LawyerBrain's Dr. Larry Richard talks about what legal employers need to do to encourage employee engagement after the pandemic
During an interview with Thomson Reuters Institute, Dr. Richard offers several key recommendations around how legal industry employers can step up their investments in employee engagement in a hybrid working environment after the pandemic subsides.
Before getting to the action steps, however, it is important to understand that the pandemic has disrupted three very fundamental human needs, he explains.
First, we all have a need for predictability and continuity. The human brain is designed to prioritize our survival, and to do this, it employs threat-sensing circuitry which operates in the background. What triggers this circuitry, and alerts us to a possible threat, is uncertainty. And there are three kinds of changes that send our brain into its highest level of alert: If the change is i) sudden and unexpected; ii) outside our control; and iii) threatens serious harm or death.
The pandemic has ticked all three boxes. Moreover, the uncertainty is open-ended, with no clear point of closure in sight, forcing us to maintain a high state of vigilance over a prolonged period of time. This is psychologically exhausting for many people.
The second need humans have is for autonomy and discretion, or “the feeling that we are the agents of our own experience,” says Dr. Richard. From a work perspective, when employees have greater autonomy, it means their happiness and engagement with work will increase. However, the pandemic has constrained our autonomy with requirements to wear a mask and maintain social distance, and it also has severely reduced the number of interactions we can have with family and friends. For lawyers, who need a higher level of autonomy than the average person, this stress is intensified when operating under such constraints.
The third need is one of belonging, to be part of a group, and to feel connected to people in groups. The micro-situations of “working in the office where you make eye contact with people in the hallway or drop into someone’s work space to say hello have been identified by scientists as very, very important contributors to overall well-being, to a robust immune system, to working and personal satisfaction, and to engagement,” Dr. Richard states. With remote work, however, we no longer have those interactions with our colleagues and thus, are working at a disadvantage. Lawyers tend to minimize the importance of social connection and underestimate the importance of restoring this disrupted need.
How the pandemic diminishes lawyers’ cognitive function
During the pandemic, there is an “open-ended, ongoing disorder with no end, and as a result, our brains are working overtime to assess potential threats, their source, whether they can harm us, and what protective responses we may need to muster,” says Dr. Richard, adding that this requires a good amount of background cognitive analysis, so our threat-sensing circuit “borrows” brainpower that we’re usually devoting to the practice of law, which can cause a significant drain on our cognitive resources.
“As a consequence, many lawyers are feeling exhausted, distracted, and without the ability to fully concentrate on their work,” he says.
More confounding is that whatever the new normal will be, post-pandemic, it very likely will still contain a number of unknowns and increased uncertainty because of a hybrid working environments. “There are so many possible configurations, and we don’t really know how it’s going to work out for us, for our colleagues, and who’s available when,” Dr. Richard elaborates. These multilayered, added elements of ambiguity on top of a business environment that is changing more quickly and in unexpected ways can further tax an individual’s mental faculties and can thereby increase stress and diminish employee engagement. Employers have good reason to be concerned.
According to Dr. Richard, research shows that what produces engagement at work among employees is activating four intrinsic values: i) autonomy and discretion; ii) meaning and purpose; iii) social connection and belonging; and iv) mastery and competence. All of these have been strained during the pandemic.
The implication for legal employers is that they need to make a monumental shift in their focus toward these intrinsic values to best maintain employee engagement after the pandemic crisis ends.
Taking action to increase engagement
Dr. Richard indicates that a sense of safety and calm can be restored “to fool the brain” during times of uncertainty by directing people’s attention to aspects of work that are predictable — even if employees are working remotely. More specifically, he recommends that:
- Professional teams should provide clear expectations around career development — This would clearly demonstrate to early-career and mid-level attorneys the options they have to develop their career and inspire mastery and competence.
- Supervisors should give feedback more often to junior lawyers — Understanding where lawyers can improve at any stage of their careers gives them a sense of agency, autonomy, and improved mastery in their career progression.
- Partners need to understand the attitudinal impacts of their interactions with less senior attorneys — When a supervisor conveys positive feedback and support when interacting with lawyers, it improves engagement because of the impact on autonomy and social connection. “I have your back” can be one of the most powerful bits of feedback an employee can hear.
All of these recommendations can go a long way toward increasing attorneys’ sense of engagement with their employers, even in a time of enormous health and economic uncertainty.
Employee engagement increases when managers or supervising partners take genuine interest in their employees’ autonomy, communicate how the work contributes to the organization and the client, explain how employees can grow their skills, and give team members a sense of belonging, no matter whether employees are working from home, in the office, or somewhere in-between.