In-house views of remote work diverge significantly

The degree of the divide is evident from the breadth of the opinion spectrum

In-house views of remote work diverge significantly

The “working from home” controversy, it appears, is no less intense among legal departments than it is elsewhere.

The degree of the divide is evident from the breadth of the opinion spectrum: at one extreme are traditionalists on this issue like Fernando Garcia, who has over 15 years of experience as a general counsel providing strategic and legal advice on Canada-wide and international legal matters; at the other are law department leaders like Andrea Wood, chief legal and governance officer at Telus, a company that has given employees a choice as to how they wish to work since 2006, to the great satisfaction of both the employees and company leadership.

In June 2022, Garcia wrote an article for Canadian Lawyer headlined “Working from home is a career killer for lawyers.” The piece went viral.

In it, Garcia argued that it was “critical to find time to make it down to the office at the very least a few days per week,” especially for “junior associates and in-house counsel.” Focusing on the career repercussions of WFH, he maintained that significant professional learning “came from the day-to-day interactions and informal meetings with fellow legal professionals, lawyers and clients,” and the spontaneous mentorship of senior lawyers encountered in the office, often randomly.

“Solid relationships”, Garcia added, rarely emanated from joining a virtual event: “There is no alternative to meeting face-to-face.” And avoiding the workplace increased the risk that lawyers would avoid “critical post-work events and networking opportunities.”

Personal contact, he wrote then and re-emphasized in a recent interview with Canadian Lawyer, is particularly important for in-house counsel.

“In-house counsel must understand the workplace, the players, the internal politics, the culture, and how the company produces and provides products to its customers,” he said. “To do that and properly service our internal clients, we must be at work interacting with a host of other departments.”

WFH, Garcia adds, also works against the interests of lawyers from diverse backgrounds,

“It’s hard to make an effective contribution virtually. Lawyers from diverse backgrounds who don’t have the connections and networks others may have will find it hard to make an impression and build the necessary relationships if they’re not at the office.”

Finally, Garcia notes, in-house counsel have worked hard to have a presence in the boardroom.

“If we turn that presence into a face on the screen, we become less visible.”

Which is not to say that WFH is all bad.

“I’m all for hybrid arrangements as long as you’re in the office at least three days a week,” Garcia says. “And technology is a godsend if your team is spread across the country or across the world.”

As Wood sees it, however, legal departments and others can overcome the perceived disadvantages of WFH, either from a productivity or career perspective, with a proper approach to the issue.

Telus’ “Work Styles”, a program that lets employees choose whether they will work at home, at the office, or in a hybrid fashion, has been around since 2006.

“The only difference is that those who work from home don’t get an office, but we do provide them with the equipment necessary to do their jobs,” Wood says.

By the time the pandemic hit, 75 percent of Telus’ staff were working remotely. Today, 90 percent work from home primarily or completely.

“With that in mind, all the teams at Telus are focused on allowing that to continue while encouraging – not obliging – people to get together,” Wood says. “And we do that by collaborating to foster ideation and innovation, celebrating on meaningful occasions like anniversaries, and connecting by, for example, letting people on our chat groups know when we’re coming into town so that we can get together for a coffee or a meal.”

Because the 90 members of Wood’s legal department are spread across the country, managing the team remotely has always been a necessity.

“But we’ve been very intentional about when we get together in person and when we get together remotely,” Wood says.

It boils down to this: the team comes together whenever there’s a legitimate opportunity or need to do so, and they do it remotely or in-person as necessity or practical considerations demand.

“For example, we have remote meetings of the full team every quarter, but I also host a cocktail party, breakfast or other social event every time I travel to a city where we have team members,” Wood says. “I know everyone in my department personally, some better than others, of course.”

Internal committees also allow people to interact. At Telus, those committees include an indigenous reconciliation action plan group, an artificial intelligence think tank, and an inclusion squad.

Telus’ “Days of Giving” also provide opportunities for interaction, and include legal team-specific events such as a Vancouver shore clean-up, and a walk in support of ALS in Toronto.

“There are all kinds of way to get together and know each other that don’t involve sitting at a desk in the office,” Wood says. “In fact, I often don’t see another soul when I’m there, and certainly not on an impromptu basis.”

Telus has also been careful to ensure that the advent of remote work does not affect advancement prospects.

“We always operated carefully in terms of evaluation, for which we have a rigorous system,” Wood says. “And because the system depends on managers being good judges of achievement against objectives, senior level managers meet to be sure that the standards of evaluation are consistent.”

Still, Wood acknowledges that the pros and cons of WFH are context-dependent.

“If you’re in an environment where everyone is coming into the office, I don’t think it’s a good idea to stay away.”

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