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Assessing Productivity In The New Post-Pandemic Workplace

By Pieter Oomens,

Of course the title is something of a tease. What will be the workplace in a post-pandemic world?

We know that some titans of Wall Street have commanded that as soon as possible, staff are expected to come back to the office and work as they did before lockdowns became commonplace.1 We know that other companies – especially in the IT sphere – have said that that they expect that their staff will work remotely forever.2 Survey after survey, however, suggests that a large proportion of businesses that can have staff operate remotely will subscribe to some sort of hybrid work model.

How a firm – and of course the focus in this article is on law firms – will establish a hybrid work model and what that model will look like are fundamental questions that must be addressed before implementing with any degree of permanency such a new arrangement. Will the model be mandated? If so, will it be mandated for all? How will days for remote working be determined and by whom? What will be the protocols for changes to the model? Will the office itself be physically changed on the assumption that on any given day a proportion of staff will be working remotely? The list of questions is hardly exhaustive but it underlines the amount of planning that is required before a hybrid work model post-pandemic is introduced on a permanent basis.3

The purpose of this article is to look at one aspect of the hybrid work model (HWM) after its introduction: how will productivity of the model be assessed?4 Incidentally, I have avoided referring the new work model as ‘Work from Home’ or the ubiquitous ‘WFH’. Why? Because, for some people that expression is a loaded one: it suggests an inevitable relaxing of business standards. As a matter of logic, before one can come to a conclusion as to the impact of an HWM on business productivity one should at least have the data to prove it one way or another. And that is what this article is about.

A test for determining whether an HWM has improved productivity is simply to look at output: have billings gone up? There are many reasons why that solution – while inescapably a valid enquiry – cannot be the only tool used to assess productivity of the model.

Are you comparing apples with apples? That is, will billing budgets be the same post-pandemic? Any assessment of the billing performance before and after the introduction of an HWM will have to take into account changes to work in-flows and their inevitable impact on billings. Further, if billings have gone up, has that been because of or in spite of the introduction of an HWM? As to the latter, billings might have gone up but could they have gone up at an even higher rate if people were in the office and not working remotely?

What about hours recorded? This is an even cruder test than simply looking at billings. Total recorded hours may go up after the introduction of an HWM. There are data to show that some people who work away from the office on a routine basis are putting in more hours than they normally would as the meaning of the notion of ‘working day’ becomes increasingly elastic.5 More hours recorded however does not necessarily mean more billable hours. Even if focus is placed on billable hours recorded on days when people are working away from the office, care needs to be taken. It has been reported that there is a tendency for senior staff to increase the level of their checking up on their team when they are working away from the office.6

What about technology? A good practice management system will capture not only billable time but billable time that is written off. Is more time being written off for those billable hours recorded on days when people are working out of the office? Inevitably, even with the aid of sophisticated software, managers in HR and Finance departments and senior lawyers will be spending more time than they used to in preparing reports and analysing time recording by staff.

The extra layer of enquiry to check on productivity – even taking into account the use of technology – is likely to have an adverse impact on time available to senior lawyers for their own billable work. Accordingly, care should be taken by the firm to ensure that there are appropriate protocols in place to address that risk. In this regard, and subject to the availability of resources both in terms of people and software, a sampling of billable time recorded and written off for days worked away from the office might be preferred.

The focus on billable time recorded (and written off) referable to days worked away from the office may itself be challenged as an appropriate yardstick. Using technology makes it a relatively simple exercise of course, however, it ignores the fact that there may be good reasons why people choose work-days when they are not in the office to undertake other, important business-focussed tasks. For the very reason that they are not in the office with the consequent likelihood of interruption, people may use the opportunity to apply themselves to planning, administration and marketing.

Put simply, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of assessing the impact on productivity of an HWM. Technology will be key but the results arising from the application of technology will need to be tempered to take into account other, not easily measurable, factors. Whatever policy is adopted by a firm for assessing the impact on productivity of an HWM – especially given that there may be need for subjective input in the assessment – care should be taken to ensure consistent application of the policy firm-wide.
Finally, while a firm might accept that HWM is going to be a part of the future, given the need for a firm to adapt to changing conditions, it is imperative that staff understand from the outset that while the aim of the firm is to implement an HWM, the details of the HWM may change.

Assessing the impact on productivity of an HWM is something that a firm must do. The firm must be careful to address changes to its business that might adversely impact productivity. HWM is a very significant change to business operations. Without a program appraising an HWM which has been implemented, there is little chance of any improvement, if improvement to the selected model is warranted. To avoid any disaffection by staff, the firm should communicate its intention to adopt a policy continuous review of such HWM as it implements and the reasons why.

Profit Through Management can assist firms in designing, implementing and appraising hybrid work models.

  1. Financial Times, 16 June 2021, ‘Global banks adopt markedly different back-to-work policies’ by Joshua Franklin, Owen Walker and Joe Rennison
  2. Financial Times, 15 May 2020, ‘The rise and fall of the office’ by Henry Mance
  3. Future articles on these issues will be published on the website
  4. This article focusses on assessing the productivity of lawyers under HWM. The assessment of the productivity of non-professional staff involves other metrics. Interestingly, this may involve a ground-up review by management as to just what the metrics should be for such staff.
  5. The Economist, 27 March 2021 edition, ‘The Great Divide’ Bartleby column
  6. For some of the pitfalls related to HWM, see Forbes Magazine, 25 May 2021, ‘The unintended consequences of the hybrid- work model’ by Jack Kelly