Telecommuting: What’s Driving The Work-At-Home Conversation?

TelecommutingIn February, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer sparked a renewed interest in the work-from-home debate when she announced that her company no longer would allow employees to telecommute. Legal professionals and HR decision-makers (both in law firms and corporate legal departments) are holding a finger to the wind — and wondering how new developments in the work-from-home controversy could impact the legal profession. Are corporate counsel, law firm managers and other legal professionals ready to consider flexible work arrangements?

Let’s take a brief look at several of the major “drivers” underlying the work-from-home issue:

Driver 1: Technology

With the advent of cloud-based storage, encryption technologies, high-speed data connections and ubiquitous mobile devices, legal professionals now can function almost anywhere. All that’s required is a basic technological literacy, a modest investment in computer gear and an internet connection. (If there ever were serious concerns about the legal community embracing the possibilities of information technology, enthusiasm surrounding the ABA’s most recent TECHSHOW should put any remaining questions to rest.)

Needless to say, Yahoo!’s work-from-home employees had ample access to technology. Those technological resources, in fact, may have contributed to that company’s diminished performance — as some commentators are suggesting that remotely based employees found it all-too-easy to work on business other than Yahoo!’s. Sure, legal professionals also have been known to engage in freelance work. However, given the checks-and-balances of hourly billing, work-from-home legal pros are far less susceptible to the technology-enabled problems of “serving two masters.”

Driver 2: Economic Market Forces

Consumers of legal services have made it abundantly clear that they want greater value from legal professionals. That means better services at lower prices — and if achieving those goals can be hastened by work-from-home flexibility, organizations are increasingly willing to grant that freedom to legal professionals. Where clients and firms need specialized talent, they are especially motivated to make these accommodations.

Driver 3: Quality-of-Life Issues

In a recently released study (“Does Working From Home Work?“) Stanford University Economics Professor Nicholas Bloom and colleagues catalogued noticeable increases in productivity — along with greater perceived happiness and job retention rates — among a work-from-home population sample. The Stanford study suggested that “…concerns over deteriorating work-life balance…” is one of the major factors underlying the work-from-home trend. (Although the Stanford study was not specific to legal professionals, these same general quality-of-life issues are consistently raised in law blogs, legal chat rooms and wherever lawyers and paralegals gather together to talk shop.)

Work-From-Home As A Business Model

Technology, economic market forces and quality-of-life considerations have begun to spawn law firms with a new business model that seems to have struck a chord. In this brave new world, clients seeking quality law services at attractive hourly rates are served by experienced legal professionals working from home and employing cost-effective technology.

One of the “poster children” for work-from-home law is the Potomac Law Group — a 40-lawyer Washington, D.C.-based firm. Although its two-year history doesn’t allow many statistical data points for analyzing this firm’s performance, Potomac Law Group appears to be headed in a promising direction.  A recent Washington Post story reports the firm projecting its 2013 gross revenues at $4 million — a considerable increase over the $1.7 million earned in 2012, its first full year.

Potomac founder is Ben Lieber — who formerly practiced tax law, worked as a McKinsey consultant and managed aerospace projects. Not surprisingly, Lieber is an unabashed advocate for successfully meeting client needs via work-from-home arrangements: “I have built a full-service law firm without the Oriental rugs, without the expensive furniture, wall hangings, library and legal secretaries,” he said.

Jobs Done At Home — But Careers Made In The Office?

One needn’t look far to find legal talent offering testimonials that complement Lieber’s glowing assessment of the work-from-home business model. Among the benefits that workers most often cite are the rewards of practicing their profession, the ability to juggle child-rearing duties, the prospect of decent wages and the chance to maintain better relationships with family members.

A panacea? Not quite — as remote workers also are quick to admit the very real problems of becoming “disconnected” from colleagues who gather daily at a central office. There’s also the “shirk-from-home” problem — being perceived as being less of a contributor. Also, the Stanford study mentioned above confirmed what many long have suspected: Working from home can make a worker 50% less likely to be promoted.

And it goes without saying that there are many situations where working from home simply isn’t workable.  In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Prof. Michael Boyer O’Leary (Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business) observed that face-to-face interaction is especially important for new employees and in situations where team members are unfamiliar to one another. Other commentators have highlighted the intangible benefits of “water-cooler conversations” and similar informal interactions — and at a place like Yahoo! those casual conversations may be crucial, indeed.

In the world of legal professionals, however, it just doesn’t seem likely that the work-from-home genie will be stuffed back into a bottle. Not now, or anytime soon. Technology, market economics and quality-of-life issues seem to have settled that question for the foreseeable future.

Legal professionals, do you have the flexibility to telecommute? Is telecommuting a feasible option for law firms and corporate legal departments? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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