A new Microsoft Survey reveals how much work has changed. And no amount of magical thinking is going to bring the concept of work back to what it was pre-pandemic.
Have you ever noticed men’s shirt buttons are on your right while women’s shirt buttons are on your left. Why? Most men usually dressed themselves in ancient times, while rich women often had servants to help them put on clothes. To make it easier for the servants to button dresses, dressmakers placed the buttons on the left. Few women have servants who dress them, yet their buttons remain on the left. Even though, for most women, it would be far easier for buttons to be on the right. But the tradition persists for no good reason.
Similarly, we still send flowers to a funeral home when someone dies. Why? Before embalming became common, flowers were needed to cover up the …ah…smell. Another tradition that exists for no present purpose.
Pre-pandemic most of us robotically trudged to the office to work. Every day without question
And pre-pandemic, we did the same with work. Jordan Furlong recently made the point that, like the buttons and funeral flowers, pre-pandemic most of us robotically trudged to the office to work. Every day without question. Says Furlong, “Way back, before the pandemic, many of us would leave our homes early in the morning and travel to our collective workspaces. Then, when we were finished doing all the work things for the day, we would leave the workspace and travel back home. We would do this because, well, because that’s the way things were always done. “
But Furlong points out (as have I, although not nearly so articulately) that that may be forever changed. And a recent Microsoft Study supports this fact. The Study, entitled Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work, outlines findings from some 31,000 people in 31 counties. It also includes the analysis of trillions of “productivity signals in Microsoft 365 and labors trends on LinkedIn.”
- Employees now view work differently: 53% prioritize health and well-being over work. The top reason for leaving a job post-pandemic was an unsatisfied need for better personal health and work-life balance. Today’s workers are demanding a positive work environment. And it’s beyond question that employees certainly want the flexibility. Most want remote work opportunities at least some of the time. Some 67-70% of youngest workers want the flexibility and opportunities to earn additional income or pursue entrepreneurial opportunities beyond their day jobs. What does all this mean for leadership? Says Microsoft, “the best leaders will create a flexibility and prioritizes employee well-being.” Law firm leaders searching for talent would do well to recognize the same. But can they?
- Managers (law firm leaders) are between a rock and a hard place. 54% of them feel their business is out of touch with employee expectations, and 74% say they don’t have the influence to make needed changes. Too many businesses still demand a total return to the office, which employees don’t want. And the opportunities are there for people to move to jobs that allow remote work. A startling statistic: in March 2020, 1 in 67 US jobs offered remote work. Now, 1 in 7 do. The implications for law firms are clear. But Practice Group leaders and lawyers who need associates often face law firm leadership that does not recognize the new reality of what workers want and demand.
- Leaders have to make going to the office worthwhile. Furlong (and I and others) have made the same point: want people in the office? Give them a reason to be there. Reimagine the role the office has in connection with how—and where— work gets done. The Microsoft Study makes clear that leadership needs to forget the one size fits all approach and focus on employee work needs. For associates, this could mean in-office formal training or mentoring, or small group team brainstorming meetings. But it probably doesn’t mean brief writing and research. But the Study points out that few businesses have created the new norms necessary to ensure time in the office is valuable and relevant. 38% of hybrid workers say the most significant challenge is knowing when to come to the office and when not to. This statistic suggests businesses and law firms need to define what is expected to be done at the office and why. And this intentionality extends to such things as space: creating spaces for hybrid meetings, for example.
- Beware the “always-on” trap. One of the great laments of remote and hybrid work is the expectation that workers will always be available as opposed to being avaialble when they are in an office during normal working hours. “Always on” leads to the stress of too many virtual meetings, meetings that don’t require physical attendance and the accompanying logistics arrangements. A startling statistic from the Study: since February 2020, the average Microsoft Teams meeting user saw a 252% increase in meeting time. A 252% increase when there were already way too many meetings that lasted way too long. We need to get a grip: just as there is a need to define what needs to be done at an office, we also need to set parameters and expectations for remote work. Fewer meetings. Shorter meetings. Meetings at more convenient times. A recognition that workers need time when they are not expected to be online and working.
- What about relationships? 59% of workers report fewer work relationships than pre-pandemic. 55% feel lonelier at work. This lack of human connection not only affects well-being but also impacts the functioning of teams. Especially when it comes to litigation and trial work, you have to know and be able to trust your teammates. You have to live with your fox hole buddies. You can’t get that level of trust without spending time with them and gaining some history and knowledge about their circumstances. It’s hard to manage if you don’t have some idea what’s going on with your team and what they may be going through. Indeed, according to the Study, those with better work relationships report higher productivity. They are far less likely to change jobs.But solving this problem is no easy task. 43% of leaders surveyed say relationship building will be the most significant challenge of hybrid work. But only 30% of leaders believe that network building will impact their business. This is a fundamental disconnect. Says this Study, “Leaders should see a return to the office as the only solve for rebuking the social capital we have lost over the past two years. They should prioritize time for relationship building to happen, knowing remote and newly onboarded employees will need extra support.”
The concept of work is not what it was before; no amount of magical thinking will make it so
Lots for leaders to chew on in this Study. The concept of work is not what it was before; no amount of magical thinking will make it so. Leaders of law firms, like business leaders in general, need to recognize that fact. Our work buttons have been moved from the left side to the right. They aren’t going back. We don’t need flowers to cover up the smell of poor work and people management policies. We need clear thinking.