Considerations for Returning to the Workplace

  • December 14, 2021
  • Jennifer Philpott, employment and labour lawyer at Goulart Workplace Lawyers

As widespread vaccination against COVID-19 continues in Ontario, many lawyers are transitioning from working at their kitchen tables to working at the office. With this in mind, here are some considerations and observations on returning to the office after spending almost 20 months working from home.  

Managing COVID-19-related anxiety: If you are stressed or anxious about returning to the workplace, know that you are not alone. Most of us spent 2020, and a good part of 2021, doing our best to keep in-person interactions to a minimum. For some, the thought of sharing eight or more hours with people outside your “bubble” is daunting. To manage COVID-19-related anxiety, consider speaking with your principal, team lead, or human resources department about a gradual return to the office. However, if you are concerned that your nerves may be more than just jitters, consider contacting the Member Assistance Program for free services, including confidential counselling, online resources, and peer-to-peer support.

If you are in a supervisory position, consider canvasing your team to see how they feel about returning to the office. Clear communication of expectations on in-person office attendance, the use of personal protective equipment, social distancing, and COVID-19 vaccination status (and accommodation) is critical so that everyone is on the same page. Be patient with and respect the varying comfort levels of colleagues during the return to the office.

Bonding with your team and receiving mentorship: Last fall, I embarked on my career as a licensed lawyer by working remotely from home. One of the biggest hurdles that I faced while transitioning to work as an associate was connecting with my colleagues. I missed the seemingly endless opportunities to bond with coworkers that I’d once taken for granted. As Ontario gradually reopens social settings, lawyers may consider scheduling in-person coffee chats, lunches, and firm retreats subject to individual comfort levels and public health guidelines. 

Returning to the office provides a chance to reconnect with coworkers and, in some cases, meet them for the first time. In particular, junior lawyers have much to gain from returning to the office. While many senior lawyers have mentored junior lawyers virtually during the pandemic to the best of their ability, there is no substitute for in-person interaction. By working in the office, junior lawyers may find more organic opportunities to discuss files with and receive mentorship from senior lawyers, which is crucial for development. 

Adopting and embracing technology: The circumstances created by the pandemic had a renaissance-like effect on the practice of law. Law firms, legal clinics, and courts had no choice but to move to virtual environments to carry out many of their basic functions. The speed with which our legal institutions have not only adopted but embraced the use of legal technology and videoconferencing is commendable. Our profession has come a long way in 20 months. To think it only took a pandemic to strike references to service by fax machine and telegram from the Rules of Civil Procedure!

While born out of necessity, the modernization of our legal system has been met with great enthusiasm from legal professionals, advocacy bodies, and–believe it or not–clients. Lawyers should strongly consider permanently adopting and expanding their use of legal technologies to best serve their clients with greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness. From a regulatory perspective, the pandemic has emphasized the importance of technological competence within the profession. To that end, the Law Society of Ontario is considering encouraging and/or mandating that its licensees have basic tech competence to practice law effectively. 

Incorporating hybrid work models: The pandemic has fundamentally altered the way in which lawyers work. Many lawyers had access to technology to work remotely before the pandemic, but in-office attendance was expected during traditional working hours. Fast forward to November 2021 and many law firms are considering continuing hybrid work models post-pandemic. While there is no “one size fits all approach,” it will be interesting to see whether more firms adopt this structure in 2022 and beyond. 

Learning from the pandemic: Transitional periods in life provide an opportunity for reflection, and returning to the workplace is no exception. The last 20 months have been a masterclass in the importance of resilience and adaptability–both fundamental characteristics in practicing law. If you’re like me, the pandemic may have given you a new perspective on work, life, and the ever-elusive balance of the two. Healthy routines like eating lunch away from your desk, taking a short walk to break up your day, and strictly sending non-urgent emails during business hours can make a difference in the workday. Post-pandemic, your priorities may be realigned and I encourage you to embrace your new normal, whatever that looks like for you. 

Any article or other information or content expressed or made available in this Section is that of the respective author(s) and not of the OBA.