Leading culture in a hybrid working world
As law firms start to encourage employees to return to the office, senior leaders should be mindful of creating smart workplace strategies to get the most out of a hybrid working environment, writes Keegan Luiters.
There is increasing anecdotal evidence across industries to suggest that many senior leaders are pushing for an increased employee presence in the office again in the wake of COVID-19.
From JPMorgan Chase and Amazon to Google, edicts have called on staff to return to the office for at least a few days a week, while Twitter’s Elon Musk has told employees that not showing up at the office effectively amounts to a resignation. Such moves are challenging the work-from-home phenomenon and creating tension against the expectations and preferences of the broader organisation.
Managing this tension successfully will be crucial for leaders and represents an opportunity for law firms, among others, to balance the needs of senior leaders, clients and a wide range of employees.
The right response may also allow for improved performance, employee retention and engagement, as well as act as a source of attraction in a highly competitive recruitment market.
Weighing up the benefits of the office
Quite often, the rationale cited by senior leaders for a full-time or mandated return to the office is that organisational culture is best developed, maintained and strengthened in an office environment.
In a recent interview, Aaron McEwan, vice-president of advisory at tech consulting firm Gartner, highlights interesting perspectives on this issue. Significantly, he states that “there is no data to support” a pro-office stance. Noting that a lack of data for a case is different from evidence against that viewpoint, it is still a valid point to raise.
It is likely, as McEwan goes on to point out, that the perspectives of senior leaders are skewed by their own experiences in several ways. Foremost among those is that the role of senior leaders is typically more driven by relationships and consensus building than is the case for many others in an organisation. For these functions, it makes sense that being co-located and synchronous is a more effective way of working.
For others in an organisation – such as a paralegal or junior solicitor in a law firm whose responsibilities are more task driven than relationship driven – the past few years have demonstrated that it is possible for their role to be performed at least as effectively in a remote setting.
Actions for senior leaders to take
A path forward in law firms centres on the role of leaders at all levels within an organisation. They should in the first instance seek to facilitate meaningful conversations. This is not a revelation regarding effective leadership, but it has important applications in relation to hybrid working.
Dr Jim Harter, chief scientist for the workplace management and wellbeing practices at analytics and advisory company Gallup, offers some valuable insights, and tangible recommendations, for leaders based on his research. They include his view that the greatest connection to engaged employee is achieved when leaders have regular and meaningful conversations with them.
If these conversations are regular, they can be as short as 15 or 30 minutes per week to be effective. Therefore, he observes, all leaders would do well to have regular, meaningful conversations with their team members.
An additional point that Dr Harter makes is that leaders at all levels in an organisation can benefit from having an explicit dialogue with team members about ways of working. It is worth noting that office mandates, however well intended, do not seem to have a positive impact on engagement levels.
Dr Harter also recommends establishing standard on-site office days, suggesting that two to three set days maximise employee engagement and promote a culture in which designated days in the office become a “promise employees make to each other, not a promise to management”. He adds that “employees need to know which days they are together in person for the highest collaboration and innovation”.
The dialogue between leaders and employees should start by considering two simple questions about the best way to get work done:
- Where – will it be remote or co-located?
- When – do we need to do this at the same time (synchronous) or can we do this at different times (asynchronous)?
That lets us ask a simple question of four different ways of working –What is the best way for us to work together?
Here are the four ways:
- Remote and asynchronous
- Remote and synchronous
- Co-located and asynchronous
- Co-located and synchronous.
Each way of working has its advantages and limitations that will vary based on context. The answer to the question of “What is the best way for us to work together?” will change depending on the people, tasks and expectations of a team.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to getting the right mix of office, remote and hybrid work. The number of variables to consider is significant and dynamic. It will be dependent upon the expectations, preferences and capabilities of a vast number of stakeholders – including clients, senior leaders, employees and more general trends in the broader market.
All of these factors can change rapidly, so one should expect that any solution will be both imperfect and impermanent.
A more robust approach requires a commitment to engaging in dialogue and working together by design and not default. The best organisations will continue to ask those questions, as well as demonstrate the behavioural flexibility to remain productive and attractive places in which to work.
Keegan Luiters is an independent consultant who works with leaders, teams and organisations to lift their performance. His book, Team Up, explores how and why to take a deliberate approach to team performance. Visit www.keeganluiters.com for more information or connect with him on LinkedIn.
PwC’s US Remote Work Survey – January 12, 2021 (https://www.pwc.com/us/en/services/consulting/business-transformation/library/covid-19-us-remote-work-survey.html)
Newport, C., 2016. Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK.
How Important Is Time in the Office? https://www.gallup.com/workplace/468599/important-time-office.aspx
Don’t want to go back to the office every day? You’re not alone. Here’s why. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/this-working-life/return-to-the-office/102343532