We all know the general storyline of 2020, and unfortunately legal recruitment did not deviate too much from the script. After a promising and ambitious start to 2020, the first quarter was cut short by a devastating shutdown of UK life and business over the second quarter. This left the legal recruitment industry with only fragmented pockets of activity to survive on in quarter three, before a relative stabilising of the market in the fourth quarter which saw Chadwick Nott’s national teams in the South West, South East, North, Midlands and London all rebound strongly.
While we are of course delighted to have survived the struggles of 2020, we are under no illusion that the string of global events and challenges for the UK economy will simply end when we welcome in the new year. One glance at the front pages this week populated with news of delayed Brexit negotiations, stricter tier lockdowns and the discovery of a new Covid-19 strain will give you a flavour of what is potentially in store for all of us in 2021.
With that relatively depressing summary of the year out of the way, I would now like to focus on one of the more positive unintended social experiments of 2020 which is destined to continue in 2021: . Thanks to the extreme lockdown conditions of 2020, the concept of virtual working is no longer just the bastion of app developers and the tech industry. This year it was law firms, banks and, yes, even sales businesses. Sales and recruitment, you say? Surely this is not possible….we are the “people” people, we need to be out there, on the road, meeting and greeting, pressing the flesh, having the coffees, playing golf with the clients, leading the long business lunches…don’t we?
Well, admittedly yes, those are wonderful aspects of a recruitment career which most would not want to lose, but they may not be as crucial for every recruitment consultant forced into remote working as you might think, when you take into account the following considerations.
Let’s deal with the mechanics first. Perhaps one silver lining for businesses is that COVID-19 struck us in a year when the lion’s share of the business world had already become comfortable with basic forms of video technology and shared cloud data storage. With video and virtual communication tools like Facebook and WhatsApp now commonplace in our social lives, even the most technologically challenged of us were already reasonably comfortable with how to join the odd Zoom video conference call when required. Having said that, in our recruitment world it was never the preferred option – most would prefer to meet in person, and most would prefer to avoid the unflattering distorted camera image from a laptop or mobile phone if they possibly could too.
The lockdown has smashed through a lot of these psychological barriers. Because there has been almost no physical facetime with colleagues, we have had to accept that when we need to speak to each other, we need to video call rather than audio call. This difference matters. An audio call represents only a fraction of our communication and provides our listener with only a fraction of the information and connection they want to have with a colleague. At Chadwick Nott, when we first moved to the video model, the first rule was that you did not have to schedule a meeting to video call someone. You would not diarise an event in your calendar to ask a colleague a quick question in the office, so we insisted video calling stayed informal to encourage people to video call whenever an impromptu discussion was required.
For the first few weeks of this new model, there were a noticeable number of missed video calls with people then phone calling back. Within a month, this had stopped. It was becoming more difficult to avoid a video call than it was to simply answer it. My colleagues have now seen me on video, bleary-eyed in the morning, starving and grumpy just before lunch and looking exhausted at the end of the day – just like they would in the office. Once this resistance to the video call had been tackled, our communication became more effective and has come as close to being in the same room as possible. This has spilled over into making it much more comfortable and commonplace with external contacts too.
In terms of practical hurdles around working on documents together, Skype and Microsoft Teams screen sharing technology and the holding of shared documents in cloud databases has made access to documents simultaneously for editing much easier and more collaborative, rather than more difficult.
All things considered, technology in recruitment in 2020 has had an incredibly positive impact.
RECRUITMENT IS A MATURING INDUSTRY
Recruitment is no longer a burgeoning young industry that must insist on a “high energy, buzzy” working environment to make every recruiter successful. Since the new millennium for example, legal recruitment has matured greatly as a specialist industry with many consultants forging out expert careers over the last two decades establishing long term connections and deep reservoirs of legal market expertise. Over the last 20 years many of those recruiters have also moved on to home owning, having children or building up more out-of-work interests. The need for a recruiter at this point in their career to be in the office to ensure they work hard and succeed is not necessarily required. These are efficient, highly skilled professionals who take pride in their work and personal market reputation, who may also derive great benefit from having more time for their home commitments, but will still get the most out of every billing day.
In a way, recruiters who are at this point in their career will approach their work like business owners – they have learned they will only get in what they put out and their professional reputation is a brand in itself, regardless of whether they work within a larger organisation. Like business owners, many will also have too many significant financial responsibilities in their life to think it worthwhile to work half-heartedly and forgo potential commission earnings, just because their boss can’t see them all day.
At Chadwick Nott we are proud to have some of the most established legal recruitment consultants in their respective markets who have worked here for many years. During this lockdown period in a 100% remote working structure, they have all worked tirelessly from home not only for themselves, but for their colleagues and the company.
IT’S A MATTER OF TRUST
Trust is a two-way street, but it takes a big leap of faith to fully expose yourself to the risks of trusting someone completely. I appreciate that may sound more like a phrase from some eighties rom-com, but in employee and management terms: while most managers would say they completely trust their employees, very few would want to get to point where they are not able to physically see their direct reports at all or be able to check their activity when required. The COVID-19 lockdown enforced this completely remote set-up on huge numbers of businesses, and I am sure most management teams would have been nervously measuring staff activity to see whether productivity levels would be affected.
If I would thank 2020 for one thing, it would be for giving management and staff a chance to truly test the remote working trust theory in its most absolute form. As far as Chadwick Nott has been concerned, it has been an incredible success. Everyone has been engaged, available, communicative and highly driven when left to their own devices. Reporting and activity updates have been seamless, and productivity has not dropped over the entire 9-month remote working period. Chadwick Nott will come out of 2020 with much higher levels of trust than ever before.
PRIVACY & CONFIDENTIALITY
“Can I speak to you for a minute in a meeting room please?”
No-one enjoys that moment when you are called to a meeting room by a manager or the return walk back to your desk in front of colleagues, even if it was just to have a chat about dates for the next client event. It is one of those awkward little things about all being in an open plan office together at all times.
An advantage of remote working has been the ability to have every conversation comfortably in confidence without any extra effort needed. As a result, every conversation can be more open and can develop or change tack to cover any subject without requiring a separate meeting. If we can learn to harness remote working times for the more sensitive or serious conversations, we will in turn be able to make the office working environment a more positive, good news experience for staff that they want to be a part of.
WHY DO YOU REALLY WORK? THE GENERATION GAP OF PRIORITIES
For all the positives I listed above that can make working from home advantageous, let us not forget that for many, working is not just about getting paid. Being in a workplace with others allows you to build up your social and professional network, make life-long friends with people who will share common experiences with you, and enjoy social activities with people who are on the same work vs. play time clock as you.
For younger professionals, those first years at work can be as important and as formative from a social perspective as time at University. We are social creatures who crave a pack and a sense of belonging. We are excited and inspired by doing things with other people – it gives us a sense of purpose and achievement. Complete remote working denies us a crucial forum for our personal, professional, social and career development. Speaking from personal experience, I have a former employer to thank for holding an annual conference with staff attending from all over the country in 2006. It was at that conference I met my wife. Imagine if it was scheduled for 2020?
For me this is one of the big reasons why employers must always continue to provide some form of physical work meeting space for staff.
While experienced recruiters may know all the tricks of the trade, I would expect that at least half of those tricks were learned by watching colleagues operate around them on the phone, in meetings, listening to their tone, their timing, their patience and their responses in a myriad of different recruitment scenarios.
I have conducted formal training sessions for new recruitment consultants for many years and have tried in vain to find the perfect way to incorporate every possible recruitment scenario into role plays and training documents. The reality is there are an infinite number of scenarios that will appear during a working day that every recruiter needs to learn to deal with as they happen in ‘live’ time. The benefit of having experienced colleagues around you to provide guidance and a second opinion is invaluable.
The disadvantage with remote working is that all these help points are lost in real time. Yes, a new confident junior recruiter may feel confident enough to contact their manager regularly and run each scenario by them before they speak to a client, but in reality many will feel awkward about calling their managers too often or may feel reticent about revealing things they may have got wrong.
Ultimately, talented recruiters are not born, they learn as they go. They all have war stories that taught them tough lessons, but they probably also had a reassuring mentor there to make sure they never got too far off track and never got too despondent about their ability and potential.
If we are to continue to generate new top-quality recruitment talent, we must give our junior staff time in the same room as their senior colleagues.
HOME: A PALACE FOR SOME, A PRISON FOR OTHERS
I have read too many articles and books that make remote working sound like the Holy Grail for everyone to aspire to. It will make you hip, cool, tech savvy, the master of your own destiny, probably very rich and you will work from a beach in Thailand any time you please, type of thing.
I am sure there are these James Bond international spy level type remote workers around, but for the regular recruiter you probably can’t afford to head off to Thailand every month and even if you could, 2020 has made it difficult enough to set yourself up in a hip cool coffee shop, let alone travel overseas. And while working from home might sound amazing, I would argue it depends on the quality of your home office set up.
At different points in my working career, I have lived in 5-person group flats, one-bedroom studios and two-bedroom apartments with a young baby. In all three of those abodes there was hardly enough room to swing a cat in. Setting up a home office with suitable privacy and noise control would have been pretty much impossible. For many workers, they need to go into an office to have enough space, to be able to work from a proper desk, have access to suitable printing facilities and even to get appropriate lighting to work under. For those of us with less advanced culinary skills, we may even just appreciate the chance to travel into a city so we can have something other than baked beans on toast for lunch.
It is easy to forget how many people are struggling with their home environment becoming their workspace in 2020. To suggest that remote working is suitable and desired by everyone would be a mistake.
2021: SO WHERE WILL WE LAND?
2020 has shown us that recruitment is not what it used to be, it is far more resilient to remote working conditions than expected and it has benefited greatly from the development of communication technology. Conversely, there are extremely important benefits for companies and employees around training, social well-being, personal development and practical logistics that make a physical office working space essential.
Recruitment should now consider a return in a new and better form – a balanced form that keeps a compulsory physical team element, but also allows each individual employee to get what they need from a job, an employer, their colleagues, their career and from a physical workplace.
We have come a long way in developing both options out of necessity in 2020, let’s hope we do not forget the positive lessons we have learned this year once the dust settles on this COVID era.