Richard Brent, editor-in-chief|Briefing

In our second Briefing Tiger Team session in July (firm-wide challenges), the focus of the conversation shifted from how firms managed their moves to essential remote working to some of the people engagement and development challenges this change raises. Two of our Tigers planned to take part were unable to join us for the event, run in partnership with Pinnacle, but I was keen to capture a few of the important points they raised.

First up, there was the matter of making sure that trusted and positive connections between colleagues don’t dwindle or stagnate in the circumstances we find ourselves in. Katie DeBord, global chief innovation officer at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, highlighted the need to very proactively guard against slipping into a less empathetic way of communicating with people. She has purposefully made some of her team conversations more about behaviours than objectives; designed to help people to catch problematic habits that might form such as over-multi-tasking on projects. She also recommended setting specific time for informal conversations with people that don’t have a particular agenda – something that would likely have happened organically back in the office.

And although technology can support some more creative engagement options through functionality such as polling, there’s also a risk/balance that needs managing to ensure you aren’t hindering rather than helping the personal connection when virtual working.

Sarah Ball, director of group and business legal services operations at Irwin Mitchell, added to consider that some will find it harder than others when they can’t feed off the same physical reactions in conversations through a screen that they would see in person. And inevitably that will be harder still the less accustomed people are to frequent homeworking.

A good challenge to have, however, has been greater rather than lower engagement in internal business across her firm. During virtual events, more people have been speaking up and asking questions than in the past, and the firm has needed to ensure it follows up contributions in the way it said it would.

She points out that leaders also need to be aware that people could be working quite strikingly different daily and weekly patterns to get everything they need to done; and so need to factor that into how managers schedule activities, encourage collaboration, and watch workloads.

Fortunately, as the above observation might indicate, trying things differently is something that’s on the up! DeBord says that might not necessarily be the most extreme end – innovation as radical experimentation – but lawyers are more alert than ever to how they might need to harness capabilities like analytics and managed services to provide new options that will help to take some pressure off their clients. The innovation team is busier than ever supporting that – so of course, the subjects discussed around development, productivity and work patterns are very much on her plate.

Ball says that, if nothing else, recent months have helped many people to have the confidence that they can try something new in short order and make a success of it. The ‘people problem’ isn’t necessarily the inevitable blocker of productive change it has often been described as in the past.

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