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Five things leaders need to do as people return to the office

Slowly, ever so slowly, lawyers and staff are making their way back to the office.  While we all look forward to returning to normal, the normal we left in early 2020 remains elusive.  Many of those who are returning, at least part-time in the office, are experiencing empty hallways, masked co-workers, and a massive volume of work. 

For those who are leading teams (such as executive committees, practice and industry groups, client teams, administrative departments, and firm committees), the  struggle is more complex.  Over the past 18 months, new people may have joined the team, others have left, and many are reconsidering their future role in the organization.  Many firms are shifting to a hybrid work model, where lawyers and staff will divide their time between in-office and outside-the-office work, making management and leadership tasks more challenging. 

Facilitate Team Re-Forming

In the 1960’s, Bruce W. Tuckman developed a model of team development that described individual and group behavior as teams matured into higher levels of performance.  The four stages (some researchers have added a fifth stage) are:

  1. Forming – in the beginning, when a team forms, there is little agreement on the common purpose, strategies, and tactics to achieve the goal.  Roles are unclear. Leaders need to provide clear guidance and direction at this stage.
  2. Storming – team members are often in conflict over tactics and roles.  Power struggles emerge.  Leaders need to provide clarity of purpose, role definitions and coaching to resolve conflict.
  3. Norming – at some point, team members more clearly understand their role and power structure, agree on the team ‘rules’ (both formal and informal), and how to accomplish the tasks before them.  The leader provides facilitation and resources for the team to do their work. 
  4. Performing – healthy teams, having gone through the previous three stages, share a clear vision and purpose, are focused on achieving their goals, and are in agreement on how to allocate work.  The leader facilitates communication, collaboration, and team growth.
  5. Adjourning – for some teams, once the goal is achieved and the tasks completed, the team celebrates their accomplishments, appreciates the impact on the organization, and receives recognition. 

Sound painful?  It can be!  Anyone who has led a team knows how difficult it is to lead through these stages to finally get to the level of a high performing team.  Many teams don’t ever make it that far.

Here’s the kicker – when teams change, they have to go through the stages again to regain that high performing level.  What kind of changes cause this reset?  Changes like suddenly working remotely or returning to the office, new team members as well as when team members leave. This can take leaders by surprise, especially when the team starts storming.

What can leaders do to fast-track their teams through these stages?

Expect conflict, confusion and power struggles.  “Storming” is hard-wired into the five stages of team development.  Be prepared for it, and ride it out by mediating conflicts, defining roles, coaching individuals, and re-affirming the mission of the group.  

Consider developing a team charter that outlines the “rules” of the group.  Everyone in the group contributes and agrees to the charter.  Team charters typically consist of these elements:

  • Purpose:  Why does this team exist?  What is its mission and vision?
  • Context:   How does the work of this team fit into the big picture? How does it contribute to the success of the firm, organization or client?
  • Goals:  What specific results do we expect from the team’s efforts?
  • Roles:  Who is on the team, and what roles do they play?
  • Work Process:  How will the team get their work done?
  • Decision Making:  What decisions need to be made?  Who makes them?  Will consensus or majority or benevolent dictator rule?
  • Communications:  How will we communicate, connect, and meet?
  • Norms:  What do we expect from each other?  How will we keep each other accountable?

The process to develop a team charter can be hard, but can also result in a common sense of purpose, clarity of roles, and structure that will help the team move forward faster.  

Focus on Feedback

Human resource professionals are doing a lot of exit interviews these days.  One of the common themes of these (zoom) meetings is the lack of actionable feedback.  Lawyers and staff are saying that they wish they knew where they stood with their supervisors, and whether they were on track.  They are often frustrated that the feedback they do receive is vague, anonymous, and too late to fix or learn from the experience.  

This is a great time to take your feedback game to the next level.  In our leadership development programs, we encourage leaders to use the “SBI” method of feedback:

  • Situation – be specific about where and when the behavior was observed.  Give feedback as soon after the observation as possible (i.e. hours or a day, not weeks or months).
  • Behavior – describe the behavior as it happened, as if you were describing a video of the situation.  Don’t judge or attribute motive.  Just describe.
  • Impact – describe the impact that behavior had on you and others.  This could be a positive or negative impact.  If appropriate, ask the person receiving feedback what they could do to change (fix) the situation, what they could do differently next time, or what they learned from the experience.  You may also want to suggest a course of action.

Feedback works best when you give both positive and constructive feedback on a regular basis.  Think of it as building up a bank account of goodwill before you take a withdrawal from the account.  Leaders who are open to receiving feedback and two-way dialogue have a better chance of building trust within their team.

Work on Building Trust

While many people look forward to returning to the office, many do so with a high level of anxiety and even grief.  Now is a great time for leaders to invest in building trust and psychological safety. Some of the ways to do that include:

  • Being personally vulnerable, honest, and real about your experience.
  • Being sensitive to different experiences and perspectives of others.  Not everyone had the same pandemic experience, and leaders need to be sensitive to that.  
  • Keep the team informed on organizational and external changes that could impact them.
  • Ask the team for input on critical issues.
  • Celebrate short-term wins, and reinforce the team’s shared values and effort.
  • When things don’t go as expected, replace blame with curiosity.  Ask, “Why is this change happening now?  What can we do about it?” instead of “Whose fault is this?”
  • Encourage mutual respect.
  • Invest in one-on-one meetings to build relationships.  

Innovate

Everyone is trying to figure out how to manage, lead, and get work done in a hybrid work environment.  Leaders might wonder, “How will we have our practice group lunch meetings if only half the people are “at work”?  How will we carry out professional development programs?  How will associates “learn from osmosis” if either they or their partners are out of the office half the time?”

Sometimes there is no playbook to give us the answers.  Sometimes leaders need to innovate within their teams to develop the best solution for the situation and time.  Now is a great time to innovate.  

Some problems have bigger consequences that others.  These “wicked problems” might call for a formal framework for innovation, such as using Design Thinking for Legal®, or the DMAIC structure for process improvement (Google it).  Whatever format you use, get into the practice of identifying areas that can be improved and find new and better ways of doing things.  

Law firms and legal departments have no shortage of improvement opportunities.  Try this exercise at your next team meeting.  Ask team members three questions:

  • What should we STOP doing?  What is not working that we need stop and perhaps replace it with something else, or nothing at all?
  • What should we START doing?  What do we need to being doing new or differently to make things go smoother, faster, more efficiently (or at least alleviate some pain).
  • What should we CONTINUE doing?  What’s working well, and we need to intentionally continue doing, or tweak along the way?

This STOP-START-CONTINUE dialogue can identify areas for innovation.  Still stuck?  Teams are innovating in how they:

  • Meet. Old (and boring) meetings where everyone kills an hour reporting can be replaced by other communication methods.  Maybe what you need instead are more frequent, but short, status update meetings by Zoom.  How else can you improve meetings?
  • Communicate.  Maybe we don’t need to use email for all communication.  Maybe text-based applications like Slack can save time and result in richer conversations.
  • Use valuable in-person time.  Hybrid work environments puts a premium on face-to-face communication and meetings.  Instead of a “retreat”, what would a team “advance” look like?  How could you re-design in-person events to accelerate the forming-storming-norming-performing process? 
  • Connect with clients.  Law firms aren’t the only organizations that are shifting to hybrid work.  Clients are too, making traditional in-person relationship building more challenging. How will you and your team strengthen relationships and expand your network in this emerging reality?

Meaning and Impact

It has been called the “Great Resignation”.  By some reports, 30% of the workforce in the USA is considering changing jobs right now. 

In addition to the lack of feedback, HR professionals hear comments about culture and fit in exit interviews.

“Sometimes I just don’t understand why I’m working so hard on something that doesn’t seem to mean anything. I don’t want to work 80 hours a week for months just so that a mega-merger happens before the holidays.  It is just not worth missing a year of my kid’s life for that.” 

People find meaning at work differently.  Here are some ways to help people find meaning and understand their impact at work:

  • Incorporate the voice of the client – So often, lawyers and staff are physically and emotionally distant from client.  Consider how you can connect your clients more closely to your team, so they can see the importance of the work they are doing.
  • Make it a habit to illustrate how individual and team effort contributed to a positive result for the client or firm.  
  • Acknowledge that a sense of community, comradery and friendship gives meaning to many people.  Find ways encourage and facilitate community building, even if it is not ‘your thing’. 
  • Give everyone opportunities to give back, provide pro bono work, or volunteer alongside team mates, and maybe even clients.  Support individual and group efforts to volunteer or fund raise to help others.  
  • Help team members connect their efforts to shared, higher values of justice, fairness, or peace.  
  • Organize a field trip to a client’s operation so team members can see how their efforts in the legal area impact client’s employees, customers and community.  Or, invite your client to give a presentation to your team on their business.

One law firm in the western part of the United States had a client that manages the precious and increasingly rare commodity of water.  One of the attorneys, acutely aware of the stress that years of drought have put on the client’s executive team, suggested a three day strategy meeting with their legal team.  They rented rooms at a historic inn on the shores of the Colorado River, and spent several days sharing stories and ideas, analyzing data and brainstorming solutions.  Together, they took a float trip down the river to see artwork of the ancient ones, and appreciate the grandeur of the Colorado River. The experience was not only good client service, it was transformational for both the client and law firm team, as they saw firsthand how their work impacts others, and affects future generations.  

This time of transition is critical for law firms and legal departments.  It is an opportunity to re-define the next “normal” by leading differently, resulting in a higher level of engagement and job satisfaction, enhanced client intimacy, and innovation.  Some firms and departments will grasp these opportunities and realize short and long term gains.  Others will miss this opportunity, and spend the next few years playing catch-up.  My hope for you and your firm is that you intentionally create a new normal that leads to a more sustainable future.  


Mark Beese is President of Leadership for Lawyers, a consultancy focused on helping lawyers and other professionals become stronger leaders. He provides training, coaching and consulting in the areas of leadership development, innovation, and business development. Mark is an adjunct faculty at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and former adjunct faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership. He is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inductee in the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement. He holds a MBA and BS in Management from the University of Buffalo.  Mark has held senior leadership positions at AmLaw 200 and 100 firms, including Chief Marketing Officer for law firms Holland & Hart and Hodgson Russ.  His clients include many firms on the Global 50, AmLaw 200 and Big 4 accounting firms.  He is a frequent speaker at legal industry conferences including the ABA, LMA, ALA, PDC, INTA and legal networks.   For more information, visit www.leadershipforlawyers.com and www.designthinkinglegal.com. 

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