People power to the fore as firms ponder 2019 and beyond

From the implications of the #MeToo movement to the impact of internal workplace issues, the year ahead shapes as a critical one for businesses as they fine-tune their people strategies, writes Leonie Green.

As we enter a new year, it’s a good time to consider what has changed in the past 12 months and what that means for the year ahead. It’s also a good time to do a personal check on what has changed for ourselves in the past year and what that might mean for the year ahead.

Let me give you some examples, starting with a personal one. Our business had a great year last year. Great growth, beyond what we had originally planned. Our challenge?

We have started the year exhausted, and I have started the year carrying more weight than I have for some time, rather than feeling like I am leaping with energy into the new year.

So what does this mean for our 2019 people strategy? It means we need to focus on re-balancing, connecting and prioritising sustainable growth that has us all feeling energised rather than exhausted.

This is very different to 12 months ago for us. A year ago we were coming off a surprisingly quiet December and worrying about how quickly it would take for things to pick up again. That required support, focus and prioritising what was within our control, rather than worrying about what was not within our control.

This represents two very different people strategies and very different personal strategies that connect to the people strategy. As leaders, we need to recognise the part we play in setting the tone for our firms, and bringing our people strategy to life, or getting in its way. People strategies can be short and succinct, or they can be a broad pathway forward to ensure your strategic objectives are met, but either way they need to be personal. They need to really resonate with who you are as a firm, and where your focus needs to be to get results.

In addition, you also need to consider the broader landscape and what else might be coming so that your people strategy is covering internal and external factors.

A few key themes emerged out of 2018 that are worthy of note and consideration in relation to your 2019 people strategy, if for no other reason the negative impact on productivity if you fail to recognise these themes and address them directly.

1. Beyond #MeToo and managing complaints within the workplace

The Yael Stone interview with Leigh Sales on ABC News is worth watching. Yael very eloquently explains the challenge she had as a young actor working with a very famous and well-known Australian actor. She highlights how she “immediately put herself at the bottom of the ladder”. Yael explains the dilemma in an incredibly respectful way, and offers some very simple suggestions for how such issues might be avoided in the future. They are suggestions that should be commonplace in most law firms (have a policy and train your people on it). Critically, though, what matters is how the topic of sexual harassment, and indeed inappropriate conduct complaints more generally, are handled and spoken about within our firms. We need to ensure that our actions and conversations are consistent with our workplace policies. Consider whether you can improve on this front; consider whether you know what risks you might be carrying in this area.

You do not want to be the next headline act on this continuing campaign of change. Ideally, you want to create a workplace culture where such complaints can be made, and managed appropriately for all involved.

2. Family violence

Last year saw the introduction of unpaid domestic and family violence leave, first in Modern Awards, and then extending to all employees under the National Employment Standards.

While the leave is not likely to result in a big take-up among employees (due to its unpaid nature, and the stigma in speaking up), what your firm does about this leave can have an impact. Think about how you roll this entitlement out to your workforce, and what messaging you have around it. Think for a moment about the opportunity you have to lift the productivity of an employee who is managing a difficult family violence situation and feeling unsupported. Think also about the tone and expectation you can set around appropriate conduct, both at home and at work. And, as noted above, make sure this is something that your firm really means – actions that are consistent with your workplace policy are critical.

3. Managing mental health concerns in the workplace

I noticed a spike in queries regarding the mental health of employees a few years ago which has continued to increase since that time. We have certainly started to see a change, with employees now more readily disclosing conditions. This enables better and more open workplace support.

The next change needs to be around how we promote better mental health within our workplaces. Last year saw a few headline items on this front (see, for example, the investigation into King & Wood Mallesons which hit the headlines) and this tide is not about to turn. Many firms, including KWM, are trying to address mental health by providing services in support, and by helping to reduce the stigma associated with speaking about mental health. However, when it comes to mental health, we need to think about it more broadly and consider it as part of our overall approach to risk management within the workplace. Are our employees well? Are they physically and mentally able to perform their work for the mutual benefit of the firm and the employee? How do we know? What else do we need to ask and what else should we be keeping an eye on?

People strategies have become a popular approach to the management of the people portfolio during the past few years. They are simply about ensuring that your focus in relation to people is aligned with your focus as a firm, and they help you get where you intend to go. As with all business planning, it takes time, but really just time to think and plan; time where you step away from the day to day and consider what else needs to be done to get the best out of your people – your greatest asset, and your client’s interface day to day.

As you start the new year, consider what you need to do differently in 2019 so that this time next year you are building on that success, rather than putting out a fire or fires. What’s your focus? What matters most to you and your firm?

Originally published in: [Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & LeadershipJanuary 20, 2019