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In-house conference 2021

03 Dec 2021 / employment Print

The green, green grass of home

While working from home has great benefits for both employers and employees, this year’s online In-house and Public Sector conference warned about the work/life challenges presented by hybrid working. Mary Hallissey reports.

Working from home can turn into living at work without due care, this year’s In-house and Public Sector conference on 14 October heard. Speakers warned of the dangers of isolation, as well as lack of proper demarcation between work and home life. Career trajectories may also be hampered by fully remote work, attendees heard.

And remote workers should be wary of an always-on ‘hustle mentality’, where every weekend or holiday involves checking emails – because this is a sure route to burnout and fatigue.

Wellbeing must be weaved into whatever model of work emerges, post-pandemic, the attendees heard, and trust must be extended from employers to employees.

They also discovered that fully remote companies tended to have a large emphasis on not celebrating overwork – and discouraging excessive hours – with procedures and practices to monitor the over-use of digital technology.

Practitioner surveys show a desire for blended options, with some physical presence in the office to make social connections and to meet and collaborate with colleagues.

Emma Redmond (global lead for privacy and data protection at Stripe) told the conference that young lawyers working remotely may not have the confidence to reach out and ask for help or guidance: “It’s pretty tough,” she said.

To try to address this challenge, Stripe launched a ‘buddy-up’ mentorship system, which has worked well. The company pioneered remote working, even before the pandemic, as part of its mission to “expand the GDP of the internet”.

“It improved our ability to tap into the amazing talented software engineers that are out there, living outside the metro areas,” Redmond explained. “You need to ensure that any ‘remotes’ have the opportunities for education and career development that are equal to those of a person who’s in the office.”

No-meeting Wednesdays

Participants agreed that there was a need to get away from the incessant slew of emails – and new tools for instant communication, without a formal scheduled meeting, were strongly recommended.

Initiatives such as ‘no-meeting Wednesdays’ can definitely help with Zoom fatigue, the gathering heard.

Helena Kiely (chief prosecution solicitor at the DPP’s Office) said that her organisation had a “strong oral tradition”, pre-virus, which required some adjustment into virtual ways of meeting, communicating, and collaborating, given the limitations of social distancing in the office. Much of the work is court driven, she explained, in a very office-based organisation.

Voicemails on all devices, email clarity, and conciseness (eliminating verbosity for the sake of clarity) were all part of the management strategy.

There was also a sense of email fatigue, with communication taking longer online than in person.

“Really, it’s been a learning process around collaboration,” Kiely said. She advised that the Government’s stated objective is that 20% of civil servants will work remotely.

This will be subject to necessary adjustments for essential and frontline services. The Government strategy on remote working will be published by March 2022.

Information security

Security of information imparted and retained under legal privilege is another key factor in navigating more informal ways of communicating, the webinar heard.

“From a legal perspective, it’s actually that little bit more complicated because of the sensitivity of the communications,” Stripe’s Emma Redmond agreed.

Different methods of collaborating were also discussed, where some team members operate on-site and others remotely. Some speakers felt that it was important to gather all team members together every so often.

The golden rule of online meetings should be to maintain device and audio quality, with everyone on headsets, speakers agreed. In addition, shared folders and files under discussion should go back to a digital central storage point.

Speaker Rowena Hennigan (RoRemote consultant) co-founded and authored Ireland’s first remote-working skills undergraduate ‘level eight’ module in 2019 for Technological University, Dublin.

She addressed research showing strong evidence that visual communication works better online for participant engagement: “Be visual,” she advised.

She also cautioned that the pandemic had led to certain employees moving to new roles and duties, and new hires coming into the company. Participants at meetings should be cognisant of this – and also of those who were (and were not) working remotely.

“When you are going back to the office, just have a check on who should be involved and who’s working … they could play a key part [in decision-making],” she said.

Company secretary and general counsel at IRES REIT plc, Anna Marie Curry, added that sometimes it was better for a participant to be present virtually, than not at all.

Remote-working hubs

Remote-working hubs have stepped up in quality over the period of the pandemic, the meeting heard, and now meet – and exceed – very high-quality framework standards.

There is now enhanced communication security, with soundproofing and private cubicle space available for calls – this is key for lawyers working with sensitive information.

Many legal departments, however, have strict rules about where and when remote working should take place – again because of confidentiality concerns.

It was suggested, however, that ‘walk-and-talk’ meetings that involved a break outdoors could be a good option.

Rowena Hennigan reiterated that matters were progressing quickly in terms of remote-working hubs, and that lawyers should not rule them out as a possibility: “It’s a matter of keeping an open mind – at least give them an opportunity to pitch,” she advised.

Noise-cancelling headphones were improving all the time, she noted. Lawyers working from home were also encouraged to experiment with two screens, to see how they could enhance productivity.

Productivity hacks

Practitioners should also educate themselves about ‘productivity hacks’, such as turning off notifications to improve concentration.

The most important button in any digital tool is the ‘off’ switch, Hennigan said. Workers should make note of screen-usage times, and build awareness about staying within acceptable boundaries.

That said, she was convinced of the socio-economic, organisational, and personal benefits afforded by remote working. She pointed out that fully remote organisations tended to be very good at creating psycho-logical safety and discouraging overwork, through active listening and mentoring systems.

Emma Redmond of Stripe agreed that disabling technical equipment was a good way to signal the end of the working day.

One trick used by some remote workers at the start of the working day was to walk out their back door and in through the front door before sitting down at their desks.

Opportunity knocks

Liam Kennedy (A&L Goodbody) and Gavin Woods (Arthur Cox) spoke about arbitration and jurisdiction clauses, as well as the Ireland for Law lobby campaign to bring legal business to Ireland, post-Brexit.

While English legal professionals have long been operating internationally, and London has been a renowned base for resolving disputes, Brexit has reduced those advantages, Kennedy commented. This has created an opportunity for Ireland to send out the same message to the world.

The fact that Ireland is now the main English-speaking common-law jurisdiction in the EU offers a real advantage to any global IT company, since, typically, the language of technology contracts is English.

Leadership positions are now situated in Ireland for many of the large multinational companies, Kennedy noted.

Strong Irish regulators will also be important in giving predictability to legal decisions, the webinar heard, and the Irish Government should ‘up its game’ in terms of basing more Irish lawyers in Brussels to provide input into policy discussions, where Britain may previously have done much of that work.

Kennedy said that the quality and speed of Irish courts’ decisions compared very favourably with similar cases in Britain, such as in the recent matter of insurance for publicans shut down by the pandemic. A pro-business climate and a specialist commercial court were key factors in making Ireland an attractive arbitration destination, he added.

Gavin Woods identified the key factors that an organisation should consider in reviewing its dispute-resolution clauses, including issues of cost, publicity and reputational issues, neutrality of venue, expertise of decision-makers, and timeframe to a conclusion.

Woods also spoke about arbitration as an alternative dispute-resolution procedure, pointing out that it is private and confidential, provides an expert decision-maker, and has flexibility on procedures, choice of law and venue.

He also explained how, if an arbitration clause was well drafted, arbitration might be the appropriate and effective choice for resolving a dispute.  

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie