• David Heyman

LegalSifter Ventures into the New Normal of Office Work

It has long seemed that management’s default view of employees was, if we can’t see them, how do we know whether they’re working?

I worked for AOL for three years in the aughts. The company had the equivalent of Slack, Zoom, and other collaborative technologies way before anybody else. Their headquarters was in a distant suburb of Washington, DC. Management HATED the idea of remote work, so we all slogged to Dulles, Virginia, sat in our offices and cubes, ... and instant messaged each other. So how’s AOL doing now?

But that remained the attitude of management to remote work … until COVID-19. Overnight, the old philosophy was jettisoned—there was no other choice. By and large, work got done. Conference calls turned into Zoom meetings. People collaborated. Employees got back their commuting time and benefitted from added flexibility. And management realized they had hired employees who were grown-ups and dedicated to doing their jobs.

In the United States, we’re now cautiously telling ourselves that the worst is over. And we’re trying to figure out, in terms of office life and culture, what to preserve of our new ways and which part of our previous routine we should return to.

We at LegalSifter reopened our offices on Monday, July 12. But we’re now a different company than we were when we locked down more than a year ago. Back then, almost all our employees were based in Pittsburgh. But during the pandemic, we hired talented people from around the country who will be permanently remote. (I wanted to move to Pittsburgh and relocated from Washington, DC.) Now, just over half our full-time employees are located in Pittsburgh. So what does it mean to go back to the office?

Some companies, for example New York financial institutions, are once more requiring that employees present themselves at the office five days a week. Others, including many tech companies, have declared remote work the new normal—some even jettisoning their expensive offices. But we’re hearing a lot of chatter about “hybrid” work, which acknowledges the flexibility and time-savings offered by remote work while recognizing that having people gather in an office can promote culture and collaboration. That has led many companies to embrace requiring employees to come to the office only two or three days a week, depending on the company.

LegalSifter is going with the hybrid approach—we’re asking our Pittsburgh-based employees to come to the office on Monday and Wednesday. (Actually, we were hybrid even before the pandemic—we had Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday as our office days.) And our remote employees will visit Pittsburgh periodically so that we establish in-person bonds with all our colleagues. Just from our first day back, I was reminded of what we had missed—engaging in casual conversation, overhearing something interesting and chiming in, and bumping into people whom you might otherwise not have encountered. So there’s real value in our being able to congregate. On the other hand, the efficiency and speed that collaborative tools and video technologies have offered us during the pandemic will continue to play an important role, for both our Pittsburgh-based employees and, obviously, our substantial contingent of remote employees.

But we’ll have to see how it all works out. Whatever policy you start with now, you might well find yourselves changing it before too long. What if an employee wants to work remotely for a month? They’ve proven they can do so effectively, so why not? But what if everyone wants to? What if they want to at the same time? And more generally, what significance do you attribute to office premises once you acknowledge they’re no longer essential?

The pandemic has been devastating on so many levels; Winston Churchill is said to have remarked “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” I hope we’re able to salvage something from it. We now know that employees who work effectively in an office are likely to work effectively when remote. Let’s build on that lesson to create a new normal that is better for all.

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