Whether as leaders, team members, or workplace law litigators, remote working seems to be today’s biggest workplace challenge. It is not a new phenomenon however, as the drift towards remote working began long before covid-19 hit. Workers wanted increased flexibility, while employers wanted to save on real estate. A win/win it seemed; except a slew of studies began to show it was leading to increased stress, depression and anxiety. And covid-19 has made that much, much worse.
So far, the ones I can see gaining most from the issues around remote working are the litigators. “We see it as the biggest source of lawsuits coming up,” says one member of the executive committee at a major bank, who also happens to be a client of one of the law firms we work with.
Why is it such an issue for everyone? Overall, people now have more freedom to choose whether and when they work at home, unless there is a lockdown. And more choice is good, right?
Well, yes and no. Putting aside the fact that research has shown having too many choices can create confusion and even depression, where to work (and where to require your people to work) are challenging issues.
As lockdowns have gradually come to an end, lawyers and their clients now face dilemmas, both at home and work. Employers are finding peoples’ expectations about coming into the office have changed. And although employees enjoy more autonomy, juggling expectations at work and home just became even more complex.
Confusion and conflict
While organisations are trying to offer guidelines about hybrid working, with about 60 per cent of working hours to be spent in the office being a common example, there is confusion and conflict over what expectations around remote working are reasonable or even where the law stands.
Besides that, many people perceived their workplaces as toxic, and some firms are having trouble getting their people to return to the office.
When the lockdowns first happened, even amidst the pandemic-related anxiety, some people found a great sense of freedom and relief at being able to spend more time with their families.
“I feel more a part of my kids’ lives,” said one woman. “Even if I am still shut away at my desk when they come home, I know if there are any major issues. That removes a huge amount of guilt.”
Another person said “I was just glad not to have to come into the office and worry about who was saying what behind whose back, including mine. That was exhausting, and I hadn’t really realised how much it drained me.”
Lockdowns create their own stress of course, especially with the accompanying uncertainty and theat. Whether because of restricted movement outside the house, too much screen time, or inertia, people exercised less and had more chronic pain issues.
Home was not always blissful, in fact during the first three months of the pandemic, UK domestic violence rose by 60 per cent, according to the World Health Organization. The effect of general uncertainty was magnified by a loss of work day structure. But the biggest issue was isolation and a lack of belonging. Work stress, which had already increased 200 per cent between January 2010 and January 2020, skyrocketed.
We are genetically designed to be happiest as part of a group that is larger than the modern family, but no more than about 100 people. All our senses are geared towards getting together in person. Short virtual meetings are fine for logistics and quick check-ins, at least if the cameras are on. But even then, they don’t produce the neurochemical rewards that drive motivation, trust, decision-making, pleasure and learning. Working and meeting virtually makes people far less effective. To compensate, they tend to work longer and hold more meetings, intensifying the such a vicious cycle.
Like other business heads, law leaders were initially delighted to offer remote working as a recruitment advantage, especially in areas where legal talent was in high demand. Now businesses are concerned about the downside of unrestricted virtual working, and many feel the situation is getting beyond their control.
“My people seem to expect they can work pretty much when and where they want to,” one partner told me. “The business wants us to get them back to the workplace because they are more available to clients and for team meetings, plus it’s simply easier to see what people are doing and ask quick questions.
“Team gatherings are incredibly important for morale and engagement. On the other hand, we who head practice groups or teams are required to drive that,” the partner added. “We don’t want to be seen as micro-managing and unreasonable, and we don’t want our people to be unhappy. We certainly don’t want talented people to leave.”
Junior and even senior lawyers are finding it difficult to organise their changing home and office schedules. In many cases, expectations have changed at home or at work. Families have adjusted to having at least one if not both parents at home much of the time. School and sports schedules and logistics, such as drop-offs, are more complex and changeable in during covid-19.
Taking care of aging relatives can be more demanding and far more worrisome. Constant disruption in routine – and perhaps the worry of their parents over covid-related job insecurity and perhaps health concerns – creates more anxiety for young children. As a result, they require even more attention and predictability.
Finding a way forward
There are no simple solutions for either leaders or team members. Each organisation, team and individual must find their own way in addressing their own needs and those of their family, team and organisation. This will require self-reflection, discussion and negotiation.
Here are some tips:
· Make a list (or lists) of the conditions under which you can be most effective and fulfilled in terms of work, friends and family. Remember, you need time with colleagues that is in person, enjoyable and gives you a sense of being valued and a chance to learn, all of which is vital for resilience. Research shows that gossip – that chitchat before the ‘real’ meeting starts – enhances not only trust, enjoyment and your influence and impact, but also your ability to learn.
· Write a plan for when and where you want to work based these on these conditions. Do the same for your non-work life. How much time would you need for yourself in terms of exercise, time with your close friends and life partner as well as social time with colleagues? How would you include play – which research now shows is essential to collaboration and learning – in your meetings and training? Don’t sacrifice time with your partner in favour of the kids. Your relationship is their emotional safety.
· Discuss your needs with colleagues and those you report to. This could involve taking into account guidelines or rules your firm has around where and when people work. Which of your needs are negotiable? Which are not? Find out their needs of you and reach agreements if possible.
· Ensure your workplace is worth coming to. Meet regularly with colleagues to ensure everyone feels supported and safe. Agree on social events and opportunities for personal sharing and play. Review these regularly to see if they are working or need to be changed. Make sure you have someone you can honestly talk to about your needs, decisions and stress levels. It could be a close friend, family or work mentor.
Dr Alicia Fortinberry is principal at Fortinberry Murray fortinberrymurray.com