A focus on... wellbeing
Already highly valued, wellbeing has been catapulted to the top of Clifford Chance's agenda by Covid-19. New York Partner Sarah Jones and Delhi General Manager Venu Yadavalli discuss why it’s likely to stay there.
What does wellbeing mean to the firm and how has coronavirus changed that?
Venu: For me, wellbeing is multidimensional. It comprises physical, emotional and economic aspects and, what the pandemic made clear, there is also a social aspect too. This increasingly became a factor as the crisis wore on and people felt increasingly isolated.
Sarah: Here in the US, mental health was already a pre-pandemic topic as was the issue of flexible working. What the pandemic has done is fast forward it all by several years. During the crisis, everyone was working flexibly and it’s almost unimaginable we won’t have it in some form in the future. Moreover, people have become much more comfortable talking about their experiences without feeling they will viewed negatively. As a result, we have become a far more peoplecentric organisation. These values are now fully embedded; it’s genuinely an environment in which people can express themselves and how they are feeling and know they will be treated sensitively.
What have been the main challenges to people’s wellbeing throughout the pandemic?
Sarah: My sense is that the number one issue here was isolation – even if people weren’t alone, they’ve been isolated from the firm. Our firm has such a strong culture and that’s been more difficult to maintain while away from the each other. We also worried about how working parents were coping. We carried out a survey among them and the top three reflections were the same for everyone: people felt stressed and exhausted but also grateful for more family time. Conducting the survey and giving wider visibility to those concerns really helped. It made people feel they were not alone in having to manage working and looking after their children at home. It was heartening to see 75% of survey respondents say they felt supported by their supervisor and comfortable sharing their personal circumstances with them, which says something very positive about our culture.
Venu: I believe the challenges have been consistent across the firm. Certainly, that lack of connection was one of the topics that kept coming up. And at a junior level especially, people felt a bit untethered and slightly lost because they would usually get a lot of direction that just wasn’t possible in the same way during the pandemic. Job security was another issue, but I think the firm was great at allaying those concerns. Work-life separation was also a big deal, since people were working from home and either didn’t know when to stop or felt unable to do so.
How did you assess what would be needed to alleviate the issues raised and what did you introduce to address them?
Venu: For us, it was a combination of acting, listening and acting again. In India, the first lockdown was sudden and absolutely total: within 24 hours, our country came to a halt. We were already having conversations beforehand because we sensed things were not right, so we were ahead of the curve with the technology needed to ensure a smooth operation when we needed to get everybody home.
In India’s second lockdown, what really came to the fore was the human aspect. We lost one of our employees to coronavirus and that was a real gut punch. That’s when I could see people were scared. We actively shared information about the existing HR support and external counsellors employees could access and we encouraged people to speak up. Just asking “How are you?” became so powerful. The more you connect, the more you understand and the more you reassure people. Throughout the pandemic, we had maintained that our number one priority is the safety and wellbeing of our employees and I believe we consistently practised it.
Sarah: I personally think you can’t have too much communication. People respond differently to various media and, while the uptake of social media tools like Yammer has been great from a community perspective, you also need ongoing, consistent feedback from management. We are making a conscious effort to ensure there are regular office communications from management, including keeping people in the picture about what is happening in terms of a potential physical return to the office.
What initiatives or commitments are you making in your regions to do more about tackling wellbeing issues?
Sarah: One thing we are doing again – and it’s something we did pre-pandemic too – is running a panel where partners and senior lawyers talk about their own experiences. The aim is to encourage people to feel comfortable speaking up, the idea being if they hear a senior person in the firm talking about their own issues, they should feel fine doing so themselves. We have also run a series of wellbeing activities and events such as virtual keep fit, yoga sessions and mindfulness workshops.
In addition, we regularly communicate what resources are available from our wellness providers Corporate Counselling Associates (CCA) and Ginger. What I’ve found interesting is something Venu said about when people say: “How are you?”. In the US, everybody says it all the time and the answer is always: “Fine.” This year, if you ask that question, you don’t know what the answer is going to be – and you mean it genuinely when you ask. People now saying: “It’s been a hard day,” or “I’m really struggling,” is really meaningful. It shows it’s now OK to do that.
Venu: Our global Code of Conduct, our diversity and inclusion initiatives along with our strong culture are really a key part of what contributes to our overall wellbeing. We know we have an inclusive culture governed by trust and respect for our people. If you look at the Code of Conduct and the values in it, they are central to the overall wellness of the organisation. Living those values and experiencing them in our daily interactions can create a healthy and engaging workplace.
How do you see wellbeing shaping up over the next couple of years?
Venu: A lot of the thinking we’ve done this year around how we support our employees will continue. We’ve also set up a Future of Work group drawn from people at different levels and across functions that’s looking at how people want to work to ensure we continue focusing on mental wellbeing and building a healthier workplace.
One of the things that held us together over the past 18 months is the strong culture we’ve built over the years. When we all had to work from home, not everyone had laptops, so we quickly established who had additional home computers, many of whom said they were happy to give their laptops to those without. I think that was the first time I could really put a tangible value around our culture and say to the leadership team: “This is why we keep insisting we need engaged employees.”
Sarah: I think it was on the agenda before but it is at the top now and it’s hard to see that changing. Wellbeing is important not just from a human perspective, but also for recruitment and retention. We want to attract, develop and retain the best people and, in this new world, we can only do that if we offer a supportive, healthy, sensitive and flexible place to work. Law firms are ultimately just a collection of individuals who require and want certain things – all of which are monumentally important to people choosing their careers.
What does the topic mean for you personally?
Venu: On a personal level, wellbeing makes interaction a lot easier, whether it’s with your family, your kids or your colleagues. If I’ve had a long day at work and I haven’t slept well in a couple of days, the quality of my interactions – even with my family members – goes down. I breeze through conversations without really listening. Our experiences over the past year have made us much more aware of the importance of listening to each other, and the impact we have on each other.
Sarah: I’m on the management committee, so it’s important to me from a working culture perspective. When I joined the committee, I found it hard to ask to rearrange a meeting to enable me to take my children to school one day a week as I worried it would be perceived negatively. It’s great that we’re moving into an environment where you can ask that sort of perfectly legitimate question and not worry about how it looks. It’s also important to me because I have children who are 11 and 13 and they are going to be adults in a very different world to the one in which I started my career. As a firm, we should be looking to that future and embracing it so we remain at the forefront. We either keep abreast of it, or we fall behind.