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Working from home in the legal sector

Interview with Alastair Gillespie: The challenges in supporting new colleagues working from home in the legal sector.

Working from home has made it far more difficult for new members of staff in the legal profession to be trained, supervised, managed, supported and become part of the team, a leading child abuse defendant solicitor has warned.

Alastair Gillespie, Head of Abuse at Horwich Farrelly, joined the organisation from Keoghs in April 2021, and therefore has first-hand experience of joining a team where his colleagues are all working from home.

However, he also has experience of managing a team at Keoghs whereby it was his responsibility to manage, supervise and train staff. He never met one of his team members recruited during lockdown having only having had contact with her on Zoom/Microsoft Teams.

Both firms are acutely conscious of the impact of COVID on people’s mental health and have support in place for staff.

“I made a commitment to regularly contacting the team when we moved to working from home at Keoghs to see how they were coping – there was a much greater emphasis on that. It wasn’t as easy to do supervision remotely and what was lost was the training element because the team weren’t in one room. There was no learning by osmosis, overhearing conversations, being able to ask off the cuff questions and receive feedback,” said Alastair.

“It was much harder when you can’t see the person. I talked to them over Zoom but that accentuated the problems, the inability to train properly, the full experience of seeing what people do, what makes them tick. Part of a good team ethic is knowing people as characters, talking together. It is much more difficult to bed people in, train them, talk them through how to use the systems even and to feel part of the organisation when you are working remotely,” he added.

Struggle

Alastair was working at Keoghs as Head of Abuse when the country went into lockdown in March 2020. The organisation was already paperless and the team were working either two or three days in the office and the rest at home. However, in lockdown, everyone started working at home remotely five days a week.

“We were a sociable team and so at first we made a concerted effort to keep in touch with regular Zoom meets and team competitions to keep each other supported. But as time went on, this became more difficult. Things like that have a shelf life and it became difficult coming up with new ideas,” explained Alastair.

“After a time, some people started to struggle. There were staff members working in their kitchens or bedrooms which is not good. There was a feeling of isolation – especially for those living on their own where work had become a part of their social life. Others experienced difficulties compartmentalising things and splitting work, rest and play – especially when the play options were so drastically reduced. Inevitably people were getting claustrophobic and ‘like sardines in a crushed tin box’, were struggling to keep it together,” he added.

Alastair’s own experiences and observations have been evidenced by conversations he’s had with colleagues in other law firms. For some people, the flexibility often afforded by working from home meant families with school age children could work around the school run. Yet they were dealt a challenging time when home schooling was introduced meaning they were trying to work full time in a new way as well as educate their children which they weren’t trained to do.

“Horwich Farrelly have reflected this in their working policies and state that so long as core hours are covered, staff can work whatever hours suit them best between 6am and 9pm,” said Alastair.

Being paperless made it less painful

While some law firms made amendments to their working hours in between the lockdowns and after the most recent one, the working from home practice remained at Keoghs until January 2021 when Alastair left the firm.

“It is possible to do the work from home and because we were already paperless it made it much less painful. In fact, across the legal sector, it accelerated the move to becoming paperless which is a tick for the environment. But it was more difficult to manage, supervise and train people,” said Alastair.

“Someone once told me that 93% of communication is non-verbal. I don’t know if it is an urban myth but it shows that communication is much more difficult when you are not in the same room. You can’t pick up body language or eye contact in the same way,” he added.

Having moved to Horwich Farrelly in April 2021, Alastair has been working predominantly from home since he started, saying there has to be a “sound, logical necessity” for people to go into the office. He doesn’t have a team at this point but he concedes it has been more difficult to feel like part of the organisation without a physical presence in a team. In fact he will be attending a strategy day in the next week which will be the first opportunity he has had so far to meet several senior people at Horwich Farrelly.

“It’s no different to the vast majority of other people as it is the nature of the way the legal sector has gone – you save so much money by working remotely, so there has to be a good reason to incur travel costs,” he added.

While his own experience has been challenging at times, Alastair feels for new people coming into law firms. “Unless they have a job which requires them to be in the office they will find it more difficult to acclimatise to a team and colleagues, to learn, train, be supervised, supported and managed. For the rest of the team, it also takes them much longer to get to know their new colleague, the process is much more drawn out and difficult for all concerned,” he added.

Isolation

On the whole for the legal sector, Alastair states that not having the commute into the office makes working from home more appealing and that time can be utilised more productively. Where firms like Horwich Farrelly have introduced flexibility to working practices, it can also be beneficial especially for families with school age children to work hours around the school run or after school clubs or for families with other commitments such as caring duties.

“However, it is difficult for people to get the work/life balance right, it can be difficult to stay motivated and with distractions at home people can get behind on their work which can result in stress and anxiety and staff don’t have the same support mechanisms they would have in the office,” said Alastair. “It is difficult for supervision, training and management of people generally. Then there are feelings of isolation for others, especially those living alone.”

“We need to strike a balance to address as many of these negatives as possible. Everyone’s requests, routines, characters and vulnerabilities are different. We need to operate in a system to accommodate, support and look after these individuals and ensure you can train, manage and supervise them effectively in order for them to develop and to understand their needs in order provide them with tasks they need to focus on, whether that is negotiations, phone calls, interaction with clients or witnesses and without being in the same room as them, you don’t get to experience any of that,” said Alastair.

“We need flexibility in working practices and technology that enables you to accommodate this,” concluded Alastair.

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