Breaking the deadlock: Designing a hybrid plan for the whole firm

Logan Bala Vijendran
,
Head of CX
,
Performance Leader

How firms can leverage wildly different expectations to grow and retain partners and employees in a competitive talent market

We live in a digital world. The choice is not if you use technology, but deciding when do you use it, how much of it do you use and most crucially, for what purpose.

We are the same inflection point with hybrid and flexible work. Flexible work is not new, but has really taken hold over the pandemic. Some who were initially forced to work from home, realised it actually suited them better, and didn't hurt the business (and in some cases, actually helped).

As we "return to normal", there is an understandable urge to recapture experiences that we've lost - but much like the return to a childhood favourite, the memory is often better than reality.

Webinar slide positive workplace and healthy culture
What are other firms doing in this space? What's working?

What does the data say

The data is clear. To retain, attract and grow talent, firms need a performance management and employee engagement strategy that works in a hybrid context. It has to be meaningful to employees - present and prospective, but also make good business sense.

The evidence is clear, but it won't work

What's holding firms back? Here are some of the reasons we hear most often.

1. Employees - especially junior employees - are burning out working at home.

Fifty-four per cent of survey respondents reported that they were ‘somewhat likely’ or ‘highly likely’ to move to a new workplace, 33 per cent wanted to switch to a different area of the legal profession and 20 per cent were thinking about leaving the profession entirely. International Bar Association (IBA) Young Lawyers Report, January 2022

Last year the International Bar Association (IBA) conducted an international survey of 3000 young lawyers (defined as 40 or under) to understand their concerns and career trajectories. The results, generally speaking were not encouraging - lawyers feel more overworked than ever before, and less positive about their future.

One narrative is that working in isolation is fuelling the burnout, and the return to office will help. While there is evidence that people work more flexibly at home, and some struggle to create boundaries, largely when speaking with workers most want more - not less flexibility to combat burnout.

That same IBA survey states that

  • A lack of work-life balance is a concern for more than 60 per cent of young lawyers. This concern was the greatest for lawyers in the age bracket of 25 and under, at 71 per cent
  • That flexible working is key to the long-term continuity of the profession for 54 per cent

Burnout and overwork was a serious issue pre-covid. As our hybrid and remote attitudes mature, there's an opportunity for firms to create productive and healthy workplace cultures built on flexible work policies.

2. Junior employees need regular feedback - it's just not possible in a hybrid or remote workplace

On the job training is key in a professional services firm. It's how a junior employee learns to apply theory into practice and understand the nuance of different services, sectors and specialisations.

Even before COVID the feedback from junior employees was they wanted more feedback. The difference then was, given everyone was in the office at the same time, there was a higher chance that you'd learn through osmosis and proximity to partners and peers.

In a hybrid workplace managers have to be more intentional and visible when providing feedback. This is challenging because it's not how they were trained. But done well, this skill can create visibility around how new employees are developing.

3. We are most collaborative and creative when in the office - and that's an important part of our work

There is some evidence that in person brainstorming is better for creativity. Research published in Nature recently of randomised controlled and field trials shows that in person teams produced more numerous and higher quality ideas when brainstorming. They postulate that this could be because in online modalities it's difficult to know when to interrupt each other, and this discourages fluid conversation. (The same research also found that decision oriented tasks performed better online).

This is not to say you can't be creative online - there are creative industries and teams that span timezones, who do fantastic work using remote tools. Creativity can also thrive in an asynchronous or structured synchronous format (for example, structuring brainstorming sessions into individual idea generation before group idea generation - find more great brainstorming ideas here ).

The question is what are the jobs or tasks that require creativity, and who needs to be part of that conversation? And further, which parts of that conversation needs to happen in person in the office? Can we provide background information via email, explain the context on video, do some early brainstorming on Miro, then gather to finalise?

This is a reason for intentional and purposeful hybrid design.

What jobs require people to be present, together, in the office?
A great exercise to do with your teams - write activities (e.g. team meeting, weekly stand-up, client debrief) on post-its and place it on this matrix

4. It's difficult to assess performance when people in not in the office

The fact is that it's difficult to assess performance, period. Most firms don't invest in clear, transparent and equitable performance management plans and processes. In absence of these, they rely on observations - which are unreliable and a breeding ground for bias (proximity bias, horns and halos).

Hybrid isn't perfect - in some senses it could exacerbate proximity bias. Those who can come in 5 days a week (who live closer to the office, who don't have to care for dependents at home, who can drive in to work) benefit from being closer to the boss.

A good hybrid plan needs clear approaches to

  1. Ensuring equity of opportunity and participation at the office. Leaders need to lead by example - work from home if that's what you want to encourage employees to do
  2. Defining and evaluating performance. Have a clear and agreed performance framework, structured performance review processes and a strong feedback culture.
  3. Audit and correct for bias. Use analytics from your performance review platform to analyse for bias - are employees of some demographic (age, gender, ethnic background) receiving lower or different feedback and reviews?

5. You can't give constructive feedback remotely

It's difficult to give constructive or negative feedback online, and there's good reasons for that. It's harder to be empathetic online and subtle nuances can be lost. Digital platforms can also feel less personal - negative messages delivered through the phone or Teams can feel insincere or less heartfelt.

That said, it's difficult to give negative feedback even in person. Giving feedback, good or bad, is an important skill that needs to be cultivated - with strong leadership support and buy-in.

A hybrid plan is an opportunity relaunch and reinvigorate your firm culture, in particular, feedback culture. Rebuilding your feedback culture requires

  1. emphasis by leadership on the importance of feedback
  2. tools and processes to encourage clear and regular feedback (e.g. feedback forms, incentive, scheduled check-ins, #FeedbackFridays)
  3. training and guidance on what good feedback looks, sounds and feels like

Done well, employees actually want negative feedback (according to this HBR article 57% of people prefer constructive feedback to recognition). If you have a strong and consistent feedback culture, constructive feedback happens in a context of consistent feedback conversations.

6. Our culture is based in the office

Firms have invested in creating a sense of place and space. From where the office is located, the art that hangs on the wall, to the type of furniture in the all the spaces - the organisation is making a statement about how they want to be perceived and understood. It also sends a message to others - clients and new employees - about their priorities and values.

Hybrid doesn't remove the role of space, in fact it elevates it. When you visit the office 2 or 3 days a week, the energy and impact is more intense. As this HBR article puts it, In the Hybrid Era, On-Sites Are the New Off-Sites.

Digital is also a space. Culture exists in the language, the conversations and interactions which happen online - in Teams, Slack, Miro, Mural, Zoom. It's far easier and more natural for employees who are interested in a narrow but meaningful niche (sustainable farming, video games, gluten free home baking) who can find others to connect with and belong to at work.

And of course, if a core part of your firm culture is inclusion, belonging and flexibility, then nothing highlights that better than a clear and inclusive hybrid plan.

Chart from McKinsey's American Opportunity Survey
Flexible work is the top 3 motivator to finding a new job - McKinsey's 2022 American Opportunity Survey

In McKinsey's most recent American Opportunity Survey, of almost 12,000 people surveyed flexible work came through as the 3rd top reason to choose a new role, after more pay and better career opportunities. Alignment with culture was right at the bottom.

7. You lose the serendipity and impromptu conversations

It's easier in the office to pull someone into a meeting at the last minute, to ask a quick question, or ask someone to do something. In a hybrid setting you have to be more intentional - meetings (in person or online) need a clear purpose, and if you need to speak to someone, you need to find them and send them a message.

It's easy to forget that offices are not perfect - data shows that open plan offices don't actually help collaboration, and in some senses can be pretty awful. Relying on impromptu conversations also means selecting people you see, are closest to, are the loudest, are most visible - these might not be best people, and more of than not, will not be the most diverse people.

A good hybrid plan balances the deep work and collaborative work, and ensure that employees are together the engagement is at peak.

Join the webinar, Break the Deadlock

Webinar square, Feedback culture matters.
Come and ask your questions

In our conversations with HR leaders and managing partners at professional services firms, it's clear they understand the risk and opportunity of hybrid work, especially in this hyper-competitive talent market. The tricky bit is knowing where to start.

In this webinar, we’ll

  • understand the surge behind hybrid or flexible work. Is it a phase, or will there be lasting impact?
  • what are principles we can use to design approaches that work for you? What pitfalls should you avoid?
  • what other professionals firms are doing that is working for them? How can you implement these at your firm?

Webinar details

  • 13th October (Thursday), 12 - 12:45pm AEST
  • Free to attend. Registration via Zoom
  • A collaboration between Performance Leader, WTW and SW

Panel

  • Logan Balavijendran, Head of CX, Performance Leader
  • Lesley Brown, Senior Director Employee Experience, WTW
  • David Meagher, Head of People and Culture (SW), Consultant at DPM Consulting

Upon registration you will receive email confirmation with the webinar details. You'll also receive a reminder a week and day before the webinar.

See our partner and employee software in action

Watch a 3-minute demoBook a demo

Please include your international code e.g. +1

Thank you!

Your demo request has been received!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.