Fixed v flex – focus on balancing your workload and ‘lifeload’ in 2021

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] November 28, 2020

As the world (hopefully) discovers an effective vaccine and emerges from the coronavirus crisis in 2021, law firms should ramp up rather than scale back internal conversations about the importance of balancing work and life, writes Leonie Green.

In our workforce planning for 2021, we need to consider what we have learned during 2020 about workplace flexibility.

How flexible do our firms need to be? This year has forced us to adapt, quickly, and has given us an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and our firms. To reap the benefits of our learning, we need to tap into that learning across our employee base.

What have our employees learned about themselves this year? What do they want to do differently as a consequence? What can we enable, as we progressively return to office-based work in 2021, that meets their needs and our firms’ needs?

Empowered employees, empowered firms

For many years, I have advocated for more flexible work practices for all employees, rather than the limited categories provided for under the National Employment Standard. The reason for this is quite simple. Our employees are the lifeblood of our firms: their ability to thrive is very much connected to the success of our firms. We need to keep exploring ways and means of getting the best out of our employees, and this means listening to them and adjusting where we can for a win-win scenario.

A lack of flexibility in the workplace can quickly result in a win-lose. If we stick with inflexible work practices, we may think we have ‘won’, but we are likely to lose our employees along the way. In the past week, I have had a talented ex-colleague tell me that the main reason why he turned down a job offer was the lack of flexibility provided by the workplace.

We risk missing out on great talent if we don’t rise to the new need for flexibility. We also risk having our employees work at a sub-optimal level, rather than being fully engaged and connected to their work and our firm. Neither bodes well for our business performance over time.

Work and life a juggling act

This year has meant something different for each of us. Some employees will very much want to return to an office-based environment as soon as possible and have the regularity and definition of the workplace reinstalled in their lives.

For others, working remotely (from home, or another location) will be more important to enable them to better juggle their workload and ‘lifeload’. I don’t think lifeload is a word, but it should be. We understand workload readily. Lifeload is just as relevant as we each juggle what work and life looks like for us.

Lifeload has been quite something this year. We have been reminded in 2020 that we employ at once whole, and fallible, human beings. As our work lives and home lives quickly melded into one, many of us started to understand one another on new levels. We started to recognise that the burdens we carry at home are not left at the office door (metaphorically or literally). We started having conversations about how we were looking after ourselves, and about the lifeloads we were carrying.

We need to carry these conversations into 2021 with us. Let’s hope 2021 is a lighter lifeload to bear for all of us, but as we are human, and as we are both whole and fallible, there will always be a lifeload impact on how we work. Flexibility can help us better juggle the two loads effectively, and in a way that matches our particular needs.

Flexibility must work for both sides

We have learned through very quick, forced adaptation, that we can work more flexibly than ever before. Technology had reached a critical point prior to 2020, thankfully, which for most of us meant that remote work was readily workable. This means that we can, if we are brave, start having the conversations about what our employees’ needs really are, and how we might be able to reach a win-win flexibility arrangement that adequately meets both the firm’s and the employees’ needs.

It must be a win-win of course, not a lose-win. We need to manage our workplaces effectively, and ensure work is performed well. We just need to step away from a fixed view of how the work might be performed, where the work might be performed and perhaps even when the work might be performed.

We need to stop and reflect on where we are fixed in our views, as that may help us identify new opportunities for flexibility. Prior to 2020, I had thought coaching conversations needed to be face to face to be effective. I had a fixed view. I hadn’t challenged my own thinking to consider whether I had evidence for this, or whether I had made assumptions.

2020 has given me clear evidence that I was wrong to have such a fixed view. I have been conducting coaching conversations via zoom since March, and they have been in many instances easier to accommodate for clients than a face-to-face meeting, which has resulted in more coaching conversations, not fewer.

Action points

So, our homework:

  • Learnings – stop and reflect on the lifeload you have carried through 2020. What have you learned about yourself as a consequence? How do you work best? Can you work differently in 2021 to better juggle your workload and lifeload?
  • Listen – ask the same of your employees, and be ready to listen carefully to their responses. Watch carefully for where you might fall into a fixed view when listening to their learnings – do you have evidence for your fixed view, can it be tested adequately? And what do you risk missing out on if you stick with your fixed views? Where can you find the win-win with your employees?
  • Lead – what leadership can we demonstrate in working more flexibly? How can we ensure that flexibility within our workplaces is spread equitably across our workplace, rather than continuing to be confined to fixed categories of employees who can access flexibility?

Let’s not un-learn our learnings of 2020. Let’s remember that we are human beings who all carry lifeloads. To get the best out of us as humans beings, we need to recognise, manage and value our lifeload as much as our workload.

Leonie Green is the co-founder and director of the Corvus Group, a workplace and legal advisory firm with more than 20 years of senior legal and HR experience working in Australian and international companies. She practised as an employment and industrial relations lawyer for a number of years prior to moving into management roles in industrial relations, shared services and human resources. She can be contacted via email at leonie@corvusga.com.au.