Conversations in the new normal (part one)
by Chris Marston, chief executive of LawNet
Originally published in ARK, September 2020
Dialogue is essential in employee engagement, but we need to adapt for a post-Covid workplace
Leading a law firm in today’s shifting landscape demands agility and a willingness to cope with uncertainty.
Resilience is essential and tight financial management crucial, but perhaps most important is the need to engage and enthuse employees through these unprecedented times.
Change management has always been a challenge, but where we used to measure change in months and years, in 2020, it has been measured in hours and days. Each of us was forced to experience and absorb rapid adjustments as the pandemic gripped the world, reaching into every aspect of our personal and working lives.
From the outset we found ourselves engulfed in a crisis management situation without a playbook; we had no Harvard Business Review tips pinned to the wall on how to lead through a pandemic. We had to figure things out, largely on our own, and at speed.
The pace, quality and authenticity of the response to such extreme circumstances can determine which firms will succeed and demands flexibility and vision from leaders.
During lockdown we initiated a series of weekly themed conversations between the leaders of the mid-size law firms that comprise our 70-strong member network, also drawing in expert guest contributors to join our live video sessions.
From the outset, firms were reporting how the crisis had driven new change programmes or accelerated greatly some existing modernisation plans. Suddenly all those ideas around agile working, paperless projects and video conferencing had assumed a sense of urgency. This crash-landed into an environment that was already fast-moving, one where law firms were being challenged to adapt with alacrity.
Much of the innovation has been in the use of digital solutions, with widespread adoption of online channels for internal and external meetings now commonplace, but such technological advancement cannot fully replace true human connection. Employees have fundamental psychological needs which must be met if they are to be successful and collaborative in their roles, whether they are working together in the office or remotely, connected only by the internet.
Before the pandemic, we could already see employees seeking more than simply a salary. They wanted purpose and meaning, they needed strong relationships in the workplace, they wanted to be coached to the next level. That is no less important now, but people’s working lives carry greater fragility. As furlough, redundancy and the threat of recession combined to undermine confidence and cloud the future in the earlier months of the pandemic, so loyalties continue to be tested in new ways with the opportunities for staff seeking different lifestyles beyond the 9-5 commute. The attraction of working from a rural or suburban home, instead of commuting to work from a small flat in the city may seem hard to resist.
These factors reinforce the importance of excellent employee engagement, whether navigating through the pandemic or looking ahead to the long haul, with research showing organisations with actively engaged employees outperform across the board.
Recent meta-analysis by Gallup  revealed higher sales, productivity and profitability, combined with lower staff turnover, for those businesses featuring in the top quartile for employee engagement. It is an essential pre-requisite for delivering enhanced performance and maintaining a sharp competitive edge. As such, maintaining a truly engaged and motivated workforce should be the top priority for leaders regardless of the challenges or threats that may be encountered.
We want to build collaborative, committed teams and for that we need effective employee engagement. But how will we do that in a post-Covid world when agile working is likely to be part of the new normal for the foreseeable future? New approaches will be vital to ensure engagement if people are working outside traditional office structures, with those working from home some or all of the time more vulnerable to feeling socially isolated.
Globally, it has been estimated that 85% of employees do not feel actively engaged at work (Gallup). This was before the pandemic, and future research will inform us whether the new ways of working introduced during lockdown periods have seen this percentage improve or deteriorate. Either way, that is still a lot of disengaged people at work every day, but why is it so hard to get the team on board?
Defining the metric
While many organisations implement some sort of employee engagement programme or check the lie of the land through regular surveying, few get it right, even when they take follow-up actions to try and improve low scores. Leaders may blame the tool, the measurement, their own demographic or environmental factors, but few identify that the failure is more likely to lie in the way their employee engagement programme has been executed.
The metric may be too complicated, it may be outside the control of managers or it may not relate to the psychological needs of employees. The questions could be too selective, ignoring the problems which lie in their blind spot, resulting in apparently high engagement scores without correspondingly strong performance outcomes. Some surveys ask the right questions but fail to follow through or respond adequately to the feedback received.
Most importantly, employee engagement will not succeed where ownership of the process and its outcomes is not grasped by leaders; too often it is considered to be the role of HR, something separate from the rest of organisational life, or simply viewed as a tactical check list.
Surveys have a place, but as an instrument for change, not an end in themselves. If the result of a survey is a change in the conversations managers have, or to enable or encourage different behaviours in the organisation, then it is performing a useful role. Just accepting the results and filing them away for comparison next year is not.
However, where engagement is integrated into the business strategy, and used as a performance lever, it can generate significant gains. Great managers recognise that engagement is their prime responsibility, and one that can differentiate their own performance when the focus is on being a coach, not a boss.
This is borne out by Gallup’s research, which shows that employees who receive daily feedback and interaction with their manager are three times more likely to be engaged than those who receive little or no development input during the year.
Feedback is an essential component of staff development, but it should be part of an ongoing, positive coaching conversation, not an annual critique. Too often it is channelled through the appraisal process, or ‘performance review’, and in such a situation is more likely to spark the same emotional response in the human brain as someone approaching you from behind in a dark alley, shutting down the receptors you want to ignite.
Some of the most important defining characteristics of good employee engagement involve ensuring individuals know the value of their work, how it contributes to the organisation, that their role is acknowledged and that they are given opportunities to grow. Workplace culture is complex and there are no quick fixes, but leaders and managers can make their interactions with their people more meaningful by providing frequent recognition of contribution, making sure people feel the organisation cares about them, and that their opinions count.
Employees cannot be innovators and the organisation cannot be agile and creative unless there are clear expectations and permission to experiment.
Crafting the conversation
Opening up the dialogue so people feel heard and valued is vital, as the evidence shows (Gallup). Within our own organisation we have taken on board the principles espoused by Dr Tim Baker and his Five Conversations Framework . He developed this as an alternative to the potentially damaging appraisal process, which too often turns into an infrequent box ticking process and a monologue rather than the conversation it needs to be.
Baker proposed regular themed conversations involving everyone within the organisation to give an organisational snapshot. These are focused on the individual and what areas of support they may need, their experience within the organisation, and to invite ideas for improvements that could benefit them, their team, and the organisation as a whole. By taking the temperature in this way, problems can be identified and solutions sought.
Our experience of this approach is that it is far less stressful than any traditional form of appraisal and helps build better relationships between team members, while allowing us to identify and build upon individual strengths.
It is important for leaders to be ready to adapt and improve, even the things that are working well, and in adopting new ideas such as this, one should not be prescriptive. Within LawNet HQ we have fine-tuned our own version of the themed conversations framework to make it better suited to our own profile.
Similarly, one of our member firms has described how adapting Baker’s approach to better match their firm, with just three themed conversations: training and development, climate review, innovation and growth. They are also flexible in allowing the conversations to go off topic, if more pressing matters arise during the review. Reporting on the success of the approach, they say: “We see staff who have been with us a long time, and who were on record as having considered appraisals a bit of a waste of time, putting thought into the specific topics and coming back with good ideas.”
As ever in business, there will be winners and losers ahead, but to have any chance of winning we must embrace change, harness the energy and talents of our people by motivating and engaging them, and focus on the exciting potential that offers for the future.
Great workplaces do not happen by accident, nor do they grow without nurture. It takes flexibility, an openness to new ideas, regular and honest communication, and buy-in from employees at every level.
But perhaps most important is recognising that by being more human, we can make the difference and help unleash the potential of our people – the beating heart of any business strategy.
 Gallup’s perspective on building a high-development culture through your employee engagement strategy, Gallup Inc, 2019
 The End of the Performance Review: A New Approach to Appraising Employee Performance, Tim Baker, 2013