Post-pandemic, law firms and professional services firms are experimenting with more flexible work arrangements.
The move to better ways of work is desperately needed. Gallup reported that 85 percent of people globally are either disengaged or not engaged at work. These numbers are echoed by miserable workplace stress statistics. In Australia, 46 percent of people find their workplace mentally unhealthy.
These figures are nothing short of tragic when we consider that people are spending about half of their waking hours at work for almost their entire adult lives.
Both workplace stress and a lack of engagement are chiefly attributable to an excessive workload, people issues, work-life balance conflicts, and a lack of autonomy.
And conflicts grew worse during the pandemic, where remote workforces reported working longer hours than before. This is ample evidence that simply telling people to work wherever they like isn’t going to address the systemic factors causing workplace stress.
Fortunately, these driving factors can be positively influenced not by making grand pronouncements that don’t take account of the realities of the existing workplace culture, but by actively changing how work gets done.
If you’re serious about giving your lawyers and back office staff flexibility at work and fulfillment from it (and driving the bottom line as a result), then consider redesigning how work gets done in the following ways.
Much of how we communicate at work today is real-time.
We send and receive 121 business emails a day.
We send and receive hundreds of instant messages, be it via Slack or Microsoft Teams, per week.
We attend back-to-back hour-long Zoom calls and meetings, often to merely communicate information or be a fly on the wall.
This all keeps us in a cycle of hyper-responsiveness, reminiscent of Pavlov’s dog, and robs us of our ability to think and apply our best cognition to solving problems and creating value.
A move away from real-time communication to asynchronous communication, supported by task boards (such as those offered by Trello and Asana), can help allay people of jam-packed calendars, and the need to be glued to their inbox or instant messaging platforms, giving them the freedom to work.
But people need to know that it’s okay and even encouraged, not to respond to inbound communications immediately.
They need to know that it’s okay to be offline and to turn notifications off.
Note: the average person switches screens once every 20 seconds, and it takes us about 23 minutes to get back in the zone after switching. Notifications contribute to this switching culture that leaves us exhausted and unfulfilled.
Except for the most pressing and urgent of matters - which are rare if we’re honest, the world won’t end if we don’t respond immediately, but people’s working world will vastly improve.
The move to asynchronous communication should be true of both internal communication and client communication.
Rather than just having conversations before commencing an engagement with clients to ensure that your employees work per the client’s needs, we should look to align and also educate our clients to work in a way that will benefit both parties.
The reason clients ask questions is that they have little visibility of work getting done - work that they’ve paid to get done. Again, this is where shared task boards give them said visibility, without the communication overhead impacting both their and your employee days.
This will result in decreased communication overhead for your clients too who are also suffering from the same organizational toxicity.
Building upon the first point, the modern knowledge worker checks email one every 6 minutes on average, clocking up 3 hours a day in their inbox, prioritizing and confusing ‘inbox zero’ with delivering real outcomes.
In fact, as Cal Newport discovered, when IBM turned on email in the early 1980s, communication soared by a factor of 6 in just one week. We paid an immediate price for the ‘convenience’ of email.
The constant screen and context switching robs knowledge workers of their ability to get into the flow state and do their best, deep work. Why are we hiring great minds and paying them six figures if we’re going to keep them in a state of hyper-responsiveness and shallow level thinking? This ultimately leaves them “busy” all day, but often with little to show for it come the day's end other than exhaustion, and a mounting workload.
Moving away from email and towards task boards when it comes to both internal and client communications, can put significant downwards pressure on communication overhead, and give consultants more time to think, get great work done, and get on top of workloads.
The average knowledge worker spends 23 hours a week in meetings - more than half their contracted hours. Worse still, 71 percent of senior executives say that meetings are unproductive and inefficient.
In most organizations, we can simply block time in our colleague’s calendars, without giving a second thought to their priorities. Oftentimes, we book one hour by default and invite a handful of people, most of whom don’t need to be there.
Moving towards a culture where meetings are used as a last resort for communication, are shorter by default, and only feature key people is a start. Second, actively discouraging the theft of our colleague’s time, without having a very good reason for it, can help get us out of this “let’s call a meeting” culture, which is typically based on a desire to outsource accountability.
As Atlassian’s resident work futurist, Dominic Price, said, when he started saying “no” to all sorts of internal requests on his time, only one-third of the meeting requests came back, saving him 15 hours a week for more important work.
This brings me to…
As organizations grow, we embed policies and systems to help them deliver on a repeatable and scalable business model and to safeguard the business against harm. But often this comes at the expense of employee autonomy and adaptability.
We should strive for an optimal level of processes and systems that empower employees without compromising the business. This is possible when you hire great people who are aligned with the values and mission of the organization, removing the need to ask telling questions like “how do you build trust with remote employees?”
As Jeff Bezos wrote in his 1997 Amazon shareholder letter, we need to delineate between Type 1 decisions (big, hairy, audacious, expensive, irreversible) and Type 2 (inexpensive, reversible, learning utility), and empower our people to make and act on Type 2 decisions.
Most decisions are Type 2 decisions but we treat most decisions as if they’re Type 1 decisions, and resign ourselves to countless meetings and emails, depriving our organizations of speed, and our people of autonomy and fulfillment.
Delineate between the two, and empower people to make and act on Type 2 decisions in word, example, and policy.
I’ve got countless friends at big four firms who routinely tell me that they spent several hours on a Saturday completing expense reports. And these friends are senior managers on several hundred thousand dollars a year. What?
We can further allay people of work-life balance conflicts and excessive workloads by liberating them of step-by-step procedural work which can increasingly be automated or outsourced for a tiny fraction of what we’re paying consultants to do themselves. This frees them up for higher-value work more in line with what we’re paying them for.
There’s more that can be done, but these five interrelated steps will go a very long way to giving people the ability to do great work and create great outcomes for the firm from wherever they want, and whenever they want.
I appreciate that this is all easier said than done, and this is why I’ll close by calling on managers and senior managers - who have more ability to shift the culture and systems from the bottom up, to take ownership over truly create a flexible and fulfilling workplace, one that leaves people with not only more time, but with lots more energy and enthusiasm to enjoy life away from their desks.
As palliative care nurse and author of The Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware, put it, one of the most common regrets people on their deathbed have is wishing they didn’t work so hard.
It really is high time we truly moved away from valuing hard work alone, towards celebrating smart work.
Steve Glaveski is a Harvard Business Review contributor on all things productivity, effectiveness and high-performance at work. He is the author of Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life (Wiley, 2020), a SXSW21 speaker, and just so happens to be co-founder of Collective Campus.