Recruitment and retention: Shaping up for people-focused working
Peter Riddleston examines the future sustainability of engagement, retention and salaries.
Hybrid working has been a burning topic of conversation among leaders, managers, and HR professionals over the past year. Certainly, it has topped the agenda for the SME law firms that make up our mutual network.
Unpacking the research from our 2021 financial benchmarking survey, the major challenges identified by members for this year were staff recruitment and retention, closely followed by how to handle issues such as supervision and risk management under hybrid working arrangements. We hold regular forum discussions for members and these topics continue to hold attention.
For many firms, learning, development and supervision became a greater challenge during the pandemic, but those with an eye to the future recognise that they must adapt, creating new structures and processes and embracing new ways of managing their people. And with reports that record numbers of associates are leaving, at huge cost to firms, talent leakage is certainly a topic that needs addressing.
While some may be leaving to seek out a different career path, many are moving to new firms for higher salaries. One of our member firms report newly qualified to three-year qualified solicitors asking for 20-30 per cent higher salaries than two years ago, reflecting soaring salaries offered by those looking to entice individuals to join their firms. Another pointed to a local competitor taking a flagrant attitude towards stealing staff, with the ambition of being the last left standing.
The impact of such dramatic shifts in salary expectations is far-reaching and cannot be ignored: allowing discontent to fester by leaving existing staff trailing in the salary stakes will not create a happy, secure workforce with high retention rates. To avoid this, firms should consider the feasibility of aligning salaries of existing staff with new employees as well as looking at different ways of structuring packages for those joining.
One of our member firms has offered a blanket increase to all support staff to avoid leakage, despite being one of the highest-paying employers in the area already. Providing valuable benefits can also help retain and attract candidates, such as health schemes, higher pension contributions or longer holidays, through to on-site parking and salary sacrifice schemes for electric vehicles.
But beyond financial remuneration and paid-for benefits, the most important aspect of retaining staff, whether new or established, is by making sure they are properly engaged. That demands the right culture – one that will nurture and reward staff, while securing their commitment and contribution to the firm.
Be strategic and recognise culture counts
It’s important to have a clear strategy in place, covering the whole recruitment, retention and employee engagement journey: this helps to make sure the strategy is sustainable and is reassuring for staff, as well providing a model for decision making when faced with issues such as salary requests.
We see initiatives among our member firms which reflect the value of such an approach. At one, paralegals identified as having potential and showing aspirations to become trainee solicitors have been offered a training contract two years’ hence. This helps to build the future workforce by committing individuals to the firm for the long-term.
At another, six monthly reviews are held with department heads to identify who may be at risk of leaving, allowing the firm to focus efforts to retain that person, rather than dealing with such problems when they actually happen.
An approach which encourages existing staff to introduce candidates has also shown results for firms, whether with a financial incentive, or simply in a co-operative approach which encourages staff to share vacancies on social media. This can overcome initial ‘fit’ issues, as it is likely they will have demonstrated professional and personal characteristics which lead the endorser to recommend them, and for the potential recruit, having an existing employee acting as advocate can provide the strongest recommendation for your firm.
The right culture and a strong reputation can be a deciding factor for candidates. Recent research from a professional services recruitment consultancy shows that candidates value an organisation’s financial performance and reputation ahead of job security. Most highly rated was work-life balance, demonstrating the importance of taking such factors into account when approaching working arrangements.
Enabling people to choose different working times, as well as responding to how often they want to work remotely, is likely to help them be more productive, with a positive knock-on effect for wellbeing. Clients may value the flexibility of being able to consult outside normal working hours as much as staff may value working times that suit them and their personal commitments.
This sort of open and flexible approach can offer up new ways of working with former staff. One of our firms has reported considerable success in contacting previous staff who had left to start families, to offer flexible, part time work from home. They are people they know and trust and this approach allows the firm to regain the experiences and skills that had been lost, recovering the original investment made by both sides.
When someone moves for a higher salary without seeing whether there is a culture-fit, it can lead to a mismatch. Helping existing staff see the value of their contribution and encouraging them to shape their role to suit themselves, can help to demonstrate the value of culture and encourage them to consider such aspects when enticing offers come along.
For those struggling to find the right staff, new approaches to the recruitment process may pay off. Our members report success in using LinkedIn for established professionals, bypassing recruitment agencies by advertising directly. Others with a strong online presence have found success by using their networks to promote posts, rather than paid-for LinkedIn advertising. Many draw on the expertise of marketing departments to help them embrace the communication capabilities of the platform for recruitment and show what it is like to work for their firm.
To target trainees, we have seen our firms using TikTok and Instagram, winning many more applicants than previously. Some are taking more trainees than usual, with the plan of filling more newly qualified roles in two to three years’ time with their own in-house candidates.
Widening the net to reach recruits in this way may help to encourage more candidates to apply, with firms reporting that the limited numbers of applicants for positions is creating a challenge on this front.
Reinventing supervision and development
We have also seen firms introduce significant changes to how they manage and implement supervision for staff and trainees. This is essential from both a risk management perspective and to support personal development.
For firms, the shift to hybrid working inevitably required different skills be developed, as one partner explains: “We ask people what training and guidance they need to enable them to work better on a more hybrid basis, particularly in training and development for junior staff. There is always a place for learning by osmosis, as happens in an office environment, but that has never been enough in and of itself. Active training and learning needs to take place, whether people are in the office or at home.”
Undoubtedly, it is very different supervising in a hybrid model than when everyone is in the office, requiring an attitudinal shift by all concerned. But it can create something better: that same firm reported that many of their junior staff members felt they had more active involvement with senior staff members during lockdown than before, as people put time and effort into feeding back through structured online conversations, rather than snatching a few minutes when passing their desk.
We have seen digital solutions working very effectively for personal development during the pandemic, with a huge uptake in online learning for both professional and business skills.
There has always been strong take-up for our learning programme: it’s popular because it is shaped in response to the needs of members, a group of similarly sized, non-competing firms, enabling open discussion between those attending, and the majority of courses are delivered free of charge. But for in-person sessions, our firms had to factor in time out of the office and the cost of travel. When we took all our learning online at the start of the first lockdown, the numbers signing up to courses soared overnight, with record levels sustained ever since. As well as sessions on legal topics and our usual management themes, we developed many new topics to help firms deal with the challenges posed by the pandemic. The response reflected a real hunger for learning, and for adapting to new ways of working.
One of the most powerful yet simple changes we have seen introduced is to ensure the firm’s diary system is open. This supports the development of trainees and junior staff by providing opportunities to attend meetings with clients and colleagues when lawyers are encouraged to actively invite trainees and junior lawyers to their client meetings and trainees are given clear permission to ask to attend meetings. This is a good way of replacing that last minute meeting invitation that might happen in the office when the client is waiting in reception, and by adopting a more structured approach, trainees and junior lawyers can learn about the client and the context for the meeting prior to attending.
Regular check-ins with staff can help avoid any sense of isolation or being ‘left out’, and are important whatever the seniority. Equally, avoiding any sense of digital presenteeism is important, such as staff feeling compelled to continue working late alongside others, despite starting earlier in the day. Neither is healthy and should be addressed when supporting individual wellbeing within the firm.
Some of the other initiatives we see working for our members include a simple wellbeing charter which is displayed around the office, rather than a wordy, formal policy. Another has appointed and trained mental health first aiders, and uses mentoring, buddy and peer support schemes as a way of encouraging staff to discuss wellbeing and identify situations where support may be needed. At another of our firms, staff are being surveyed to find out what support they would like, so that a structured approach can be made towards supporting wellbeing. Each of these are an important step towards making mental health an open topic for conversation.
Amid all this change, maintaining flexibility is key, to ensure firms respond and adapt, assessing what is working well and what is working less well.
Peter Riddleston is learning and quality director with LawNet. A former solicitor, he is a regular contributor to professional learning standards in the sector: lawnet.co.uk