The Great Resignation
In “The Great Resignation”, Professor Anthony Klotz predicted large-scale worker resignations post-pandemic as employees re-assess their commitment to the “old” routine – the rigid 9 to 5 office life, expensive lunches, even more expensive travel costs, with long, time-consuming and often inconvenient commutes between home and work. He also foresaw a shifting of priorities, as people piece together their experiences of pandemic lockdown, often their first time permanently working remotely from home.
The provocation behind changing priorities
Understandably during the early lockdown days, many continued the status quo in order to service a very basic need for job security during turbulent times, whilst rediscovering new, locally-based pursuits and hobbies, working from home and having to operate in a very different and more simple way than was then “normal”.
Over time, however, with the bleed of work into home life, and the extension of working days, people struggled with setting, and maintaining, healthy boundaries, which ultimately lead to significant dissatisfaction at work thanks to punishing hours, a lack of meaningful work/ life balance, a prolonged sense of disconnection from colleagues/ teams, and an overall sense of burnout.
The Deeper Meaning of Life
As new meaning has been found in the simpler pleasures of life, some also recover from the devastating impact that the virus had upon their happiness and that of those around them, creating an unexpected shift in priorities.
In extreme cases, surrounded by mass ill health, even bereavement, and given one third of life is spent at work, people have been reminded of its fragility, and are taking the view that “life’s too short” to remain unhappy, unfulfilled or under-valued at work.
Microsoft surveyed more than 30000 of their global work force, 41% of whom stated they were considering either resigning or changing profession, whilst The Guardian reported on a Randstad UK recruiter survey that found 24% of workers actively planned to change employers within 3 to 6 months, up from the usual expected 11%.
Figures from America also support the trend, with 4.4 million resigning in September 2021, more than 34% from that same month the year before, albeit that the rates are not evenly spread across all industries.
Can the Legal Profession afford to ignore The Great Resignation?
There were relatively low increases of those wanting to leave seen in certain sectors, however, notably financial and government service, and no increase in professional and business services, so perhaps law firms can afford to ignore The Great Resignation for a while?
Experiences in North America suggest otherwise: According to the National Association for Law Placement survey of 126 law firms, whilst associate hiring decreased nearly 50% between 2019 and 2020, 2021 saw law firms having to work harder to attract and retain associate talent instead, offering increased pay packets as initial sweeteners.
Since employers also stand to lose up to £25000 per worker that they are unable to retain, and legal recruiters are seeing an increase in lawyer candidates reassessing priorities and looking for a change, surely now is the time for law firms to sit up and take heed.
Finding an attractive solution
As a leader, it is imperative for long-term organisational survival to acknowledge the problem, and tackle it head on, by finding a solution that not only sees the retention of the current workforce, but also develops a firm that attracts new talent from the surplus pool also created by The Great Resignation.
A number of vacancies have been left in the US workforce for example as a result of both the nearly 2 million women leaving at the height of the pandemic, together with many other workers suffering burnout. With employees more in demand, candidates have soaring confidence that their skills or services will be attractive to and in demand at new organisations.
People want a happy workplace too, where they are not only rewarded financially but also feel valued and heard. In fact, for many, like myself who 5 years ago transitioned from Criminal Barrister to Specialist Coach, Speaker and Author, an alignment of values and beliefs with those of the chosen business often proves far more alluring than any other compensation.
No quick fix for Culture Change
There’s no quick or easy solution that throwing money at a problem might hope to cure. Culture change runs deep and takes time. It might feel a big ask but starting small, and letting the positive benefits trickle down, will doubtless start to embed the seismic shift required to attract and retain talent.
How law firms adapt to the current challenges and deliver on the needs of current or prospective employees will doubtless define their post-pandemic success. Those embracing the so-called “New Normal”, adapting to new ways of working, will more readily enjoy the longevity of success.
So, as a Leader, how might you influence, and effect, change now?
6 Strategies to successfully Lead through the Great Resignation
1. In this brave new world, the firms likely to succeed in the post-pandemic era are those remembering, and learning from, the tricky Covid times. Just as law firms HAD to adapt to remote working to survive through the pandemic, so too their future longevity relies upon a continued embracing of, and commitment to, hybrid working.
Allowing employees to decide how best to structure their working day or week to achieve that, will cater for the plethora of different and often unique requirements: for some, like trainees, the preference may still be to be in the office daily to capitalise on those opportunities for face-to-face mentorship or the “water cooler” decompression moments. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who find working from home hugely advantageous, being able to maximise access to family time whilst maintaining high productivity through increased time efficiency.
Even acknowledging the profession is in an experimental phase and that no “one size fits all” (by avoiding the implementation of knee-jerk, non-negotiable, or inflexible policies), firms allowing employees the opportunity to access the flexible working enjoyed through harder times will doubtless become the most attractive proposition to all.
2. Lead from the top on wellbeing and a healthy work life blend. If pandemic burnout levels taught us anything, it’s that people are adjusting to the idea that work and life are, from hence forth, inextricably linked. As opposed to achieving a work-life balance, better now to aspire to a work-life blend.
It takes a good leader to walk the talk on this: be the person who shows employees that you value and promote this healthy mix in the way that you operate as a leader. Don’t promote the 24/7/365 days “always on” culture – be seen to log off/ leave at a reasonable time; schedule draft emails being mindful of the potential negative impact on the wellbeing of the recipient of out of hours work; introduce, and take, wellbeing days.
Cultivating an attractive workplace culture even where many are working remotely, re-introduces some of the cohesion that has been lost of late, and fosters a sense of belonging of which people want to be a part.
3. Encourage employee input, to engender a sense of value. Communicate openly and frequently through one-to-ones and employee engagement surveys for example. For this feedback to be truly useful though, you will need to have cultivated a culture of psychological safety, with listening and trust at its core. To learn more about how to do this, see my blog “Psychological Safety in a Virtual World: 5 strategies to lead your team to remote psychological safety in Law”.
Ask people what it is they want (both internally and externally), to build a positive culture AND attract new recruits to it. Discuss openly how the organisation can deliver on such requirements whilst maintaining profitability. And for the sake of transparency, explain what is and isn’t on offer.
4. Building on the trust point, assume your people have been hired because they are trustworthy. In the past, there were suggestions that those working from home might take the opportunity to swing the lead. Pandemic experiences tell us that, far from a drop-off in output, in fact the opposite became true, as productivity soared.
Be prepared to pay and treat employees accordingly. Review pay upwards, and trust employees to approach tasks independently without the need for micro-management. A bold but significant step closer to this would further be to move away from the culture of targets and billable hours but instead become an output-driven organisation.
5. Good people come as a package, warts and all, wearing their “humanness” on their sleeves: human beings not human resources, automatons or superheroes. We’ve seen it countless times: home-schooled children inadvertently appearing on live TV news interviews, and remote CVPs being interrupted by the occasional appearance of the odd pet or two.
Companies recognising and valuing employees, and treating them as valued human beings, rewarding them even little but often, are the organisations who will achieve the higher retention rates.
6. Foster a new approach to career progression by promoting clear career goal conversations. Empower people to get where they want, their way, so they feel heard and valued within the organisation. This has particular resonance with career break returners who, on occasion, alter pace without it in any way diminishing their sense of drive or ambition. I develop this topic in my TEDx Talk – link available here https://youtu.be/MYsuUnKt9XA
Do away with outdated notions of loyalty, where any firm-move is somehow seen as a damaging slight on the organisation to be avoided at all costs. Eradicate the psychologically unsafe culture hanging on to outdated views which promote “retention at any cost” and a pressurised sense of loyalty. Not all movement suggests an employee is unhappy but rather that there is a further opportunity for growth or development elsewhere, too good to pass up. In those circumstances, wish them well.
Culturally then, the firm will be viewed externally as a good place to be, where people feel valued as much as valuable. By recruiting from this pool of interested candidates, your current staff will feel further supported and want to stay, as they form part of an effective, rather than overloaded, team.
Any long-term impact of The Great Resignation on the legal industry comes down to whether the values and beliefs of employer and employee are aligned. To have the best chance of achieving congruency between both, firms will need to continue to embrace flexible, hybrid working – reflecting the change in talent expectation – whilst keeping trust, respect, and open communication at its core.
Whilst it may not always be straightforward, with lots of learning through new experiences still to come, it does mean the pandemic challenges faced, lessons learned, and progress made, have been absolutely worthwhile.
Nikki Alderson Biography
Nikki Alderson, specialist coach, speaker and author, and former Criminal Barrister with 19 years’ experience:
• supports organisations, law firms and barristers’ Chambers to retain female talent; and
• empowers female lawyers to achieve career ambitions.
Nikki specialises in 3 areas:
• Women leadership transition and change;
• Enhanced career break returner support; and
• Workplace resilience, mental toughness, confidence and wellness.
She is the author of Amazon No.1 Bestseller Raising the Bar: empowering female lawyers through coaching, (https://amzn.to/3fodKQX) nominee for the Inspirational Women Awards, Champion of the Year Category and finalist in the 2020 Women in Law Awards, Legal Services Innovator of the Year and 2019 International Coaching Awards, International Coach of the Year Category.