The legal profession is changing and so is the practice of law. There are several scholarly predictions about the future of the legal profession, particularly around its continued relevance and the taking over of the demand for some of the current traditional aspects of legal services by technology. These predictions, rather than being dismissed as being overly unrealistic, ought to be carefully considered by managers and leaders of law firms so that strategic approaches to the changing nature of the profession can be crafted and the attendant risks of the imminent change can be mitigated.
One of the peculiar challenges facing the practice of law, especially within the enterprise context of a full-service law firm in Nigeria, is the specific demand for a new flexible working arrangement that takes into cognisance the need of employees to have work-life balance. There continues to be a determined push, especially by millennial employees, for management to understand that flexible working and expected daily productivity do not have to be mutually exclusive.
The work-from-home (WFH) arrangement necessitated by the Covid-19 Pandemic has further amplified the need to have conversations around the demand as the peculiar Covid-19 situation helped to highlight the fact that given adequate planning, investment in the right technology and effective execution, flexible working can similarly lead to the realisation of the productivity gained as a result of the traditional work-from-office setting. This article explores the case within the enterprise context provided, analyses the associated issues both from the management and employees’ perspectives and recommends a strategy and approach to be adopted going forward.
- The ways in which we decide to work articulate a commitment between employee and organisation – one that encompasses trust, being valued and understanding of need
- The impact of our working methods needs to be measured and evaluated as contexts change – business and individual needs ebb and flow, we must not be rigid as we navigate these waves
- What is desired one day becomes necessary on the next, and a burden on the following day – we must keep communicating with our teams to ensure the right solution is the one we have right now
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, many organisations had been faced with the challenge of how to handle the demand for flexible working arrangements from employees, particularly millennials who are desirous of having work-life balance.
The challenge for leaders, especially in the services industry where the Aluko & Oyebode law firm operates, had always been about how management should go about the demand from employees of flexible working on the one hand and the business need of ensuring that staff members congregate in a work setting that engenders the maximum daily productivity on the other hand.
The effect of the pandemic on the issue is the elimination of many, if not all the justifications employers put forward for postponing flexible working trials at their respective workplaces. As work had to – out of necessity – be done from home with the use of technology, and with many organisations realising, based on data-driven metrics, that productivity and KPIs did not drop significantly, or at least, to levels feared, it has become clear that this is an issue on which leaders must urgently decide on the best approach going forward so that they are not perceived as out of touch and thereby lose the loyalty and commitment of staff.
Aluko & Oyebode
Aluko & Oyebode is Nigeria’s largest full service commercial law firm. The firm operates from the 3 Nigerian major cities of Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, with the first two cities jointly accounting for over 85% of the workforce. The Lagos office serves as the headquarters and handles over 70% of the firm’s entire operations. In total, the firm has 80 attorneys and about 70 support staff spread across the three locations. Established in 1993, it has grown to become a leading law firm in Nigeria and on the content of Africa. As a firm operating in an environment where 65% of the population belong to the under-45 category, the firm has a workforce with about 70% of staff equally being under the age of 45. This implies that a significant proportion of the firm’s workforce are millennials who, as research have shown, are redefining the concept of work, family life and career fulfilment through their priorities and choices.
Pre-implementation of WFH
Before Covid-19, the A&O workforce had made the case for management to consider a flexible working arrangement that gives employees options for remote working. As highlighted above, a significant percentage of the Aluko & Oyebode workforce is made up of the millennials who in addition to being gainfully employed, also prioritise work-life balance. The seriousness of such a demand is further highlighted by the sometimes-harsh reality of what it entails to work productively in Nigeria, particularly in a city such as Lagos.
By land mass, Lagos is the smallest state in Nigeria but also has the largest population in the country. The reality of the population density presents a real challenge not just for general commuting but also for work productivity. For instance, while the Nigerian average is 11 vehicles per kilometre, Lagos has a daily average of 227 vehicles per kilometre.(1) This undoubtedly contributes to the fact that an average worker in Lagos spends 30 hours in traffic weekly because over 8 million commuters daily rely on 5 million private cars and 200k public buses(2) on just 9,100 networks of roads(3) that are in mostly bad conditions. The resultant effect is not just that the Lagos business community loses about $30.5 million(4) annually but that a significant part of the loss is from lost productivity.
Added to this already serious challenge are insecurity and mental health issues encountered as a result of the stressful reality of working in Lagos. These are some of the environmental factors driving the demand for flexible working by employees, and to the extent that they present real challenges to workers’ productivity, it ought to be a no-brainer that businesses would ideally be receptive to such ideas. However, the solution may not be as simple as it seems.
Apart from being a full-service law firm that provides physical services such as litigation, corporate filings and other services that necessitate daily physical interactions, unfortunately, the state of infrastructure in Nigeria is such that there are practical challenges that would discourage most businesses from implementing a work-from-home strategy. There are power, internet connectivity and data security issues that have to be carefully considered and mitigated in order not to ensure that business continuity is not jeopardised in the course of transitioning to WFH.
Having been closely monitoring the global spread of the Covid-19 virus very early in 2020, Nigeria finally recorded its first case on 25th February 2020. The federal government released a statement to announce a lockdown with effect from 30th March, 2020. The initial lockdown banned all movements in Lagos and Abuja and effectively affected about 80% of the Aluko & Oyebode’s workforce.
As a result of the lockdown and other public health measures implemented to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies had to urgently activate their Business Resilience Plans (BRPs) in order avoid significant disruptions to business operations, particularly the disruptions capable of giving rise to unmanageable losses.
Across different enterprise environments, the obvious approach to addressing the operational disruptions occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic had to necessarily be the adoption of working arrangements which complied with the public health measures being implemented globally. It became clear to businesses that the Work-From-Home arrangement had become an urgent exigency.
At Aluko & Oyebode, transitioning to WFH quickly meant that the firm had to urgently address some operational concerns. Firstly, it was extremely important to beef up IT security to ensure that the business and clients’ data could never be compromised. This required devoting additional resources to the IT team to carry out the required security upgrades, testing and deploying new IT security measures. It was also necessary to ensure that the IT team had the necessary resources and capability to troubleshoot and attend to whatever challenges staff members were experiencing regardless of their location.
Secondly, as a result of the fact that the implementation of the WFH was necessitated by public health exigencies, it was extremely important for the firm, in addition to closely monitoring the effectiveness of the WFH, to also pay attention to other areas which might potentially affect operations. One of such measures implemented to support the WFH transitioning was a Buddy System where team members were assigned to groups to ensure that everyone had easy access to help whether with respect to work-related areas or with respect personal matters. Indeed, the buddy system became a useful tool not just for tracking and ensuring work-related tasks got done but also for ensuring that the firm had an effective approach to being able to respond – in real time – to any issues relating to mental or emotional health.
Thirdly, management determined that an effective way to ensure that the WFH transitioning produced the desired results was to have an open communication where staff members could freely discuss issues and make improvement suggestions. Throughout the first phase, the firm regularly held town hall meetings where management shared information about key financial metrics and general updates relating to work policies. The town hall meetings also provided a good platform for staff members to report ongoing issues and share experiences with respect to their perspectives on the WFH arrangement as well as suggest ways in which possible improvements could be introduced and implemented across board in a way that guarantees optimisation of the arrangement.
Post-implementation of WFH
There have been different perspectives around the effectiveness and efficiency of the WFH arrangement. Coincidentally, Covid-19 presented a large-scale opportunity to practically test some of the hypotheses on flexible working arrangements, particularly the WFH arrangement.
On the one hand, there is a school of thought which argues that, to the extent that embracing technology is the future of work and that if organisations are bound to continue to innovate in order to optimise their processes for the purpose of reducing non-value adding practices, adopting WFH is the most effective and efficient approach to delivering and creating a 21st century workplace. Already, there are emerging corporate decisions around whether some businesses would permanently stick to the WFH arrangement. The proponents of this view argue that the benefits of the WFH, when viewed holistically, outweigh the disadvantages in a way that makes a sound business case for its retention.(5)
On the other hand, there are those who share the view that in the long run, the potential risks and the associated costs required to implement WFH are valid concerns against its widespread adoption. These concerns range from the risks of data breaches, expensive IT infrastructure required to support WFH, poor turnaround on daily tasks due to distractions from competing domestic duties, low productivity among several other considerations.(6)
However, in the middle of both perspectives are those who are of the view that despite the apparent advantages of WFH, its adoption ought to not only be carefully considered but must seriously take into cognisance the totality of several internal and external factors – such as culture, size, infrastructure, resources, and other peculiarities of different enterprise environments – before being implemented.(7)
The implementation of the WFH at Aluko & Oyebode has indeed produced an experience which is more closely aligned to the third perspective. However, in order to accurately measure what the Aluko & Oyebode experience has been with respect to WFH, it is important to examine the pros and cons within the context of the public health emergency which necessitated its adoption. By transitioning fully into the WFH arrangement, the firm was able to comply with public health policy as well as continue operations. This allowed the firm to ensure the safety of staff members while still guaranteeing the delivery of top notch excellent legal services to clients. This was achieved through the upgrade of both the hard and soft infrastructure which support the firm’s operations.
However, while the transition to WFH proved to be effective and successful from an operational performance perspective in the A&O case, to get the whole picture, the firm had to also analyse the feedback from staff, particularly from staff members who had become accustomed to the usual ‘9-5’ and whose mental and emotional wellbeing benefited significantly from the typical camaraderie which happens in a normal office setting. It was observed, even among some of the millennial employees who had passionately advocated for a flexible working arrangement before the pandemic, that as far as mental and emotional health are concerned, they are certain permissible trade-offs.
Critically evaluating the effectiveness of the A&O WFH and the staff feedback from those who expressed serious preference for a quick return to the ‘old normal’, it became clear that implementing WFH, in peculiar enterprise environments such as a law firm’s, does not have to be an end in itself but merely as a means to reaching a corporate goal; whether the goal represents a constant desire and readiness to nimbly adapt to change or simply about being responsive to staff demands.
A&O’s WFH: Key learnings
Implementing WFH is an opportunity to demonstrate commitment to staff
It is always to a firm’s strategic advantage when it has a culture of open communication where ideas, suggestions and complaints are freely shared. This engenders a situation where management can feel the pulse of the staff on issues and areas of concern and devise appropriate measures in response to those issues. As stated in the foregoing, a significant demographic of the A&O staff composition had been making suggestions around the adoption of flexible working arrangements and management had not only been listening but had been gradually working to achieve the objective of flexible working before the Covid-19 pandemic. The benefit of that for the firm is that, in some sense, it already had some infrastructure in place to quickly and smoothly effect the transition whereas similar enterprise environments might have struggled. The fact that staff members were aware of the firm’s effort in this regard assured employees of the firm’s demonstrable commitment to the issues that are important to their wellbeing.
Constant review of Business Resilience Plan
One of the key takeaways from the impact of Covid-19 on corporate operations is that it is not enough to merely have a BRP designed only to respond to extraordinary situations such as disasters or pandemics. Going forward, continuous review of BRPs must be embedded into governance and operational architecture of firms such that there is always capacity to quickly respond to issues within the constantly evolving 21st century workplace. A major component of A&O’s capacity to quickly adapt to the change required in the face of a global crisis such as the pandemic was the firm’s solid BRP plan and the commitment of management to embrace the incorporation of technology into everyday operations.
Flexible working tailored to be compatible with business operations and values
In responding to change, it is crucial for management to critically evaluate the compatibility of whatever measures are being adopted with culture and/or operational practices within any given enterprise environment. Although the firm had to implement a company wide WFH policy, what has been discovered in the course of the implementation is that in order to specifically take into account all the peculiar factors within the firm’s environment, continuing with 100% WFH would be counter-productive to the desired outcomes of operational metrics. Therefore, tailoring flexible working to the firm’s specific needs demanded an adoption of a hybrid system which uniquely combines the traditional working arrangement with the remote working arrangement and has the flexibility, to the extent practicable, to accommodate employees’ individual preferences.
Control Measures to monitor performance of WFH
As part of a firm’s commitment to continuous process improvement, it is always important to have periodic analyses and control measures to determine at every point in time, whether a particular policy, approach, strategy or working arrangement continues to deliver the expected value or whether an alternative policy or approach should be urgently sought. There are divergent predictions as to when the pandemic will finally be over, but whatever becomes of the old normal or the new normal, businesses will have to evaluate their strategic responses to the public health crisis with a view to determining the sustainability of such measures. For instance, it is not impossible for an organisation, having implemented some form of WFH, to realise from its operational perspective, that continuing with WFH is no longer sustainable. The more effective a firm’s control measures are, the sooner such a firm will discover those gaps and devise appropriate actions to quickly address them.
As the world slowly emerges out of lockdowns and the different public health measures implemented to guarantee workplace safety and the wellbeing of the workforce, companies will also gradually begin to evaluate the effectiveness or otherwise of the different working arrangements introduced at their respective workplaces. Whatever outcomes the analyses produce, it is important to understand that the full transition to whichever working arrangement a firm wishes to adopt cannot be a sprint but a marathon that ought to be carefully approached with thorough consideration for all the internal and external factors affecting the enterprise environment.
At Aluko & Oyebode, while the firm benefited from having set up the right infrastructure required for a seamless transition to 100% WFH, internal feedback has shown that the peculiar needs of the firm can only support a hybrid system that allows room for remote working while also giving the opportunity for the flexibility required to address some of the mental health and social isolation challenges associated with 100% remote working. To that end, businesses will need to closely monitor and analyse their performance metrics with a view to determining which approach works best in view of their peculiar circumstances.
1. Zaccheaus, B; Lagos and Motor Vehicle Administration; Lagos State Government [website], 5th July,2017; LAGOS AND MOTOR VEHICLE ADMINISTRATION – Lagos State Government (accessed 20th May, 2021).
3. Shakir, A; Employees in Lagos are stressed, burned out and exhausted because of ‘hellish traffic’; CNN [website], 2nd August, 2019; Why are Lagos workers so stressed? ‘Hellish traffic’ | CNN Travel (accessed 20th May, 2021).
5. Farrer, Laurel; 5 Proven Benefits Of Remote Work For Companies; Forbes [website], February 12th, 2020; 5 Proven Benefits Of Remote Work For Companies (forbes.com) (accessed May 22nd, 2021).
6. Robinso, Bryan, PhD; Is Working Remote A Blessing Or Burden? Weighing The Pros And Cons; Forbes [website], June 19th, 2020; Is Working Remote A Blessing Or Burden? Weighing The Pros And Cons (forbes.com) (accessed May 22nd, 2021).
7. Schawbel, Dan; Hybrid working is here to stay. But what does that mean in your office?; World Economic Forum [website], May 25th, 2021; Hybrid working is here to stay. But what does that mean in your office? | World Economic Forum (weforum.org) (accessed May 26th, 2021).
Ferreira, R.; Pereira, R.; Bianchi, I.S.; da Silva, M.M. Decision Factors for Remote Work Adoption: Advantages, Disadvantages, Driving Forces and Challenges. J. Open Innov. Technol. Mark. Complex. 2021, 7, 70. https://doi.org/10.3390/joitmc7010070
Farrer, Laurel; 5 Proven Benefits Of Remote Work For Companies; Forbes [website], February 12th, 2020; 5 Proven Benefits Of Remote Work For Companies (forbes.com) (accessed May 22nd, 2021).
Robinso, Bryan, PhD; Is Working Remote A Blessing Or Burden? Weighing The Pros And Cons; Forbes [website], June 19th, 2020; Is Working Remote A Blessing Or Burden? Weighing The Pros And Cons (forbes.com) (accessed May 22nd, 2021).
Schawbel, Dan; Hybrid working is here to stay. But what does that mean in your office?; World Economic Forum [website], May 25th, 2021; Hybrid working is here to stay. But what does that mean in your office? | World Economic Forum (weforum.org) (accessed May 26th, 2021).
Shakir, A; Employees in Lagos are stressed, burned out and exhausted because of ‘hellish traffic’; CNN [website], 2nd August, 2019; Why are Lagos workers so stressed? ‘Hellish traffic’ | CNN Travel (accessed May 20th, 2021).
Zaccheaus, B; Lagos and Motor Vehicle Administration; Lagos State Government [website], 5th July,2017; LAGOS AND MOTOR VEHICLE ADMINISTRATION – Lagos State Government (accessed May 20th, 2021).