Is inflexibility to remote working an obstacle to growth?
The number of vacancies far outstrip the availability of candidates. This seems to be true in the whole of the UK economy but more so in the IP profession since firms started to stop worrying about lockdowns and began moving with recruitment again. But we’re in a situation where we do have candidates, in technical areas that people want – biotechnology, engineering, and electronics, but who at least for the moment firms aren’t willing to recruit.
The issue is remote working. There is currently, in some cases, a difference between the flexibility that candidates want and the flexibility they are able to achieve. Firms who find a way to manage this gap in expectation could find themselves with the commercial advantage of achieving staffing growth at a time when many of their competitors are continually struggling.
Some flexibility in IP recruitment has always been key, the firms that fill the vacancies the quickest typically are those who don’t stick entirely to the predetermined script. This could mean more money, a slightly different technical mix, more or less senior candidates etc. But this also now means flexibility in the approach to remote and hybrid working.
For the most part the profession has settled on flexible inflexibility. Hybrid is the norm, for some firms this means a few days a week for others there’s a little more room for manoeuvre. For example, in some cases it may be culturally difficult to work from home considerably more than their colleagues even where it is allowable.
There are understandable reasons for encouragement of office working, as many of us discovered through lockdown. Learning anything entirely remotely can be a quite a challenge. Having other trainees around as well as easy access to superiors can be invaluable. However, when faced with a situation where a firm desperately needs a good attorney and where client relationships are potentially at-risk, firms still seem to be saying that no attorney is better than a fully remote attorney.
To expand on the point above, there certainly are circumstances where in office working makes sense – a new hire has training responsibilities, a lot of local clients who like to meet in person, etc. But in many cases the argument is about precedence. If you hire one person fully remotely, everyone will want it, then what do you do?
I don’t think this argument has much merit. There is no reason why firms can’t consider every case on its own merits, and also plenty of reasons why other members of staff will not wish to work remotely in any case. I don’t think for the most part that employees constantly look over their shoulder to see what everyone else is getting. This is only ever potentially the case when they feel they are being treated unfairly. We find this commonly with salary, attorneys are entirely comfortable with the fact that other people within the firm may earn more than them but it becomes an issue if they feel that there is unfairness in this, i.e., a lack of recognition. Likewise, if one employee has two small children and needs to work from home more than someone who doesn’t then I think for most reasonable people that would be understood, until that second individual has small children of their own and asks for similar flexibility. There is precedence then but only in a very limited way. There is highly unlikely to be a mass walkout. I appreciate there are also arguments about oversight and productivity but I think they have largely been disproved by the widespread home working during the Covid related lockdowns.
We have experience of firms who have had attorneys working remotely prior to the pandemic and it was well understood by other employees that these particular circumstances were unusual. It was an exception that was accepted by everyone. It also gave comfort that in exceptional circumstances their firm would treat them exceptionally too. I’d like to think that employees are just not that spiteful to hope to punish people that enjoy greater flexibility because they do not, even where they don’t want it.
We don’t know where this will all settle at present. The issue for the majority of firms is the minority of firms. There are a few UK firms who have recruited people to work fully remotely. It’s not a large number yet - in some cases it’s a change of strategy, in others an exceptional reaction to circumstance. But as staffing issues become even more acute (and there are plenty of reasons to think this may be the case, probably for another article) will firms that recruit remote candidates have a competitive advantage?
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