The virtual workplace – Autonomy and the rise of remote working The virtual workplace – Autonomy and the rise of remote working
Adapted from a piece by Advocate of the High Court, Fundile Sangoni, on behalf of LexisNexis South Africa, in which he shares the new... The virtual workplace – Autonomy and the rise of remote working

Adapted from a piece by Advocate of the High Court, Fundile Sangoni, on behalf of LexisNexis South Africa, in which he shares the new normal as a junior advocate, the rise of remote working and how COVID-19 lockdown has impacted legal professionals.

Fundile Sangoni, of The Bridge Group of Advocates on behalf of LexisNexis South Africa

In South Africa, almost overnight, most people had to stop attending work and confine themselves to their homes as the country went into a national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some companies shut down completely, while others had to devise new models urgently, to enable their employees to resume work from wherever they were locked down.

The advent of remote working attempts a commendable balance between the country’s health and economic needs. There are a number of questions that arise as a result of the sudden shift to a remote workplace paradigm and how thiswill affect the professional lives, relationships and development of individual employees and service providers.

  • How will the diminished physical access to people and resources affect professional growth and happiness in the workplace?
  • How will colleagues interact and network outside the strictures of formal virtual meetings?
  • How will work and other opportunities be distributed equitably in teams, departments, and industries?
  • And – how will companies meaningfully pursue their transformative aspirations in these circumstances?

As a junior advocate I practice from Sandton, Johannesburg, where many of the advocates from the Johannesburg Bar and PABASA hold chambers. Given the solitary nature of our profession, we get to meet and interact with colleagues in lectures and advocacy training as pupil advocates, and then in knowledge-sharing seminars, social functions and other similar events that the different groups and the Bar arrange regularly. We have an open-door policy, in terms of which members of the Bar (advocates) generally hold themselves available to assist one another with any professional and related needs.

This culture and manner of working allows us to network and build solid professional relationships. It fosters an environment in which we can gain and transfer skills, circulate work among each other and collaborate on briefs and in the various efforts to make the Bar a better institution for us all. I am told by friends and colleagues who work in banks, law firms and corporates in other industries that our experiences largely hold true for them too in many respects, except that they ordinarily work far more interdependently than advocates do.

It is undeniable that working remotely has many patent benefits. People are more autonomous in the way that they set up their workdays. Those with other commitments such as home-schooling or who are more productive at unconventional times of the day find benefit in not having to comply with strict office hours or having to travel to work every day.

There is equally significant value in being able to go to the officeand meet and network with colleagues in a professional and social context. These include:

  • Reducing the prospects of people feeling and becoming isolated or being overlooked; Motivating people to engage, work with and have some interest in the development of their colleagues, other than just those in their small trusted circles.
  • Allowing for off-beat encounters during meals at the canteen or quick pop-in chats in each other’s offices to discuss workplace difficulties and share experiences and ideas on professional growth. These platforms are particularly useful for those most vulnerable to exclusion in the workplace, including junior employees and other minority groups.

As a pupil advocate, my mentor advised me that there is no manual or magic to building a successful legal practice. Like many of my peers though, I benefitted from simply being present at chambers, networking with colleagues and availing myself to give assistance to anyone who needed it. In this way, I met new attorneys and clients, I expanded my professional network and I was fortunate to obtain work and build a practice.

When the pandemic plunged us into the isolation of our homes, many of us experienced a total shut down in our practices. Many of our colleagues in corporate were similarly secluded from their teams and departments and have experienced difficulty sourcing new work and meeting their targets while working from home. This threatened the ability of some of our colleagues to continue their practices and has compromised others in their journeys towards promotions.

As we increasingly implement the remote workplace, we need to do so with the necessary care and intention to ensure that we not only benefit from the flexibility that it affords us, but also mitigate the risk of isolation that it poses for so many. We must take care to ensure that the remote workplace does not compromise the recent graduate who is trying to establish themselves in a new department, the junior advocate or sole practitioner attempting to build a practice and make ends meet in a volatile environment, or the single parent, balancing work and family responsibilities, who is unable to participate in the mid-day virtual meetings.

To access further insightful guidance around running a successful virtual working environment, visit the LexisNexis Virtual Working Resource page:

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