In a piece first published in International Law.Com (Legal Week) Totum Founding Director Deborah Gray shares her expert opinion on the recent cultural shift within the legal sector and the challenges this change has seen. 

Increased remote working has been liberating for some but a lack of face-to-face time in the office has led to an increase in mental health challenges as the boundaries between the home and office are blurred.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers and employees alike have become increasingly conscious of the value of a more supportive, inclusive, and balanced company culture. However, some sectors are struggling to sustain that focus two years after the onset of the pandemic, raising concerns over recruitment and retention.

New research from the CIPD Health and Wellbeing at work 2022 report shows that almost half of employees strongly agree that health and wellbeing activity at work encourages a more inclusive culture. However, the same report reveals that there has been a 16% drop in management focus on health and wellbeing in the workplace compared to the first year of the pandemic.

The legal sector is one that historically prides itself on rigorous work and perfectionism – values that need not be at odds with company culture that fosters inclusivity, support and work-life balance. However, with vacancies at an all-time high and 24% of working adults in the UK looking to change jobs in the next three to six months, the legal sector must be sure to not only sustain pandemic-era efforts to embed these values but to now strengthen them.

According to the CIPD, 79% of people have reported a stress-related absence over the last year, rising to 90% in larger organisations. Similarly, almost 25% of organisations now cite COVID-19 related anxiety among their top three causes of workplace stress.

However, employees whose organisations take a strategic approach to wellbeing are almost twice as likely to feel they have a healthy and inclusive culture. So, it’s clear that law firms that promote a culture that prioritises mental and physical health are best placed to reduce the impact of the much-discussed “Great Resignation”.

The importance of business service leaders in driving this positive culture is clear. Today, senior business service professionals increasingly sit on the Board of law firms and the primary responsibility to foster a healthy corporate culture usually rests with the Chief People Officer or HR Director.

As well as driving the people culture, HR leaders are often responsible for wellbeing, diversity and inclusion.  It should come as no surprise then that recent research by Totum Partners found that 73% of law firms are looking to increase business service headcounts, including HR, over the coming year.

In fact, Totum’s 2022 ‘Best Business Leader’ awards were founded to recognise business services leaders who are front and centre of their firm’s leadership agenda, shaping the company when it comes to People, Clients, Technology, Financial Management, Marketing and so much more.

Businesses across the economy have rightly been more closely examining their diversity and inclusion strategies for many years and the legal sector is no exception.

Major progress has been made across the sector, but there is still work to be done to address historical conceptions of the legal industry as one where women and minorities are not fairly represented. Positively, things are starting to change. In fact, Totum’s 2022 Diversity Report revealed that the number of our female candidates has risen to 60% and the number of Black/ Black British candidates has also risen 5% from the year before.

Today, firms that fail to recognise this imperative and embed D&I values within their organisation are facing damaging knock-on effects to company culture. What is more, research from McKinsey & Company reported that companies that are culturally and ethnically diverse are 33% more likely to see better than average profits – with clients and employees alike voting with their feet where firms fail to live up to these values.

Furthermore, it is no longer simply enough for firms to improve D&I strategies, but they must also look to address the unique pressures for minorities within the workplace, especially those who have experienced setbacks as a result of the pandemic. Totum’s 2022 Hybrid working report revealed that 30% of workers surveyed believe burnout to be a negative consequence of hybrid working, which is now a norm in many industries.

Importantly, Deloitte’s 2022 ‘Women @ Work’ report showed that women in ethnic-minority groups are more likely to  experience burnout than those who are not in a minority group. Similarly, just 27% of ethnic minority women said they feel comfortable discoing mental health challenges as the reason for absence, compared to 41% of women who are in the ethnic majority.

It’s clear therefore that wellbeing and diversity and inclusion are intimately linked. It’s therefore positive news that 73% of organisations that have employee wellbeing strategies wish to promote inclusion and diversity training.

As firms seek to navigate the post-pandemic landscape, it is impossible to ignore the absolute centricity of inclusivity to a supportive and successful company culture, with a recent survey by the CIIA noting that by harnessing D&I initiatives in the workplace, firms will see increased revenue and employee happiness, resulting in greater productivity, engagement and retention.

Remote or hybrid styles of working have become commonplace for many firms over the past two years, yet models across the industry vary.

Our ‘Great Return’ report reveals that that a strong majority would like to be working in the office between 50% and 60% of the time, with the rest from home.

Increased flexibility and home working have been liberating for so many workers across the legal industry, however, for some, a lack of face-to-face time in the office has led to an increase in cases as the boundaries between the home and office are blurred. Interestingly, the CIPD’s research demonstrates that ‘presenteeism’ (people working when ill) is now 15% higher amongst those who work from home.

So, it is perhaps to be expected that Totum’s 2022 Hybrid Working Report found that 52% of people found a disconnect with company culture to be a significantly negative consequence of hybrid working.

This finding was even more pronounced in female workers, with 35% of women feeling disconnected from company culture and 42% feeling isolated from their team, compared to just 27% and 31% of men respectively, making inclusivity a priority for hybrid working to succeed.

As law firms look to foster stronger, more supportive and inclusive company cultures in the wake of COVID it seems clear that striking the right balance for workers between flexibility in work and in-person connection in the workplace is vital.

It’s clear that senior business service leaders, who have a defining influence on company culture, now have an increased responsibility to set healthy working practices and encourage an environment in which employees feel safe and supported. Those that embed these values within company culture will be set to thrive in the post-pandemic era, with their workplaces the first choice for talent in the sector.

To read the full article visit International Law.Com (Legal Week). To discuss the information provided further then get in contact with [email protected] 

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