Managing a multi-generational workforce's preferences around in-person work, remote work, and hybrid situations will become critical for organizations going forward
Pushback seems to be the hallmark of the times. Whatever the reason and however it manifests, law firms, tax & accounting firms, and corporate workplaces need to address the conflict among different workers’ preferences for required work in the office, remote working, and hybrid arrangements.
These preferences can be attributed to generational or gender differences, personal style or cultural preferences, individual reluctance to stray from their comfort zone, or feeling for better work/life balance.
If it was not clear before, the conditions and restriction placed upon workplaces during the global pandemic exposed the truth that the mindset of only one way — no options — is neither fair nor ultimately workable. Leaders need the ability to manage people with unique identities and from different generations and holding different performance capabilities. Then, leaders need to customize their interactions to each person’s uniqueness.
In the past, workplace norms were changed most quickly when clients demanded it, such as having women in firms on client teams and in leadership roles, or more recently, for flexible work arrangements. In general, with notable exceptions, clients have tended to be more open to flexibility on how and where professionals work and to diversity and inclusion factors, including generational preferences, than have their outside firms.
Carefully thought out approaches by practice leaders, managers, and the direct supervisors of matter and engagement teams within law and tax & accounting firms can help fuel the feeling that each individual belongs in the organization.
Working through the hybrid challenges
Not surprisingly, hybrid work adds complexity to internal relationships, especially those meant to serve and build connections with clients. Physical limitations — such as not being seen in the room and less opportunity for casual and spontaneous conversations — will decrease some professionals’ opportunities if not proactively dealt with by management. In particular, limits on physical proximity can lead to “familiarity bias” and “proximity bias,” which can lead to an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude from firm leadership when assigning work.
Those professionals working virtually also can have fewer opportunities to share their perspectives. That means that intentional effort must be made by managers to ask for their feedback during team and group meetings.
Norms around professional standards can also get murky over time, especially if there is no intentional scheduling of coaching, training, mentoring, and apprenticeship for business development. Without these career advancing practices, employee expectations and any desired upskilling can suffer because employees have fewer informal opportunities to develop relationships internally at the firm and with clients.
Actions for leaders & aspiring leaders
How leaders and managers can resolve the tendency to push employees back to pre-pandemic norms and mindsets that no longer serve personnel and firm goals is a necessary question with complex answers and a variety of related concerns over where and how work gets done. Some differences can raise strong emotions, including: the differing needs and desires among parents and non-parents; and among those workers who enjoy the camaraderie and nurturing relationships of an in-person workplace and those who don’t care about that as much.
Of course, the question of how those employees who are new to the firm, especially newly minted lawyers, can acquire the needed orienting and mentoring is vital, as is how they can make themselves and their skills known to the more seasoned lawyers. For many, it’s not a generational issue as much as it’s being driven by external motivations and the other factors.
To create better outcomes, law firms and tax & accounting firms need to increase their investment in developing managers at all levels. Daily actions of supervisors, such as using team norms for engagement, seeking multiple viewpoints during group settings, and ensuring team members are accountable all should be daily behaviors. Consistently practices, these behaviors can go a long way to establish productive connections and effective micro-cultures of collaboration and respect among their team members.
Tips for leaders and managers
There are several actions and changes in behavior that leaders and managers can undertake now to gauge the work preferences of their employees, including:
- ask questions to establish a more accurate view of preferences and needs without assuming that one size fits all;
- conduct internal research on the expectations and wants of each generational cohort and level of hierarchy through one-on-one conversations or short surveys if possible;
- encourage cross-generational discussion because the time spent will pay off in many essential ways;
- assemble a multigenerational group of leaders and high potential professionals to have candid discussions in an environment of psychological safety; and
- agree on a short list of desired leader attributes.
Importantly, law firms and tax & accounting firms need to realize that their leadership is situational and revisiting the needed leadership attributes and policies every few years (if not more frequently) is a good idea.
While the impacts of the still on-going pandemic are still being felt, adjusting to living with these changes long-term requires a mindset from all generations. Simply demanding that everyone returns to the office full time is not a workable strategy that will allow firms to retain their most desirable talent. Instead, showing an openness to changing needs is most likely to produce the kind of work environment that sustains and retains valued talent and is productive and profitable long-term.