Conversations in the new normal (part two, enhancing engagement)

Conversations in the new normal (part two, enhancing engagement)

by Chris Marston | September 22, 2021
by Chris Marston, chief executive of LawNet

Originally published in ARK, September 2020

Enhancing engagement : some practical examples

1) Leaders who listen

Leadership style is the foundation stone for great employee relationships.  We need to create an environment where we place trust in our people and enable them to build on their strengths.   As law firm strategist Andrew Hedley urged when he joined our leaders’ forum in the guest slot, firms must capitalise on the responsive, flexible approach they have proved themselves capable of during 2020, and leaders should adopt a challenge and support philosophy, rather than command and control.

This latter style tends to run in tandem with an attitude of presenteeism and rule-keeping, which can be particularly negative when staff are supporting a philosophy of agile working.  Encouraging behavioural change in leaders and managers is important if they are to develop good listening and coaching skills.  The ability to make that shift may need to be taught and a stronger coaching culture across the whole business can support such development. 

Research suggests that individual managers can account for as much as 70% of the variance in team engagement, because they have such a pivotal role in ensuring that employees know what work they must do, supporting them where necessary and showing how their work contributes to the organisation as a whole.  This makes access to good learning and development at all levels crucial to good engagement and even more so in the current working environment.   Funds which were previously directed at entertaining or externally-run courses can usefully be diverted into soft skill development.   Certainly, this is a shift we anticipate and have already moved towards virtual delivery of our management and leadership skills programme, following on from our legal update courses which went online in April, once lockdown prevented physical attendance. 

2) Handling emotions

The speed and force of change during the early days of the pandemic meant that individuals faced numerous new and uncomfortable situations in quick succession, with little chance to process before dealing with the next curved ball.   Inevitably, handling this cataclysmic change may have translated into fear, frustration or anger, emotions which are often recorded during times of transition.  While the initial denial and frustration of individuals is likely to follow the usual path of exploration and acceptance in due course, it may take time to work itself out. 

Similarly, where new ways of working may have been accepted initially, by both staff and clients, these may become irksome when it becomes the everyday.  Reports of video call fatigue or a general despondency and desire to get ‘back to normal’ all add to the difficulty of keeping people engaged.

We have seen plenty of creative and open-minded initiative from firms, such as offering staff greater flexibility, or setting up social interactions such as quiz nights, increasing communication through video messaging tools, and using surveys to invite feedback, but no single idea can be a panacea for bringing teams through the pandemic.  There’s no silver bullet, no vaccine to guarantee immunity from dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement, particularly when a ‘them and us’ attitude might have developed over furloughing.  

Workers may be doing too many hours in difficult circumstances, anxious about losing their job and feeling irritated to see others at home being ‘paid to do nothing’.  Those at home could feel dispensable, anxious at being left with nothing to do, and feeling equally challenged. Mental health and wellbeing are paramount and communicating to all staff that leaders recognise the situation and value them as individuals, is essential. 

Dr Brian Marien is an expert in how our brains work and how we handle stress and uncertainty who has presented to our network over recent years.  He argues in a recent webinar[1] that in this unique era of uncertainty, prioritising psychological health has become crucial for organisational survival. Preliminary findings suggest that the prevalence of anxiety alone has more than doubled.  This has serious implications for both our wellbeing and our performance, affecting individuals and organisations alike.  He points to the importance of evidence-based tools and ‘protective factors’ that can help to increase our tolerance of uncertainty, reduce anxiety and enable us to fulfil our potential, even in these turbulent times.

Creative ideas to tackle problems head on and bring the firm together can be vital at this time. For example, some of our member firms tried a rolling programme of furlough across different groups of staff, so that the burden could be shared.  Another firm is building a bonus pot to reward all team members, but with special consideration for those who have gone above and beyond during this time.  The idea has been well received, but they were careful to canvass options with staff to be sure it was going to have the intended outcome - motivated, committed teams are not grown in the dark.

When it comes to redundancy, consider dealing with this earlier rather than later.  People are anxious about the future, and certainty on this front can be better for everyone in the organisation. Uncertainty and worry can be more damaging for people than the concrete knowledge that their job has gone.  It may seem a good idea to delay that difficult conversation with those you know will be let go once furlough ends, but those whose job is safe could be reassured, resulting in improved performance. 

3) Understanding staff

Taking time to understand individual staff in a holistic way can help redefine organisational purpose.  Recognising how their work and home lives are inter-related, and how you might help them be more fulfilled in both spheres, can have a meaning way beyond the purely operational level.  The traditional office environment provides a social purpose in bringing people together in one place.  Obviously, that has been missing in recent months and some may value being first to come back to the office if they are feeling isolated working alone.  For others, progress may be a more flexible daily home-working routine or only being in the office certain days of the week.  Leaders must create within their firms a social purpose as well as a business purpose, and an enhanced employee value proposition, while also fulfilling the objective of keeping the business agile and profitable. 

Some of that may come through greater inclusivity.  More than half of new entrants to the legal profession are female[2] but their skills, talent and experience are often ignored once they leave to start a family.  The career break may mean they have to be re-skilled and retrained when they return and could feel disadvantaged because they have not advanced their career at the same pace as others.  More agile working in the current situation opens the door to harnessing these talents and engaging with a valuable, under-utilised section of the workforce.

Similarly, greater flexibility in working hours, enabling a more responsive attitude towards client-facing interaction, can bring benefits to the organisation while enabling staff to balance personal and work commitments.   Client expectations have changed just as dramatically over the past few months, and it makes sense to match these going forward. 

4) Rewriting the rules

We must empower and delegate, but in doing so we must be quite clear about what we expect from our staff, so they know the shape and extent of their responsibilities.  In this ‘new normal’, it is important to revisit this and develop a framework for people if they are not in the office, to agree what that means and what it looks like.  

This was the focus for another of our guest experts: Robert Camp, formerly a managing partner at Stephens Scown and now working with law firms in strategic innovation.  Things are not as they were, so where everyone may have been expected to take their lunch hour at lunchtime when they were in the office, that may not fit with the flexibility they need if working at home and balancing personal issues such as childcare or opportunities to interact with others to avoid de-socialisation.  

For example, during lockdown everyone was encouraged to take exercise every day, and that is a good habit to continue, but is there a restriction on when that may be taken?  Must it be taken at lunchtime or do we want to encourage staff to take it when they want to, with the resulting uplift in productivity. 

In this context, asking people how they are feeling and what they are thinking – on a personal, one-to-one basis - is an important step forward.   It’s perhaps best undertaken by line managers, in a safe environment where people feel confident in speaking out, as HR may now be perceived as the four horsemen of the apocalypse, having been the conduit for furlough, pay cuts, short time and redundancy.


[1] Dr Brian Marien, The Positive Group :

[2] Law Society