Blend and flex collaboration

Phil Muller, director of legal services, EMEA, Williams Lea|Briefing April 22

If the office is the glue that holds a firm’s culture together through collaboration, what does the hybrid working model mean for that essential connector? During the pandemic, we successfully pivoted to virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom and MS Teams because it was either that, endless phone calls, or halting business activity all together. While they were adequate substitutes for a while, they didn’t come close to replicating face-to-face interactions. Now, as offices reopen and in-person collaboration returns, how can we optimise collaboration for a workforce that demands flexibility? We can, if we understand it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Law firm leaders need to allow for greater operational flexibility – whether that’s from a resource, budget or real estate perspective – so people can collaborate in different ways, depending on their roles. For relationship-driven roles, in-person collaboration is best to re-invigorate focus and energy, and maintain culture. In my experience, face-to-face meetings with clients and colleagues create more opportunities and ideas than virtual meetings – in-person collaboration tends to have fewer digital distractions. No emails, texts or instant messages popping up on screen. Physical distractions that would seem rude in an in-person meeting (for example, turning your camera off to multitask) are somehow acceptable in a virtual one.

Excitement and passion are often subdued in virtual environments, with many participants remaining on mute, making it harder to create positive engagement and, more importantly, build relationships.

In-person collaboration tends to have fewer digital distractions. No emails, texts or instant messages popping up on screen. Physical distractions that would seem rude in an in-person meeting (for example, turning your camera off to multitask) are somehow acceptable in a virtual one

In the law firm support services environment, collaboration remains crucial. However, success in those roles is largely based on skillsets gained from working closely with like-minded colleagues. Secretaries need to collaborate with fellow secretaries, document processors need to collaborate with fellow document processors, and so on. Two years ago, it was unheard of that a PA or secretary would work anywhere but just outside a partner’s office. The pandemic changed that, with many successfully working in fully remote or hybrid roles. Staff are now even leaving their firms to embrace greater flexibility elsewhere. This is why team arrangements and office space need to be managed carefully by operational leaders to establish a custom balance of face-to-face and virtual interactions.

One way to do that is to create a dedicated, centralised support operation, where support teams can work a blended model of on-site and remote. This way, staff can collaborate in-person, retaining their sense of belonging and embedding themselves into the firm’s culture, all while avoiding the challenges of permanent remote working and the potential attrition pitfalls of a forced, full-time return to the office.

This approach can work for specialised support functions such as document processing, marketing, secretarial and other administrative roles, and it also frees up valuable in-office space for firms to use as collaboration space for fee earners and clients. The most successful firms will be those that find ways to improve collaboration across different working environments, while continuing to work in a way has a lasting, positive impact on their culture.

For further information, visit: www.williamslea.com

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Phil Muller, director of legal services, EMEA, Williams Lea
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