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Chris Oglethorpe: lockdown and the authentic self

Gowling WLG’s HR director tells Adam McCulloch that the new window that’s been opened by the global pandemic on the need for collaboration and teamwork should give us all grounds for optimism in the months and years ahead

One of the words that regularly crops up when talking to Chris Oglethorpe, HR director at Gowling WLG is “thoughtfulness”. There’s a sense that the need for thoughtfulness infuses everything about this experienced leader’s practice – which is just as well because there has rarely been a better time for being reflective than the present. The challenges posed by Covid-19 and the pressing need for more diversity and inclusion in the workplace are issues that aren’t best tackled through actions lacking in reflection.

Gowling, a top 20 law firm with more than 1,400 legal professionals in 19 cities around the world, has an ideal vantage point to view the impact the pandemic is having on the workplace.

The authentic self

One of the unforeseen by-products of lockdown, says Oglethorpe, is the opportunity to “see the authentic self.” He adds: “There used to be a physical transformation from home to work. It was almost like there was a professional veneer in the workplace. But at home, real life intrudes – the cat will run across your keyboard and your kids will use the printer for their home schooling and suddenly appear in Zooms.”

This humanising effect of the way we now work may not be a temporary phenomenon, in Oglethorpe’s view. However, the time is approaching when more social interaction is necessary.

He says: “People remain social animals. This process is fine but back-to-back digital streaming meetings are exhausting. Staring into the camera you are constantly on show and you don’t get that real community interaction.”

Wellbeing

Yet a whole-scale return to the office is still not what people want or expect, he says. When Gowling asked its employees about returning to the office and working remotely, the answer was distinctly mixed, says Oglethorpe: “Just short of 75% of people said they’d prefer to be in the office for two days or less. That may be a hangover from a fear of commuting and a fear of further surges in coronavirus, but the routine of five days a week in the office might be consigned to the history books.”

Employees told the firm that they wanted to meet up to collaborate on legal matters and projects, he says. “They’ve told us they don’t want to be in the office because of better technology or anything. They want the social and wellbeing benefits.”

Wellbeing was a topic very much on Oglethorpe’s radar as soon as the lockdown began in March. A hub was set up through which people could anonymously use resources to gain information and help. But interestingly, the company continued trying to move forward during lockdown, pressing ahead with an international growth strategy by hiring more partners abroad. This has helped instil confidence among employees about the future.

Flexible working future

Perhaps the pandemic has shown all employees they can have their cake and eat it. As Oglethorpe says in relation to Gowling: “Way back we introduced a fairly flexible agile working policy so people could work remotely subject to proper supervision, training and client service being maintained. People could work remotely one day a week or fortnight. It wasn’t very radical but it was a good start.” The pandemic has shown, he adds, that everyone can work remotely and remain productive with client service quality upheld.

But how to uphold culture in a more chaotic environment of people coming and going on different days, using the workspace differently? Encouraging managers to “over communicate” forms part of the response plus myriad opportunities to socialise with colleagues online although as lockdown loosens, some of the allure of Zoom fun may have evaporated. So inevitably there will have to be physical proximity and collaboration, actual people being in the room at the same time.

Gowling’s monthly in-depth surveys of staff opinion is informing its decisions over the next steps. “We’ve asked people to think beyond the pandemic and we’ve asked, if we could work more flexibly, what’s the appetite for different types of contract, including annualised hours contracts and part-time and no-fixed-hours contracts.”

Oglethorpe adds: “A new type of contract between employer and employee will result from this that will work for the firm and for the individual. We’ll definitely be doing this.”

The office itself, though, will have to change. “We’re looking at more flexible working arrangements and what that means for the property portfolio and the type of working environment we’ll need when people do come into the office.”

Fixed workstations are likely to be a thing of the past. People will need designs that encourage them to drop in and connect. He predicts that city centres will still host most of the action: “I might be proven wrong but I don’t see people rushing to the outskirts of cities. The city centres will still be the places where people will meet up. Satellite towns and suburbs can be difficult to get to.” After all, more commuting is hardly what many employees will be seeking in the months to come.

Teamwork and collaboration

Being a global organisation has also asked questions of Gowling’s business travel arrangements. Oglethorpe is highly conscious of the need for all travel to have a strong purpose. “I’m thoughtful about my travel and I hope friends and colleagues who are HR directors are too. But I do think the face-to-face meetings and marketing trips with partners do need to happen. Something is lost in purely digital exchanges.

“If you want to build something you need to actually meet. Giving legal advice means having long-term relationships with clients.”

“Relationship” is also a key word within Gowling, which differentiates itself from some other firms by making teamwork and collaboration its most important cultural pillars. In an industry sometimes characterised by competitiveness and individuality, Gowling sets out a clear position, rewarding those who tend to elevate the needs of the team above their own.

Oglethorpe says: “We have a merit-based profit-share scheme that rewards collaboration as well as individual performance. Teamwork is a fundamental part of our philosophy and values. The negative side of individualism is frowned upon. People who come to us really notice this. The power of teamwork is one of our key values. Of course we have competitive successful partners which you need to have a thriving business. But we have a fairly unique culture.”

Global business and the diversity agenda

Being a global business means the Gowling HR director must be someone who has an antennae finely tuned to appreciating cultural differences. Oglethorpe’s past work in telecoms (BT), financial services (NatWest, Aviva) and consumer goods (Unilever) as well as at other law firms has seen him gain invaluable experience in this area. “In each role I’ve had teams based internationally across the globe. I’ve made it my business to understand how different cultures work and how they handle work and change. I worked in Japan a long time ago, which really gave me a grounding in different environments. I’ve sat on boards in Australia, Poland and set up businesses in China. Without this understanding of the ways different people do business you’ll never be able successfully support large international firms.”

And cultural sensitivity has gained another layer with wider societal sensibilities, he says. “As a white, male – I suppose people would call me middle-class – HR director, I have to be very thoughtful about different perspectives. You can’t and shouldn’t believe you know everything. We’ve all got two ears and one mouth… so we should all do more listening.”

This attitude has to be taken into the workplace. Gowling has an “encouraging ethnic balance” but it’s “nowhere near where it should be,” says Oglethorpe. The firm recently held a company-wide listening exercise in which it invited colleagues to discuss ethnicity and discrimination.

“As HR professionals asking ourselves ‘were we doing enough’, we found the feedback to be humbling and quite distressing in some cases. We need to educate ourselves and do more work around recruitment. Would this have happened naturally? To some extent yes, but the current environment with the rise of Black Lives Matters has really accelerated it.”

Fundamentally, he says, these are problems for the profession to address. Gender balance is not a “problem for women” just as the lack of diversity is a “problem for people from ethnic minorities”, whatever some uninformed media commentators may argue. “They shouldn’t have to ‘fit in’ – it’s us who must change,” says Oglethorpe.

Changing for the better

It’s clearly a challenge that Oglethorpe has thought deeply about. And the legal sector, he says, is one where thoughtfulness is a vital commodity. “It’s made up of highly qualified, highly thoughtful professionals who are very reflective about change and initiatives.”

As the father of two teenagers, and a keen cyclist and hockey player (he plays in Hertfordshire league team), Oglethorpe is fully aware of the value of family, community and teamwork, and despite the current instability blighting working lives he reflects that seeing “the real self” is an agent for positive change.

“The world is changing for the better,” he says.

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