In the rush to set up the right technology and frameworks for working from home, some firms have neglected the culture and people challenges of the new working environment. Jo‑Anne Wild offers some tips
I have been guiding companies through changes as they embark on home or remote working for 20 years. These companies have had many different reasons for choosing home and remote working: sometimes it has been a way to retain an incredibly talented individual; often it has been to support an expanding company.
In these scenarios, enabling people to work remotely and away from a traditional office was carefully planned and based on an agreed strategy. Measures were put in place to support people, as well as ensure that technology was used properly, and in line with company policies and health and safety guidelines.
By contrast, the rush to get people working from home after the UK lockdown was imposed in March 2020 left many companies making swift changes without clear plans in place for how to manage people remotely.
However, a successful business is able to make tactical decisions, as well as planned ones, and it is certainly testament to tactical decision-making that many of the law firms we have worked alongside this year have managed to not only survive, but also thrive and grow.
But the change to remote working isn’t only a practical one – getting the right technology in place, training everyone on it, agreeing meeting etiquette and so on. Law firm management teams also need to address the people and culture challenges created by new ways of working. Doing this will have positive impacts beyond creating an effective, collaborative and productive working culture. The culture within a firm can be felt by your customers, and if people outside your organisation perceive that culture as lacking true cohesion, this can have a devastating effect on your business. Your people are the relationship between your company and your customers. Your customers must have confidence that your people communicate with each other effectively.
In this article, I offer my tips on how to achieve effective culture change in a time of remote working.
1. Communicate clearly
It doesn’t matter whether you are managing a team remotely or face to face: clear communication is essential. Whether in the office or at home, people respond positively to clear expectations. Keep your people in the loop when it comes to projects, tasks and organisational changes. Don’t let them hear news second hand from other people! The grapevine in an office is one thing, but feeling isolated from your team and out of the loop can create anxiety.
However, communication is not simply broadcasting; it must be about listening and responding. Encourage your teams to come to you for any kind of support with a work task or personal concerns, due to any challenges they may be facing working from home. People need to feel than they can reach you when they need to for guidance or support.
Develop your listening skills, to ensure you really understand how a person is coping with working and living, either alone or surrounded by flatmates, young children, and/or other family members.
Ask your people how the changes are affecting them. A company survey is often useful, but my advice would be to speak to your people, ask them what has made them feel included and motivated, and do more of that! Be open to finding out what has been difficult for them and do this with broad shoulders; it will be all too easy to feel defensive when you may feel you have been making the best of a difficult situation, but if you listen, you will learn.
If you have a difficult message to convey, always make the time to do it personally. The way you respond in person can be interpreted by your tone of voice; when people read a written response, it can sometimes come across as dismissive, or the intonation can be entirely misinterpreted.
Ask your people what their preferred method of communication is and then use that method. Don’t do it once and then let it slip!
Communication also helps firms build a sense of team cohesion. There are five key elements to team cohesion, according to Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (John Wiley & Sons, 2002), which stand fast wherever you and your people are working, whether remotely or in an office:
Each area is, of course, supported by clear communication.
Measure the impact of your communication. This is not a tick-box exercise. When we communicate effectively, we understand what must change in our organisation. A team’s overall output can be dramatically affected when commitment drops due to miscommunication or misunderstanding.
2. Build connections
When the nationwide lockdown hit, the new need to communicate from a remote office, kitchen, dining room, bedroom or garage was instant.
The younger generation simply picked up their laptops and continued to work as if there was no worldwide pandemic! They were ready. They had been using Zoom and Microsoft Teams for years – these were not new technologies to them. These people communicated online with friends they had never met in person, and connected using LinkedIn and other platforms in a way that had previously only happened in networking groups or golf clubs! These people could happily work alone – and live alone – because they never felt alone. They didn’t feel instantly isolated: they still had their online meetings and their online quiz groups that began in university!
But there will be others in your business who don’t feel instantly comfortable with remote communication. Some may find themselves working against the clock trying to complete tasks as quickly as this new digitally savvy workforce. Some love the job they do, but come to work not just for the money, but to be with and near other people. Some thrive on one-to-one guidance and feel cut loose in the new environment. Managers may feel they have no understanding of what their team is achieving, because they’ve been used to managing people they can see. And some may be content to work from home with minimal contact from other team members, but how can you ensure they aren’t just working in a silo of one?
Law firm leaders need to build close working bonds between the people who have grown up using remote communication methods and the generation who can mentor and guide with their wealth of knowledge.
- Identify your bright young things who want to learn from their peers, at the same time as sharing their knowledge of digital communication.
- Identify your key mentors – the patient people who’ve always been willing to share their wealth of experience as they guide the new generation.
- Provide people with a key mentor to contact, based on specific areas of knowledge.
- Create small learning groups – these could be as small as two! One pitfall of multiple people in a video call is the difficulty created by too many people speaking at once.
- Measure the outcomes, to ensure that these groups have built their skills and can now showcase them.
- Never underestimate the power driven from asking your employees: “How can we…?”. How can we help you feel more comfortable with digital technology? How can we better share our knowledge with trainees when we are working remotely?
3. Support your people
Prior to this mass move to home working, some people imagined the greatest concern for a business over people working from home would be that they would not work hard enough. This is a myth that can now be put to bed once and for all. The biggest problem we face when people move to home working is that they do not separate work time from personal time, leading to a blur as work time commitment leaks into their lives.
Law firm leaders need to help their people maintain their work-life balance.
The upside of working from home can be that we see an increase in our personal time. However, this tends not to be the case if we do not help our people manage their time. While we should gain time in not travelling to and from an office, we can easily lose it by logging on to our systems at 6am and working all day without any break.
Managers need to take the lead here and regularly check diaries for focused time away from meetings. There might be a company policy in place for set working hours. These patterns may change when based at home, but the time commitment should not dramatically increase.
Smaller firms may not yet have a people management team, but now may be the time to review how you could benefit from adding this resource, either by recruiting or by using an outsourcing provider.
Firms must act now to understand the impact on their people of the dramatic move from office to remote working. Taking this step now, and supporting your people accordingly, can make the difference between sinking and swimming in the brave new, post-lockdown world.