The most recent COVID-19 three-day Brisbane lockdown from 29 March 2021 was a stark reminder that while everything seems to have returned to normal since the pandemic first hit our shores, our professional and personal interactions can suddenly be restricted again when an outbreak occurs. However, unlike March 2020, this year we are in a much better position. We are now better equipped both technologically and mentally, and the ability to work from home is now a familiar and almost seamless exercise.
During the 2020 lockdown, Carroll Consulting completed an industry study into the impacts of COVID-19 on the legal profession. We found that an industry which once offered little working from home or flexible working arrangements dramatically evolved during last year’s lockdown, and the options now available have had a positive impact on most firms and their cultures. Key learnings from this study will be extremely beneficial for ensuring future working from home arrangements maintain productivity, strong client relationships and employee engagement. Areas for improvement were also flagged, such as the need to keep junior and support employees closely connected to their supervisors during lockdowns.
The high-level findings from the study revealed:
• The introduction of flexible working arrangements has had a positive effect on most firms and their cultures. Employees felt trusted and more in control of their working hours with the freedom to work remotely when required.
• Strong communicators and collaborators performed well during COVID-19. One in three organisations found their collaboration increased during the lockdown and almost half cited an increase in internal relationships, particularly between teams. One possible reason for this was the need for all staff to pull together to ensure the success of their organisation.
• Technology played a major role in staff and client engagement, improving outcomes for many firms. The forced distancing drove a need to create greater accessibility for clients to contact their lawyers and for employees to contact one another.
• Law firms worked hard to engage staff, particularly senior lawyers. Support staff however, struggled with the absence of in-person guidance, opportunities for clarification or mentoring. This highlighted the need for more leader-led communication and opportunities for junior staff to check in at regular intervals.
The study unsurprisingly confirmed that the working environment changed dramatically through the introduction of new technology such as Zoom meetings and Microsoft Teams. COVID-19 saw the testing and implementation of IT projects once considered “too hard”, accelerated due to necessity, with staff having more time to experiment. Once in place there was a quick transition. 92% of respondents had increased their use of new technology during COVID-19. This technology continues to deliver great benefits to the industry and many firms reported their clients’ experiences with their organisation had improved. Meetings that may have been hard to schedule in the past due to travel or conflicting calendars can now be completed online at a time that suits, minimising logistical hurdles and allowing matters to progress.
Based on the study findings, we have put together some key recommendations to help improve productivity during future lockdowns:
• Check in with your people to see what support they need – not just performance orientated but their personal and mental health. If they weren’t already established, ensure you have the structures, policies, and the approachability for your team to be able to come to you for help.
• Last year, we saw introverts doing increasingly well through the lockdown period but struggling on the return to the workplace. Extroverts were in the reverse. Being in and out of these lockdowns has an impact on both sides. Employers should show empathy and understanding as their teams adjust to sudden changes. If you or someone you know needs assistance, please see below for helpline details.
• Flexible work – we did it before and we will do it again. Aside from the potential physical, health and safety and technological issues of remote work, having many or all staff at home made firms anxious. Trust and communication are key. Be aware that all staff or teams may not be able to work from home. Ensure they all have the tools and support needed to succeed. Also keep in mind, just because they are in the office doesn’t mean it is business as usual.
• Communication, communication, communication – but be careful not to micro-manage! It is important to allow your team members autonomy and the freedom to complete their work. Feeling trusted to manage their own workload will build confidence and loyalty.
• Ensure your support staff are supported – this is one group that appeared to suffer the most through COVID-19. However, Partners admitted they weren’t doing particularly well before March 2020. Support staff benefit from daily interactions. Catch-up calls should be built into the day and the agreed times stuck to.
Remember we are all in this together. If you need any support through this period or would like a confidential chat, please reach out to either myself or check out https://mentalwellbeing.initiatives.qld.gov.au/support to find services and organisations that can help.
If you would like a copy of Carroll Consulting’s Legal Industry Insights Report or to gain further insight and commentary, please get in touch.