Disentangling disengagement: Are lawyers really tuning out?
First, it’s important to emphasise how costly a disengagement trend can be. According to one study, keeping workers engaged can result in a 53% hike in employee performance, 75% fewer sick days, and a 50% drop in turnover risk. For companies with 10,000 staff, those engagement benefits save $52 million a year. Firms know, too, that engaged employees contribute to firm culture in all sorts of intangible yet meaningful ways. So it’s right that alarm bells are sounding.
Next, we should examine the empirical evidence. According to surveys, younger lawyers do appear to be less engaged in their roles than previous generations. Only 23% want to make partner, compared with 40% of Millennials. Fewer and fewer are looking to work in an Am Law 200 firm – 39% in 2023, down from 59% when the same age band was asked in 2020. Just 16% of Gen Z lawyers intend to stay at their firm for “as long as possible,” while a third intend to leave within 5 years.
This year’s BCW Movatory values survey, meanwhile, found that Gen Z is distinct from previous generations in the high value it places on achievement and hedonism. Reading between the lines, Gen Z may be more willing to work hard, but not at the expense of playing hard. In practice, even if Gen Z are working diligently within office hours, their perceived reluctance to “go the extra mile” is likely to look like disengagement to firm leaders who did just that in their junior years.
Going the extra mile
If we asked you to recall your favourite ever day in the office, we’d wager it wasn’t a slow day. More likely, it was a late night racing off a project just before its deadline, pizza boxes scattered across desks and weariness giving way to euphoria when the work was completed. In psychology, this euphoria is called eudaimonic happiness, which we derive from effortful activities and the satisfaction we get from completing them.
Science tells us that the extra mile can actually be the most engaging and satisfying, but workplace research adds a caveat. It’s no fun doing it alone. Gallup has found that employees without a close friend at work have just a 1 in 12 chance of being engaged. Having a best friend at work, on the other hand, results in a sevenfold increase in your chances of being engaged.
The question preoccupying firms as we enter the second half of 2023 is whether hybrid working – adopted by 95% of UK law firms – is preventing the development of these relationships. This year’s Global Hybrid Working Report, surveying 1,750 workers, confirms that “building relationships” and “staying connected” suffer most when teams go hybrid. In the legal sector, a 2023 Thomson Reuters report found that hybrid legal workers are “less responsive” than their office-going peers. It’s easier to ghost someone when you’re not in the office – but it’s also easier to ghost them when they’re not your friend.
Making hybrid working work
At Capacity, we’re hybrid-agnostic. Different firms with their own specialisms and cultures will sketch the line that suits them, see what works, and iterate until they find the sweet spot. But we do think the hybrid genie is out of the bottle. Microsoft’s global Work Trend analysis concluded this year that “for Gen Z and Millennials, there’s no going back” on hybrid work. So for many firms, the challenge will be getting hybrid right, not finding a way to ditch it altogether.
One element of that is returning to culture. An insightful HBR report found that 85% of employees would be motivated to return to the office if they could socialise with co-workers or rebuild team bonds. Gen Z aren’t naive about the benefits of office work for their careers, either; 80% of them want to connect with senior leadership in person, not over Zoom. Selling office work in these terms will encourage attendance, reducing the temptation to mandate it.
At the same time, there’s room for improvement in remote working practices. The absence of hybrid and flexible working policies is a deal-breaker for Gen Z, and research shows that it’s desirable for staff wellbeing and productivity. But for law firms this is all very new. They may benefit from technology that helps people collaborate and communicate closely wherever they’re working from, and software that makes it easier for lawyers to share their availability and skills so that seniors can locate and engage them when they’re not in the office. That’s something we’ve worked hard to facilitate, through Capacity’s real-time work allocation solution.
Lawyer disengagement is a complex issue, stemming from long-term generational changes and short-term, post-pandemic trends. As many seniors will tell their junior colleagues, the extra mile can be one of the most thrilling, satisfying, and engaging parts of the job. By improving hybrid work, we can create the conditions in which all lawyers delight in their roles, enjoy closer relationships at work, and lead rich lives outside of it.