Interaction: To combat isolation, companies should promote virtual social interactions. Regular team-building activities, virtual coffee breaks, and interest-based groups can help maintain a sense of community and connectedness among remote workers.
  4. Encourage Regular Check-Ins: Managers should be trained to regularly check in on their team members’ well-being, not just work progress. These check-ins can provide an opportunity to discuss any difficulties and find potential solutions.
  5. Offer Professional Development Opportunities: Continued professional growth and development are essential for mental well-being. Companies should ensure remote workers have equal access to opportunities for upskilling, learning, and career progression.

Matthew S. Thiese, PhD, MSPH

Dr. Thiese has extensive experience in designing and conducting epidemiologic and interventional research. His research focuses on the overlap between a person’s job and their health, including everything from musculoskeletal disorders like Low Back Pain or Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, to motor vehicle crashes, to COVID-19, to mental well-being. His research seeks to identify potential risk factors, interventions to prevent injury or illness, evidence-based practice for both treatment and prevention, and assessments of worker health and safety fitness-for-duty. Dr. Thiese currently is conducting research in several different areas of mental health and mental fitness in the law profession.

Dr. Thiese’s graduate degrees are in Public Health, specifically Occupational Epidemiology and Injury Prevention. He is a tenured Associate Professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine and has co-authored numerous articles. He also serves on the board for the Institute for Well-Being in Law as the Vice-President for Research and Scholarship.