TLOMA Today: Virtual is the new reality – How Coronavirus is making the term “Remote Worker” obsolete

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps necessity is also the mother of transition? Because undoubtedly, over the past few turbulent weeks, many hundreds of thousands of professional services personnel have transitioned, virtually overnight, and entirely out of necessity, to the status of “home worker”.

In this article for TLOMA Today, Tikit’s Peter Zver discussed that in so doing they’ve accelerated the adoption of remote working at a speed considerably beyond that which in any other circumstances would have been thought possible. In addition, in making this transition, lots of people who were resistant, or who at least had reservations, have found that the new reality of remote working is entirely doable.

We are indeed living through an acutely unique set of circumstances. In the ordinary course of events, any firm contemplating its wholesale migration out of central offices and into a “remote working” model would almost certainly have taken many months at least to execute the manoeuvre. Business cases would have been written, feasibility studies done, plans laid, training conducted.

Meanwhile, lots of hand‐wringing would have accompanied every senior partners’ meeting on mitigating the impact on firm revenue and perception for employees and clients. And each transitioning individual would, most likely, have received an appropriate amount of hand‐holding, both in terms of the technical aspects of the move, along with some sort of acknowledgement that such a radical reconfiguration would be likely to incur some psychological impacts as well. But we’ve hardly seen any of that.

On the contrary, every last soul in the firm has more or less been taken to a great height and dropped straight into the chilly deep‐end of a metaphorical “remote working” swimming pool. What’s more, after some flailing, spluttering and moments of panic – everyone pretty much learned to swim.

So much so that Josh Baxter, CEO of NetDocuments1 reported that one month on from the beginning of lockdown, his service saw the volume of activity on its servers rise from a pre‐pandemic average of around 980m transactions per week to just under 1.2b transactions in each of the last two weeks – a 20 per cent increase. “Users went home, they plugged in and they just started to work”, said Baxter. So where does it take us?

The end of remote working

First, and perhaps perversely, I think it suggests that the term “remote working” has probably become redundant. Now that everyone is remote, no one actually is! And this is not such a bad thing. Because for the longest time, the term “remote worker” has attracted a vague stigma. As though such people had limitations and were compromised by their physical distance from the beating heart of the organization. They were seen as outliers, peripheral and maybe even a bit rogue. But when there’s no core any more, that goes away. (In any case “the core” was already a myth. Today’s firms are often distributed: their IT and their IP probably held remotely; their employees entirely capable of putting in a solid shift irrespective of location.)

Second – and importantly – it’s likely that many of the hesitations felt over extending remote working will have been dispelled. The NetDocuments data indicates that, contrary to some expectations about the distractions of home working, productivity has in fact not taken a hit. To be sure, working from home does have distractions, but so does working in an office.

Experience is also dispelling the concerns of those who worried about not having a sufficient grasp of technology and that they would struggle out on their own, beyond the help of an assistant, or IT services. In fact today’s technology is designed to be fairly intuitive, even for the tech‐averse. Plus when individuals have run into issues, they’ve found that IT support can help them remotely and just as effectively as if someone was standing over their shoulder.

Nor is working from home less secure than working in the office. Indeed when data is held in the cloud, its protection is exponentially more sophisticated and more secure than any single law firm – even the biggest – could resource on its own.

In summary, people’s reservations about remote working have been overtaken by events. Their own experience is showing them that, by and large, working away from the office is actually both viable and sustainable. It will have long‐lasting repercussions on what comes next.

Competitive advantage

People are now living a real‐time, real‐life demonstration of how the firm can function away from the office. So a new understanding will be taking hold: that access to services matters much more than location. This realization would have taken much longer without this crisis. But the key point is that it calls the value of physical offices into question.

Necessity has catapulted firms from their cosy, traditional premises. Those that had a well-developed business continuity plan have now tested it at scale and found that it works. As a result, many firms will understand that by optimizing service delivery and reducing the firm’s cost base that they now have an opportunity to seize competitive advantage over other, slower to adapt peers; especially given that the cost‐consciousness of many clients will only be exacerbated by the crisis. At the same time, employees, having demonstrated their capacity to maintain productivity from home, may well prefer to stay safe and stay there, at least for the time being.

We know of one West Coast firm that in the early 2000s made the decision to move its admin to West Virginia to take advantage of lower costs. It then moved a number of on‐demand legal services as well. The firm maintains some real estate on the West Coast for client meetings, but has found the reduction in the cost of office overheads very compelling. Among its many, many impacts, this crisis will likely be an accelerator for a lot of other firms coming to the same conclusion.

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1 NetDocuments is a cloud‐based document and email management service widely used in the legal sector.See: https://video.buffer.com/v/5e97963a08732d10de0f1906.