After 18 months of remote work, with returns to offices seeming uncertain, legal professionals are aiming to define and address the impacts on the workplace.

Panelists at The Future of Flexibility, hosted by the Coalition of Women’s Initiatives in Law, discussed the ways remote work has impacted the legal industry — and how ongoing hybrid arrangements may fit into that.

Gregory H. Shill, an associate professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, expects many law firms won’t return to full in-person operations soon amid high concern surrounding the delta variant of COVID-19.

“A lot of places thought they were coming back to the office after Labor Day, and here we are. You all would know better than me, but every time I do research in this area, I see that more and more organizations are pushing back the date or are articulating a more flexible policy,” he said.

In a humorous nod to the ongoing uncertainty, he turned to a historic witticism: “Fundamentally, I don’t have any firm predictions here because it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Manar Morales, president and CEO of Diversity & Flexibility Alliance, said many firms she has spoken to are planning to adopt a hybrid model of both in-person and remote work.

“Two to three days of allowing people to continue to work from home is where a lot of firms are landing,” she said.

Kimberly A. Cook, founder and principal mediator of Chicago-based Dovetail Conflict Resolution, said a majority of divorce and family mediations are taking place remotely — with many people preferring this method.

“Even when the option was available to meet in-person, participants really enjoy [the virtual] environment,” she said. “It allowed for not just productivity, but there’s a sense of comfort when you’re sitting in your space dealing with difficult conversations, talking about very intimate things, and not having to sit in the same room with the individual you’re in debate with.”

Cook said she could see the court system continuing to operate on a remote basis, citing the time saved as well.

Often, “court appearances take much longer when they’re in person, where onscreen it has allowed for people to get in and get out, certainly in mediation,” Cook added.

The panel was moderated by Marcia K. Owens, partner at Honigman LLP, and Sonya Rosenberg, partner at Neal Gerber & Eisenberg LLP.

Panelists also addressed how remote work has particularly impacted women and people of color. Morales noted that child care and virtual learning linger as issues for women in law, just as in other fields.

“As women continue to be the primary caregivers, continue to be taking the lead on child care, without having any support, without having schooling, suddenly having to play all these different roles has a huge impact on their ability to remain in the workplace and in the work environment,” she said. “And the concern, frankly, for the future too is that as firms and companies roll out these [work-from-home] policies, that they’re only going to be policies that women take advantage of … All the women are suddenly working from home, and all the men are going to show up, and that’s going to have a huge impact.”

She said the limited in-person contact makes it more difficult for people of color to foster meaningful connections in the workplace.

Some people from underrepresented backgrounds “felt like ‘I wasn’t seen or heard when I was in the office, and now I’m going to go home and no one is going to ever remember me,’” she said. New remote work policies “requite a lot of training and require a lot of understanding of the impact of these initiatives on diversity.”

In spite of the challenges, panelists advised participants to see the positives in remote work.

“At least for my profession, it has really increased people’s participation,” Cook said. “But also it has really knocked down this notion that you have to be in-person for problems to be solved, for agreements to be reached.”