Is Your RTO Mandate Worth the Cost?

March 11, 2024

As we all now know, many law firms that embraced remote work during the pandemic and then made unsuccessful attempts to gently coax their employees back to in-person work are now instituting return-to-office (RTO) “mandates with teeth.”

Firm lawyers often find these mandates mystifying because practice teams regularly collaborate across geographic areas — regardless of whether folks are working from home or in the office, they are mostly connecting via Zoom, Slack and other virtual tools. Managing partners may be pushing RTO because they are concerned about mentoring, building cohesive office culture, securing more direct oversight or pleasing their commercial real estate clients by putting bodies in chairs, but their insistence on in-person work has one big cost: making it harder for women to hold on to opportunities and advance in their careers. Is winning the RTO argument worth losing the women your firm worked hard to recruit?

Flexibility is not just a “perk.” 

When firms and businesses enacted work-from-home policies during the pandemic, it brought record numbers of women into the workforce. Almost 80% of college-educated mothers with children under 10 were in the labor pool. Those gains were directly due to the creation of new kinds of flexible scheduling.

Now, the further we get from the pandemic, firm and business leaders have turned a blind eye toward the circumstances that created the need for that flexibility, circumstances that are very much still a factor for women. Caregiving, whether for children or aging relatives, is crucial and often invisible work that our communities depend on. That may mean direct caregiving, or overseeing and managing care provided by others, which still requires time and attention. Women have proven that they can and must do both, but flexibility is a key component and every minute counts.

That’s why, when you ask a woman who is successfully managing all these responsibilities with a remote schedule to instead start spending ten hours a week commuting to an office, she may question your understanding of the definition of “productivity.” Not to mention that research does not support the claim that remote workers are less productive.

There is a cost to leaders who are choosing to die on this hill: When women leave law firms because of a lack of flexibility, they often go to employers that offer more supportive workplaces.

A recent survey of lawyers highlighted the tension around diminishing flexibility, with a respondent lamenting their firm is “a boys club that is singularly fixated on getting everyone to return to the office five days a week and billing as many hours as possible with zero regard for other people’s job satisfaction, work/life balance, or mental health.” Leaders might squeeze a few more hours out of their lawyers for a while, but is this plan sustainable or equitable if it eliminates lawyers who are women?

Power play

As the legal job market tightened over the past year (based on a forecasted recession that still has yet to materialize), firm leaders gained more leverage to make RTO demands and have used it to “to grab power back from the employees.” But others have stayed true to their stated values, maybe because they recognize how flexibility aids retention. Firms that offer reduced hours tracks and other flexible options see lower attrition over time, which saves huge amounts of money and also contributes to building a positive workplace culture that makes a difference in recruiting future talent. Firms and businesses that prioritize flexibility have seen big jumps in the number of female job applicants.

If you’re able to influence decision-makers at your firm, help them understand the compelling business cases for emphasizing flexibility — and the cost of going all in on RTO mandates that ignore the needs of at least 50% of their employees.