Zooming in: maintaining workplace values through the pandemic

Values and culture are key factors that set one workplace apart from another. How can firms maintain their own distinctive cultures, and ensure their employees remain engaged and motivated, when their offices are lying empty and “water cooler moments” feel like the stuff of distant memory?

It is fair to say that most us have suffered with motivation at some point during the pandemic. Anecdotally, for many people the latest lockdown was the worst of all.

The reasons for this – cold, miserable weather, home-schooling, and a feeling, particularly before the announcement of the “roadmap”, that there was no end in sight – are largely beyond an employer’s control. Nonetheless, both for the promotion of employee wellbeing and the maintenance of productivity, it is incumbent on businesses to do all they can to ensure temporary dips don’t become chronic slumps.

It is also vital for staff retention. The changes to family and working life that have been enforced in response to the pandemic have led many people to reassess their priorities, and in some cases this includes their jobs.

New challenges

There are, however, firms that are taking a lead in terms of staff engagement during the pandemic, realising its importance not just for the short-term but to maintain their businesses on a sound footing in the years to come.  One such firm is Capital Law, a Cardiff and London commercial practice that employs 150 people, 98 of whom are fee-earners.

According to the firm’s human resources director, Sarah Hooper, the key to promoting and maintaining employee engagement and morale throughout the pandemic has been open, regular, two-way communication. A common theme running throughout the firm’s response has been consultation with, and involvement of, staff at all levels.

Hooper says, “Good businesses were already investing in employee wellbeing and mental health long before the pandemic. But the working from home revolution, which has proven to be a success for most office-based companies, has certainly brought new challenges.

“People have been working hard at home – maybe even too hard for it to be sustainable in the long term. The priority for many employers will therefore be to look for ways to continue to engage and motivate their workforce in the months and years to come, to avoid bore-out/burn-out, to boost productivity, and to improve employee retention.”

Keep talking

The first step in its communications response to the pandemic, Hooper continues, was to ensure the firm kept all colleagues up-to-date with the latest developments at the firm. She says, “Colleagues told us that they missed being together in their teams, and that they wanted to know what was happening with the firm.

“So, every week since the beginning of lockdown, our managing partner has posted an update on our intranet, where she openly shares firm news – positive or otherwise. That way we can show solidarity or celebrate successes – such as the recent purchase of our new London office or the recruitment of new colleagues – together, even though we’re apart.”

One of the most often-cited disadvantages of the move to enforced home-working has been its impact on team dynamics and collaboration. While communications technology helps offset this to some extent, there have also been fears that conversations now tend to focus purely on work, with colleagues no longer casually exchanging the personal small talk that builds friendships and provides social “glue”.

Many firms have attempted to address this with regular Zoom social events, at which work talk is banned. While welcome, these can obviously lack the spontaneity that comes from simply being sat in the same room as someone.

Working groups

To maintain teamwork and collaboration, Capital Law has created two new working groups. The first of these includes representatives from its HR, facilities, communications, and legal teams, as well as its in-house health and safety consultant, and is focused on preparing its offices for reopening.

The second working group, Hooper says, “is a taskforce of junior colleagues who meet weekly to discuss what it means to operate virtually, how we can maintain and strengthen ‘our way’ as we work remotely and maintain a healthy work/life balance. Their recommendations are considered and implemented by the senior operations team.”

The long-term challenge

When it comes to establishing and maintaining workplace values and organisational cultures, the biggest challenges might lie ahead. With agile working now fully – if in some cases forcibly – embedded across the legal sector, it’s not simply a case of hanging in there until everybody can return to the office.

Repeated surveys across all sectors have found that, while many people miss the camaraderie of the office, few want to return full-time, five days a week. Capital Law’s own staff survey reflects this.

Hooper says, “We gave employees the choice on how and where they want to work, and just over 50 per cent said they were happy to keep working from home entirely, for now. And the vast majority – 82 per cent – of those who want to return to the office, only want to do so for one or two days a week.”

The pandemic will hopefully one day be consigned to history. The challenges of maintaining a vibrant, engaging workplace culture while teams spend most of their time working remotely are likely to persist for much longer.

Visit: Capital Law