The paradox of change
By Nicola Jones
A sense of purpose will be the hallmark of successful hybrid working, says Nicola Jones
The pandemic plunged many legal services providers deep into uncharted virtual waters.
After some initial panic – in the form of the urgent purchasing of laptops and rapid acquaintance with secure remote working – most found a level of buoyancy and kept afloat.
Some lawyers like it so much they never want to go back to the office. Others cannot wait to feel familiar territory beneath their feet. Is it possible to move to a hybrid model and have the best of both worlds and avoid the worst of each?
The unarguable attraction of working virtually is a reduction in overheads; any business must think twice before passing up such an opportunity. Yet there is a sense that there is a human cost. Can working relationships survive the loss of consistent in person contact? Is it worth risking the stress of another shift in work patterns to establish a hybrid model?
We must acknowledge that taking up virtual working at a time of global existential crisis wasn’t ideal for project initiation. Shocked by the impact of lockdown, anxious about immediate health risks and the wider global crisis, those in work grappled with the technology simply to keep the business operational. That imperative has not diminished. What was conceived in crisis emerged to take hold in an extended period of high pressure and uncertainty.
But there are paradoxes: we love not having to commute, just as we miss our transition time. Who knew how valuable the journey to work can be as a gateway in and out of the day? Likewise, the flexibility can feel intoxicating, until the balance goes completely awry and the day drags, static and unvaried – no chance of legitimate distraction, though there’s a host of other kinds.
So, it’s unsurprising that many individuals and organisations have barely scratched the surface of the potential of their systems. If you have never used a whiteboard in MS Teams or a breakout room in Zoom, you haven’t begun to experience what’s possible.
Working virtually is a whole new way of being. Time takes on a new dimension online. The rhythms of in-person working are replaced by an almost palpable impatience. We are used to consuming quickly online. Meetings have to be kept ticking over at pace lest everyone turns into camera shy zombies. Holding a virtual space and creating opportunities for thinking dynamically and deeply requires skill in the face of our ‘clicktastic’ expectations.
More than anything, the quality of our relationships is laid bare. A crisis always reveals the quality of human behaviour. Even those bonds built on a firm grounding in shared experience and mutual understanding become strained. And when even the most emotionally intelligent among us have been pushed to their limits, it becomes tempting to think the virtual medium might be perceived as limited.
I think it would be a mistake to dismiss virtual working as emotionally reductive when, in fact, it may have acted to reveal pre-existing cracks in working practice. That is not to say that establishing or sustaining relationships is easy online. It requires time, imagination and commitment. But it is achievable.
Accepting that investment in relationships is an investment in the business raises big questions: what is it you seek to achieve together? At a time when the rule of law is under remarkable pressure, what do you stand for together as legal practitioners?
Once this wider purpose is explored and shared, the mechanisms for conducting business take on a different hue. They become platforms in the service of a greater purpose. It becomes possible to assess how people need to work and the tasks they need to do.
Perhaps the greatest paradox of the pandemic is that it simultaneously reveals our human frailty and our resilience. Virtual working has a similar effect. Working relationships, culture, values, purpose; all those ‘nice to haves’ are now at a premium.
Some historical practices are essential, and others need to change. Figuring out what to keep and what to let go is a huge challenge. The prize is immense: a modern practice populated by adaptable people with a variety of expertise, able to walk with clients and offering high-value services in cost effective ways.
Nicola Jones is managing director of Athena Professional athenaprofessional.co.uk