Learning from lockdown: a space for choice

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. (Viktor E Frankl)

Less than a year ago, most office workers commuted into their offices on crowded trains or in heavy traffic.  Some already worked from home for part of the time; a few worked entirely from home.  Working from home was seen as a special case, and many law firms maintained you couldn’t really meet your clients’ expectations if half your workforce wasn’t in the office.

And then, suddenly, in March 2020, all that changed.

I’m writing this article in July, for publication in October. As I write, some firms are starting to open up their offices again to those who want to return. Human nature and individual circumstances are dictating who will return right away, and who will elect to work from home for longer. Probably for the first time in the history of work, many people (mostly knowledge workers) are being given a choice in how and where they do their work.

It’s this moment of choice that I want to focus on here, because I think it’s a unique opportunity to choose to do things differently in the ways people work together – to reform working culture. Our experience as a society and as individuals during lockdown has shaken some of our assumptions about work, and the consequent removal of some of our more limiting assumptions opens the way for difference. Leaders can choose to seize that moment and inspire others to create something better together.

Working from home versus working in an office is the most obvious visible example of this moment of choice but there are others less obvious and perhaps just as profound.

Embracing complexity

When the pandemic hit and lockdown followed, leaders of organisations were thrown overnight into a crisis for which few could have been prepared.

The most effective leaders will have recognised the needs of that moment: rapid response, clear direction, decisive action and top-down communication. Managing a crisis well requires an instant shift into a form of command and control leadership, where action comes first. In fact, crisis management is one of the few scenarios in which that kind of leadership is really effective, and it is ironic that leadership development programmes have spent the last few decades persuading law firm leaders to move away from ‘command and control’ to a more collaborative or coaching style.

But the moment of crisis passes quite quickly, and the style of leadership needs to change with the situation. Complex human systems such as law firms and other large organisations based on expert knowledge are by their nature evolving and unpredictable. This is especially evident in times of profound change. Agile leaders focus on what’s emerging, through listening widely across the organisation and enabling others to connect across networks to solve problems. Approaching the current shifts in working practices in this way opens up opportunities for creativity and frees people to apply their collective intelligence to find better ways of working. David Snowden, a business consultant and researcher who applies knowledge gained from the field of complexity science to real-life leadership decisions, distinguishes situations that are complex from those which are merely complicated.

  • Complicated situations: This is the realm of the expert. There may be multiple right answers and the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis and expertise. Reaching decisions in this domain can take time, and there is always a trade-off between finding the right answer and simply making a decision.
  • Complex situations: Organisational complexity is the realm in which there are no clear-cut ‘right answers’ or recipes for success. There are multiple interacting and dynamic variables, and the relationship between cause and effect may only be discernible in retrospect. It’s the realm in which most knowledge-based organisations operate all the time, because they are complex human systems.

A frequent leadership mistake is to treat decisions affecting people as complicated – problems to be solved – when in fact they are complex. Snowden gives the analogy of a Brazilian rain forest, which is complex, as against a Ferrari, which is complicated, but operates under a set of rules that can be understood and replicated. And the way to work with complex systems is to pay attention to what’s going on, see what patterns are emerging, listen to what people are saying, use that feedback to make improvements, try small-scale experiments, encourage communication from diverse perspectives, recognise good solutions as they emerge, and don’t try to over-control.

The fact that the current situation post-lockdown seems messy and uncertain provides a moment of creative opportunity in how leaders respond to complexity. The need now is to pay close attention to what’s emerging, what’s possible, and listen to what people are saying about their work and their experience.

Four generative actions for leaders in complex environments

  • Ask everyone in the firm to share what they’ve learnt about working practices during lockdown: What worked well? What was challenging? What would they like to keep doing in the future? What would they like to change? Creative ideas often come from the bottom up, and might be the starting point for small-scale experiments or large-scale change.
  • Reflect on your own learning. What worked well for you in the virtual working world? What will you take from that experience? What will you stop doing, start doing, or do differently.
  • Try thinking from scratch when planning how to get work done – instead of replicating working practices that are purely office-based. An example would be replacing a ‘brainstorming’ meeting in real time (synchronous), with a digital brainstorm where people can contribute over a fixed time period on a virtual platform (asynchronous). Asking for contributions in this way can increase equality, enabling people to contribute more freely in their own time and lowering the volume of dominant voices.
  • Find new ways to connect people across boundaries. One of the main losses identified by people working remotely
    is the serendipitous links, the water-cooler conversations and cross-connections of being co-located. One large team who
    had suffered the silo-ing effects of lockdown on their cross-team conversations started a ‘random chat’ weekly call where each team member was assigned another member at random each week, to have a 10-minute chat. The resulting sense of connectedness was highly valued by the team, and led to some useful sharing and generating of ideas, opening up opportunities for collaborative working.

Investing in leadership

The need for law firms to foster a culture which is inviting both to the best legal talent and to clients was a pressing one, even before Covid-19. It will be urgently more so as firms settle into a different working pattern. While there has been much relief at the realisation that legal and business service teams can work remotely and effectively in the short term, new challenges will face them in maintaining both high performance and wellbeing over the longer term. Already, there are team members who have joined during lockdown and are learning to navigate a new organisation remotely. Leading remotely requires a more deliberate and measured approach, and an attention to individuals which requires investing time thoughtfully, without micro- managing.

Investment in developing confident, capable and committed leaders of character across the organisation should be a strategic priority. All this comes at a time when financial challenges have led to significant cuts to traditional L&D budgets, where most firms’ investment in leadership lies. Leadership for law firms needs to be at the heart of their strategy, not outsourced as part of a training budget that’s a ‘nice to have’.

Changing the culture

Decisions are now in process for changes on use of office space, technology and human resources.
Firm culture should also be very much on the table for both scrutiny and investment. Meeting the challenge of creating purpose, meaning and shared values for people who may rarely meet in person means leaders of firms will have to take a long, hard look at the reality of their own firm’s working culture.

Successful culture change depends on three elements all being in place together:
• clear and consistent leadership and messaging;
• encouraging new habits (‘how we do things around here’); and
• creating systems that support the change you want to see.

Many culture change programmes fail because they focus only on one or two of these elements. Law firms in particular have relied in the past on broadcast messaging from the top down, without paying sufficient attention either to the granular detail of how teams and individuals actually behave, or to the recruitment, evaluation and reward systems. These are all too often set up to reward behaviour in direct opposition to the culture the firm wants to encourage.

Choosing this moment to commit resources to the three elements listed above will take courage and vision. The reward for firms willing to make fundamental changes to their approach to leadership and culture will be to future-proof their firms against the risk of loss of talent and engagement brought about by uncertainty and poor leadership.

Choosing to be human

Leaders are humans too, and are as subject to shock and confusion as anyone else. The pressure on leaders to excel not just in their actions but in their character is a hard ask, and leaders in professional firms often carry the double burden of performing as leading practitioners, and as leaders for their clients and colleagues, while having far less support and preparation than is common for leaders in other sectors.

In conversations with leaders over the last few months, I’ve been struck by the degree to which working from home has opened people up to the possibility of connecting with their humanity in a more open way. As an example, simply asking “How are you?”, and waiting with interest for the answer, as I’ve heard people do with frequency, is a practice that would transform many working relationships, and release people to express their emotions in a working context, if continued beyond the pandemic.

Many leaders say they have learnt more about both their teams and their clients in the last three months than ever before. Leaders have long been encouraged to show their vulnerable side as part of their approach to creating followers. This is hard for professional advisers, for whom the need to be right is firmly ingrained in their professional persona. But clients want to engage with people, and teams have found new ways to bring more of themselves to work, since they’ve had to bring their work into their homes. Crying babies, wandering toddlers and demanding pets have become normal in work meetings. What can we learn from this blending of work and home life that would improve our working relationships in the future? I think we can choose what we want to retain from the more personal connections we may have made. For leaders, this may be an increase in their ability to open up more of their emotions, increasing their emotional repertoire as leaders, and freeing their teams to do the same.

Working with remote teams requires all the same skills and behaviours as with co-located teams, but building trust, relationship and psychological safety, essential to high performing teams, is harder without face-to-face time. Choosing to build trust through recognising your own and your team members’ individual humanity and encouraging social connections will be crucial to maintaining a team’s ability to perform and to thrive while all or some of them are working remotely.

Learning from lockdown

The results of a survey we undertook in July show clearly the range of perceived benefits and challenges of working from home for extended periods of time. Working through these items and making deliberate choices to help retain the benefits and meet the challenges is worth doing as part of the decision-making process for future working conditions.

The survey included 120 legal professionals (partners, associates and other professionals). Worth noting is that one person’s benefit can be another person’s challenge: for some, working alone provided productive reflective space, for others it brought a sense of isolation. And for some people the experience was both beneficial and challenging; valuing the opportunity to spend more time at home was offset by the difficulty of creating clear boundaries between home and work.

Working from home during lockdown

Better work/home balance56%Lack of boundaries between home and work78%
Increased productivity47%Working longer hours58%
Fewer interruptions36%Lack of personal connections with colleagues56%
More time to reflect33%Missing the social life of the office44%
Less time pressure22%Too many online meetings34%
Better mental health22%Hard to discipline myself to work22%
More autonomy22%Lack of suitable space to work22%
Better teamwork12%Feeling alone or isolated8%
(Survey of 124 legal professionals, Open Consulting, July 2020)

Percentages in the table above represent the proportion of survey respondents who selected each item.

Answers to the question: ‘What will you do differently after lockdown?’ drew answers mainly in two categories.

The first focused on practicalities: creating better balance between work and personal life, or between working from home or from the office; holding fewer live meetings, thereby saving time; leveraging technology; and creating better boundaries between work and home.

The second category drew learning from having experimented with different approaches to working relationships: showing more authenticity; retaining less hierarchical and more innovative approaches; investing more time in relationships; sharing more personal information; widening contribution of all team members to increase engagement and ensure better problem-solving.

Enabling choice in where (and when) people work in the future will increase their sense of autonomy, and their ability to do their best work in the way that suits them and their circumstances. It is clear that there can be no one right answer and that providing choice and experimentation is the way forward. It will also be important to provide creative alternatives so that people – typically those on lower incomes and younger people – who do not have easy access to a comfortable, private and safe working space, are not further disadvantaged. For example, some organisations are considering local working hubs to replace some of their redundant high rent office space.

The experience of getting work done remotely while continuing to work together has resulted in more innovative and potentially more inclusive working practices, for example using asynchronous digital platforms to generate ideas from a wider group. Seizing the moment to choose the best of what teams have learnt during lockdown is uniquely possible in the coming months, taking advantage of what might appear to be a messy and uncertain time to create better processes and practices. The key to success will be to ask and listen widely to devise solutions that work in context.

Blended working

Blended working (defined as having elements of flexibility both in when you work and where you work) has been the subject of some research in recent years. Enabling technology, added to the lockdown experience which has brought remote working into the mainstream, opens up the opportunity for organisations to offer more freedom to individuals to choose for themselves a blend of when and where they work which suits their needs.

Future-focused law firms might see this as an opportunity to attract and retain talent at all career stages, offering a measure of autonomy to knowledge workers in the hours they work, and where they do their work. Historically, flexible working has been addressed predominantly in response to the needs of women, particularly working mothers. There is much anecdotal evidence that the experience of lockdown has shifted this, with men experiencing directly both the challenges and the joys of blending work and family life.

Home circumstances and personal preferences vary enormously, and if the days when everyone being in the office together as a norm are gone, there is an opportunity to create a palette of blended options that suit these differences. The research on the impact of blended working on people’s motivation and enjoyment of work turns out to be positively related to their need for autonomy, but negatively related to their need for relatedness and structure.

The challenge for leaders will be to create the sense of shared meaning, purpose and psychological safety in teams who may rarely meet together in person. Investment of time at the individual level, and genuine support and development at the firm level will be needed to enable individuals and teams to perform well in the new landscape.

One of the frequently cited benefits of working in lockdown has been an increase in the time and space we need to reflect, which has been squeezed out of so many working lives. As we all continue to adjust again to changing working conditions, let’s take the time to think about what we’re choosing, both individually and collectively. Deliberately building in time to reflect and developing the habit of questioning our assumptions about how we get work done could be a game-changer.

First published in Modern Lawyer October 2020 • www.globelawandbusiness.com