The Importance of Communication in the New Normal
People have naively assumed that after the traumas of the pandemic we would return to normal, meaning life as we knew it in 2019.
But we won’t. After a year of working remotely, employees have tasted the freedom of flexibility and many won’t want to give it up. In addition, facing death for a year has caused people to reckon with big questions related to the meaning of life and work, their work-life balance and a concern for big-issue, societal imbalances. “The new normal will be different. It will have to accommodate not only what companies need from employees but also what employees want from their employer.“
The choice of where to work is often simplified down to the choice of staying remote, requiring everyone to return to the office or a hybrid combination of in-office and remote work. But that basic choice encompasses a broad range of strategically important decisions such as:
- the purpose, size and design of new normal offices;
- synchronization of work done in the office and work done remotely;
- retention of talent and recruiting for a diverse workforce;
- employee demands for transparency and open communication; and
- the relationship between technology, automation and current occupations and business processes.
We will focus on the need for new forms of communication in hybrid offices and suggestions for how to create a new-normal communication culture that acknowledges and reinforces the benefits attached to our human need for connection.
For law firms, like other service businesses, there is no one-size-fits-all. Many solo and small firms gave up offices and moved everything into their home offices. Many larger firms want everyone to come back to the office, while other firms are opting for a hybrid approach. The hybrid approach sounds like a solution that gives everyone something they want. But creating an effective hybrid structure raises many strategic questions:
- What is the purpose of the office?
- How will teams working on the same matter or for the same client be staffed?
- How will scheduling requirements be addressed?
- What kind of communication channels do we need to support our culture?
- How will we encourage creativity and innovation?
- What is your plan for this transition?
In an article at Reworked, Dan Hawley notes:
“It’s going to take time for organizations, teams and individuals to find the balance that is right for them. We’re going to need grown-up conversations which acknowledge the advantages and disadvantages to working both in offices and at home. We need approaches and choices at the center of each decision and recognize that what works for one person, team or even organization might not work for another.“
The New Balance
Answers to the questions above require firms to rethink their communication strategies in order to balance the needs of in-office and remote workers. “Continued communication is key as are transparency and finding safe ways for people to become reacquainted with interpersonal routines.”
Leaders have a major role to play in creating a communication plan that is seen as authentic. Employees want empathy. Leaders need to practice emotional intelligence and prioritize real listening with a sense of curiosity, compassion and purpose.
To reinforce and support the new normal, change leaders need to be “[a]ttentive, focused, mindful and in the moment in a way that communicates value and respect to others and offers the broadest access to the messages being shared and the opportunities they present.”
Leaders should embody the transparency their employees want by communicating the how and why behind their key decisions about new rules and changes to firm operations. They can help teams remember how to build broad collaborative relationships across the organization. As leaders listen, they will hear opportunities to be proactive – to develop ideas and create synergies between people in different parts of the firm.
For example, consider three basic office norms people are unsure about as they return to the office:
- How can we greet each other? Ask employees what they are comfortable doing and then create a policy so everyone will know what is acceptable.
- What is the dress code? Ask employees what feels right to them and incorporate their input into a policy. Include your rules for mask wearing.
- How will we incorporate the spontaneity we missed during WFH in 2020? Consider adding 10 minutes of agenda-free time before or after meetings which people can use for casual conversations. Offer online and in-office opportunities for fun activities.
Reconfigure office spaces, replacing large conference rooms with nooks and crannies for quiet one-on-one conversations. Move the coffee room to a central location to encourage spontaneous gatherings. Rearrange employee’s offices so that teams sit together, because research shows that proximity increases collegiality.
At the same time, encourage cross-fertilization to help teams avoid getting mired down in group think. This also helps individuals expand their knowledge base and provides opportunities for them to show that they can work well with others, which is often a precondition for promotion.
Communication Solutions for Remote Workers
Various studies agree that over half the workforce, especially younger workers, want to continue to work remotely because they view it as key to their work-life balance. This is especially true in hybrid companies where workers can choose their schedules. Yet this choice may not be a good career choice. “Research shows that home workers – however productive – suffer from a lack of facetime with colleagues and managers, which negatively impacts promotions, and ultimately may stall careers.”
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” as the old saying goes. On the first page of The Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2021, an article on blockages impeding career advancement for remote workers came to the same conclusion: “Many bosses said they want people in the office because they worry about losing the creativity and spontaneous collaboration that comes with physical proximity. Some also fear a too-remote workforce won’t be able to put in the face time with clients to win business and be competitive.” And some old-fashioned bosses still measure productivity by desk time rather than results.
Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index  found that the 2020 shift to remote work shrunk people’s networks within their organizations to a small group of close connections. They conclude:
“Ensuring tomorrow’s workplaces are engaging, innovative, creative and inclusive will depend on creating structures and policies that support social connections at work. The organizations for the future, the ones people will be most excited to work for will be those that foster supportive social ties for those in the room, and also those who are not.”
The result of this exclusion is company silos, a problem that many full-service law firms run into. The antidote is to plan activities that encourage diversity of relationships. Here are some suggestions:
- Expose teams to different perspectives by bringing in a speaker or holding joint meetings with other teams.
- Encourage employees to reach across the organization to people they would like to get to know. Create a reward system to showcase employees who spend the time “to build on and support the work of others.”
- Create workday space and time for employees to build their social capital by decreasing workloads, eliminating unnecessary meetings, and balancing resources “so people have time and energy to make workplace relationships a priority.”
The remote work inequity dilemma has led to a variety of solutions. One of the most pragmatic addresses the question of scheduling. The suggestion is to keep all members of a team, including executives, on the same schedule so that they are all in or out of the office on the same days.
Other suggestions center on communication issues:
- If remote workers are isolated in team meetings it can often be the leader’s fault. To level the playing field is to literally share the screen to include remote workers at the table. Call on remote workers first. Make sure conversations are seamlessly integrated. Add back the social chit chat that is often eliminated from virtual meetings and, in combined meetings, be sure to provide opportunities for the remote workers to chime in. Leaders can also remind participants of the remote workers’ contributions by referencing it in their comments.
- Special attention should be paid to new employees and younger workers. Companies need robust onboarding and training programs. They should be assigned mentors who can help them understand the informal culture and guide their networking initiatives.
- Remote workers also have to help themselves. They should make sure to let their bosses know the effort that went into their finished work product. They should ask for regular face time with their bosses and pursue the opportunity to introduce subjects other than their current assignments. They need to take advantage of the chit-chat opportunities being created to jump start relationships similar to those around the water cooler.
In order for the new workplace order to succeed, executives need to emphasize restoring the employee interactions lost during the pandemic lockdowns and WFH. “Organizations should understand that being nice to each other, chatting, and goofing around together is part of the work that we do. The spontaneous, informal interactions . . . foster the employee connections that feed productivity and innovation.”
Carol Schiro Greenwald, Ph.D. is a marketing and management strategist, coach and trainer. She works with professionals and professional service firms to structure and implement targeted, practical growth plans. Her book, Strategic Networking for Introverts, Extroverts and Everyone in Between (American Bar Association, Law Practice Division, 2019) explains how to create and implement an effective strategic networking plan.
. Kevin Sneader and Shubham Singhai, The Next Normal Arrives: Trends That Will Define 2021– and Beyond, McKinsey & Company, January 2021.
. Dan Hawley, It’s Time for an Adult Conversation About the Hybrid Workplace, Reworked, April 12, 2021, https://www.reworked.co/digital-workplace/its-time-for-an-adult-conversation-about-the-hybrid-workplace.
. Julie Winkle Giulioni, Returning To Work: How Listening Can Help, SmartBrief, April 8, 2021, https://www.smartbrief.com/original/2021/04/returning-work-how-listening-can-help.
. These three questions and answers are from: Esther Choy, Avoid Post-Lockdown Business Communication Blunders, Leadership Story Lab, May 7, 2021, https://www.leadershipstorylab.com/post-lockdown-business-communication-blunders.
. Kate Morgan, Why In-Person Workers May Be More Likely To Get Promoted, BBC, March 7, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210305- why-in-person-workers-may-be-more-likely-to-get-promoted.
. Nancy Baym, Jonathan Larson, and Ronnie Martin, What a Year of WFH Has Done to Our Relationships at Work, Harvard Business Review. March 22, 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/03/what-a-year-of-wfh-has-done-to-our-relationships-at-work.
. Kate Morgan, supra note 6.
. These ideas are discussed in Baym, et al., supra note 7.