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Wellbeing summit 2021

05 Nov 2021 / Wellbeing Print

Post-pandemic predicaments

The challenges of the post-pandemic office, the hybrid work/life balance, and protecting employees’ mental health were the central themes at this year’s Business of Wellbeing summit. Mary Hallissey reports.

How do you create an effective office and remote-work balance that ensures that people feel involved – and have an opportunity to shine? This was the key question posed by Valerie Daunt (human capital lead at Deloitte Consulting) at this year’s Law Society Business of Wellbeing online summit on 12 October.

Daunt stressed: “It’s important to ensure that those working remotely have the same opportunities as those in the office.”

Feeling part of an organisation is a good predictor of both employee retention and long-term profitability. However, she pointed out that, during the pandemic, many workers had opted to leave not only their cities, but the country, in order to work remotely. Employers now need to consider how they can retain those people, post-pandemic – and what kind of well-rounded employee experience will contribute to their retention.

Managing remote performance for hybrid workers is another “cultural challenge”. Managers need to strive to provide a supportive, positive, flexible work environment with growth opportunities. “How do you ensure that people continue to build the capabilities they need for the future?” Daunt asked.

Employee retention and long-term profitability are all “really positive reasons” for organisations to think about the employee experience, she urged. A focus on wellbeing and putting employees at the heart of an organisation, with a shared sense of purpose, is key.

Smaller organisations have a much better chance of being able to truly understand what their individual employees need, she said, because of their proximity to their workers.

Open disclosure

The webinar heard that the open disclosure of struggles, from employees at every level, enabled open dialogue and shut down a sense of stigma about difficulties.

Attendees expressed fears that those working flexibly or remotely would be excluded from promotional rounds – even though they might be working just as hard as those attending the office every day.

Daunt spoke about the “great resignation” prompted by the pandemic, adding that lockdown had allowed people the time to think about what they really wanted to do in their lives. Individuals were thinking deeply about the organisation they were going into next, and wanted a workplace aligned with personally held values.

“There is so much choice [for employees], and organisations need to think about what they’re offering,” Daunt warned. “Millennials and Gen X-ers are particularly focused on having a great experience at work,” she said.

Advocates, mediators, and negotiators were in roles that often demanded “impossible standards” because they carried significant levels of responsibility. It was not a profession where you automatically switched off at the end of the working day, the webinar heard, and cancelled social plans tended to be a feature of the working life of a lawyer. As a result, a sense of psychological safety was crucial in avoiding burnout, attendees heard.

Law Society past-president Michael Quinlan reminded participants of the Law Society’s Professional Wellbeing Hub, urging anyone in need of assistance to start their search there.

Reopening problems

Commenting on the stresses that firms had faced during lockdown, David Williams (partner, LK Shields Solicitors) said: “It was so much easier just to close down the office than to reopen it. Reversing that is just so much more complex, however, and I think we have to do a lot of listening to people.”

“There’s no one-size-fits-all here. People have gotten used to working from home. With some people, we almost must provide a reason why they should come back into the office,” he observed.

Williams spoke about a recent conversation he had had with a junior lawyer who wanted to work remotely on a permanent basis: “We discussed whether that was actually good for that person’s career – not having the human interactions with other professional lawyers that just happen by accident if you’re sharing an office. Those conversations aren’t planned, but just happen, whereas, when working remotely, everything is planned.

“You don’t have the accidental conversations that allow so much knowledge to be imparted from the senior people to the junior people, or even just the gossip about what’s going on,” he said.

However, Williams questioned the value of a sparsely populated office: “What is the point of working there all day if you haven’t interacted with anyone?” he asked. “So, you have to make an effort to actually interact with people when you do get back into the office.”

He also wondered whether people would get back into business suits if they hadn’t been wearing them for 18 months. There were concerns, too, about retaining and attracting staff, which was not simply a matter of offering enormous salaries, disproportionate to the age of the person.

Williams warned of the danger of getting trapped in a wealthy lifestyle with no ‘Plan B’ to exit, if it wore thin. Some people wanted to disconnect now, post-pandemic, because they realised there were different lifestyle options, with resulting high attrition rates, he said.

Surveys have shown that younger, newly qualified lawyers are prioritising their work/life balance, he added.

Mental-health shift

Good mental health was one of the strongest and most-frequent reasons for leaving a job, the webinar heard. This profound shift may call into question the entire future of the billable hour. The question is, which firms are going to be brave enough to take a different approach, asked Sara Carnegie (director of legal projects at the International Bar Association).

Richard Martin (director of mental health and wellbeing at Byrne Dean) said that the return to the office would require individual conversations, because employees had gained the right to push back against unreasonable burdens.

Lockdown could be regarded as having had a positive impact from an inclusion perspective, he said, because many of the barriers to workplace participation had now been broken down: “In order to work, I don’t have to be at a particular place, during particular hours, wearing particular clothes.”

He then posed an interesting question: “If we just require everybody to come back three days a week – Monday, Wednesday, and Friday – are we just putting back those barriers?”

Some people would inevitably want to spend more time in the office, close to the partner, Martin noted. But he warned that decades of experience, from a gender perspective, had shown the reality of the proximity of power, and the damage this could cause from an inclusion perspective.

There were now wonderful opportunities for people to be able to define what “good work” looks like to them, he said.  

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Mary Hallissey
Mary Hallissey is a journalist at Gazette.ie