I’m sitting down to write this on the first morning of the first weekend of level 2. After nine weeks of lockdown (I did a bonus week at the beginning), next week I will be trying to remember how to put on makeup and shoes, and heading into the office.
I know for employers this has been a challenging and stressful time, as they have made plans to try to ensure they can keep and look after their staff. I’m obviously pleased that the economy has been largely able to restart, so that those who have lost their jobs or otherwise taken a large financial hit can start having some hope for recovery. I think often of those who have struggled through this, and will continue to struggle over the coming months. I also think often of the 21 people who have died, and their families, and I’m very grateful that that number’s not higher. I feel very happy and lucky to be in NZ, and then I feel guilty for having such an insular and parochial view of the world.
I give this summary of some of my thoughts, because I need to acknowledge upfront my absolute and astonishing privilege in being able to say: I quite liked quite a bit about lockdown.
And with this in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can try to avoid rushing straight back to the old normal. And I know I’m not alone in this.
I’m struck by how many things have been forced on the legal world through this period, and how many of these are ways of practising that women have been calling for for a long time. And I want to know how we can embed some of these changes, to make the working lives of women lawyers better.
Firstly, working from home in general. I know many lawyers who would have love to have the flexibility to choose to work from home one or two days each week. But most people I know work for employers who did not allow that kind of flexibility.
Sure, no one expected that working from home would mean having to work from home every day and never being allowed to go into the office, or that you would have to do it while also entertaining or home schooling your kids, but you’ve now technically worked from home for eight weeks.
And, from the people I’ve spoken with it seems that as long as you still have work, people have been more productive than ever over this time, despite the at times extreme mental load of the pandemic. I see no reason why this wouldn’t always be the case. For those who haven’t done as much, it’s because their work has slowed because the pandemic, or because the other responsibilities in their lives, like caring for kids, parents or other people has made this untenable.
However, what we’ve been through for the last eight weeks is not normal. It’s not a true reflection on how working from home would usually be like. Without the pandemic, we can keep the enjoyment and increase in productivity that many of us have felt in working flexibly, but without the underlying stress and anxiety. We will also have the ability to be in the office when we or our employers want us to be, and without the other demands on our time at home from children or other commitments.
I know that many employers have found managing employees working from home more difficult. It’s harder to get a read on how people are doing over a Zoom call than in a face to face conversation. Some have also found it harder to delegate, and give feedback on and manage work. I think talking about these challenges is important, as it’s helpful for employees to understand the competing factors in any employer’s mind when making decisions like whether their people can work from home when they wish to.
But again, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the last eight weeks are not normal. It is not what an employee choosing to work from home a few days a fortnight will be like. You will still have the ability to have those kanohi ki te kanohi conversations, and of course, you can always require employees to be in the office when and if required.
The other factor I’ve really enjoyed about working through this period is just how human it’s allowed everyone to be. In conversations with both colleagues and clients we’ve talked about our thoughts, fears and hopes in a way that has never previously been part of my normal professional conversations. I’ve seen people’s kids, dogs, partners and other factors of their lives that they’re usually expected to keep hidden from their professional lives.
I have really enjoyed this. I feel like it’s allowed people to be more open and honest about the realities of their lives and their competing priorities. It’s helped us to acknowledge that our jobs are just one factor of our lives, and most of the time it’s not the most important thing we have on the go. It’s helped us connect in a more real, more human way – rather than pretending that lawyers are some kind of automatons with no normal emotional reactions to events.
So, where to from here? I have two central points:
- I think these two factors – working flexibly and a more human approach – have been good things.
- I would like to keep these factors in the real world, rather than rushing straight back to the old normal.
So I want to take this opportunity to have a wider conversation, and work out how AWLA might be able to assist with the profession’s culture change through this. I’m looking for your feedback and thoughts – do you agree with my two central points? Do you agree but think that these things are all very well in a lockdown, but not realistic in the real world? Or are you ready to completely ditch these factors, and get back to the old way of doing things as soon as possible?
If it’s not just me, and if there is a desire to keep some elements of lockdown life in our normal working lives, then I’m interested to talking about what we can do to help embed these changes. What challenges do employers see in implementing more working from home flexibility? What benefits to employers are there (both in their human capital, but also other economic drivers) in people working flexibly? What do people need to feel from their clients and colleagues to be able to talk more honestly about what’s going on in their lives, and have this acknowledged and accommodated? What do our colleagues and clients want from us in how we communicate and connect?
I’m asking you to be part of the conversation – to help AWLA help the profession figure some of these things out together. If we can seize this opportunity, the result will benefit everyone – happy and engaged lawyers, and happy and fulfilled people.
Laura Carter – AWLA President