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People in Law Conference 2021: The role of HR post-Covid

HR must work with business leaders, managers and partners to develop successful hybrid working cultures after being thrust into the spotlight by the pandemic, delegates at the 2021 People in Law Conference were told.

In a panel discussion on the role of HR post-Covid, senior HR professionals said that getting people back into offices after lockdowns had been challenging, and that a balance needed to be struck between offering the flexibility they enjoyed and facilitating face-to-face contact.

“Anyone who thinks that hybrid is a fad will be mistaken,” said Gowling WLG HR director Chris Oglethorpe. “Coming into the office now needs a purpose – socialising, sharing knowledge.”

Louise Hadland, interim chief operating officer at Shoosmiths, said that there was also a need for HR to rethink organisational design in the post-Covid world.

“Why are we trying to shoehorn post-Covid ways of working into an old fashioned organisational design? Does a law firm really need breaking and resetting?” she questioned, suggesting that HR teams should be thinking about how they can use data to inform decisions more.

Role of managers

Hadland said that managers have a critical role in making hybrid working a success, however many had found managing dispersed teams difficult.

“Managers want a policy [around when to come into the office], but that’s not what individuals or teams want,” she said.

“Individuals need to bend and flex to make hybrid work for organisations, just as organisations need to bend and flex to make it work for the individual.”

Grant Eldred, chief people officer at Clifford Chance, recommended that HR encouraged managers to be transparent with employees about why they might need to be in the office on certain days of the week, or to set up events that created a “buzz” in the office.

“We need to encourage people to remember what’s unique about working at our organisation,” he said.

Great resignation

Developing staff retention strategies had also become vital, with many firms having experienced  an exodus of talent to other firms, and other sectors, as the economy opened up. Forty-four per cent of people polled at the conference said that the current rate of attrition was higher than before the pandemic.

Hadland said that the loss of experienced staff was being keenly felt because of the heavy workloads some teams faced over the pandemic, “The intensity of the [staff] turnover experienced at the moment is worrying managers.”

She suggested that HR teams needed to think about their EVP and whether higher salaries or more flexibility would help with attraction or retention.

“Whatever you offer there has to be real authenticity and you can deliver what you’ve promised,” she added. “There’s a lot of money flying around at the moment and that can be very tempting [for employees].”

However, Oglethorpe warned that it would be misguided for firms to only focus on pay and reward when rethinking their attraction and retention strategies.

“It’s not always about money. In my mind it’s about culture and leadership,” he said.

What senior leaders want from HR

A separate panel discussion looked at what senior leaders in law firms wanted from their HR teams.

“Strategic HR means HR understanding our strategy as a firm and mapping all HR functions into that,” said Chris Holme, a partner at Clyde & Co. “A progressive HR team would have been driving flexible working before the pandemic and driving remote working during the pandemic.”

Sid Welham, chief operating officer at HFW, said that he wanted to see HR teams leading a strategy, not just simply having a good grasp of it.

“There are two things that make HR credible: being commercial and understanding our deliverables… and moving between being strategic and tactical seamlessly.”

Naomi Moss, operations director at Trowers & Hamlins, added that good HR advice involved “guiding” and sometimes “hand-holding” the board, particularly where board members do not understand or are reluctant to action a change.

“A strategy is easy to come up with, but HR sometimes needs to focus on the deliverables,” she said.

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