Start With Why

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

You may recognize that as the title of one of the all-time great business books by Simon Sinek. While I highly recommend the book if you have not read it (as well as his TED Talk on the subject), I borrowed his title for this month’s post, because it offers a great roadmap for the next chapter in my 2021 Resolution series: building a better new normal for offices, conferences, and trainings.

I moved this topic towards the top of the list for this year’s Resolution series, because as we start to see better news on the pandemic and plan for the year ahead, these issues are increasingly front and center for everyone in the legal community. Like the other prongs in my 2021 Resolution, we have a unique opportunity to chart a better path for the future that marries the many benefits of working together in person with the flexibility that comes from the ability to work remotely that we have discovered by necessity over the past year.

The words that are central to the theme here are going to be common threads for the entire Resolution series: “new normal” or “next normal,” “flexible,” and “hybrid.” I recognize that each of these words are being used so often these days that they already could compete for the centerpiece of the 2021 game of bullsh*t bingo, but they really embody the key points we all should be thinking about as we look ahead.

Some Overarching Considerations

As we consider the future of the office and the way we gather in person, two fundamental points we need to always remember are (1) as humans, we are social animals, and (2) law is a people business. For all the success we had quickly pivoting over the past year to an “office anywhere” model with conferences, trainings, and events that were fully remote, those basic truths have not changed.

What did change is where we once had no choice but to do these things in person, we very suddenly went to the polar opposite where we had no choice but to do everything remotely. Now we are on the cusp of an era where both choices will be available to us in most instances, and we can choose the best of both worlds.

In doing so, our “why” analysis needs to balance the uniquely human value of in-person connections with the many benefits remote access affords us. The distressing increases in anxiety and depression over the past year underscore what we are losing by being fully remote but the more flexible and often more efficient lifestyles it has enabled are very real as well.

The Office of the Future

The lesson of 2020 is not that we don’t need offices—we do. It is that the office can, and in most cases should look different, and the hours we work there can be more flexible.

For most of us, the office of the future may be more optional as the place to do much if not most of our day-to-day work. If the past year has proven anything, it is that most of what we do in law does not need to be done from one central physical location.

But that assumes people have a suitable place to do their work away from the office when we again have a choice, which will not be true for everyone. And with few exceptions, the office remains essential for team building, collaboration, and long-term organizational productivity.

There are other more subtle benefits of returning to the office as well. As a recent article in the New York Times aptly titled “The Boredom Economy” noted: “Research has shown that mind-wandering, an activity that can happen during periods of boredom, can result in greater productivity. But during the pandemic, some of the best opportunities for mind-wandering, like the daily commute to work, have been lost for the millions of people now working from home.”

For these reasons, a hybrid office model that gives people more flexible options to work remotely for at least part of the time yet maintains its central purpose as a center for teams to come together will make for a better new normal in most instances. CBRE has created a convenient resource hub to help organizations build this workplace of the future. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the name of the game is going to be more flexibility than the traditional office environment once allowed.

One example of that flexibility is that we do not necessarily have to go back to the days when everyone took the 8:15 into the city with people pushing and people shoving. Many may prefer to return to that more traditional schedule, but for others, it may work better to come in a bit later or leave a bit earlier, working at home for the remainder of the work day. Thus, enabling and supporting remote access will remain important.  

Conferences and Trainings

While for obvious reasons there has been far more attention on what will become of the traditional office, many of the same principles apply to conferences, trainings, and similar events.

The past year has seen some truly impressive adaptations of conferences and events that prior to 2020 would have been solely or primarily in-person occasions. While that happened out of necessity, a huge benefit was that it allowed more people to participate on equal footing who otherwise would have been unable to attend an in-person event for any number of reasons (geography, disability, expenses, etc).

However, we lost a lot too by not being able to hold these gatherings in person. So much of the benefit of going to a conference or event comes from networking and meeting people with common interests, something that simply cannot be matched in the virtual world. And while smart phone distractions already were ever-present well before the pandemic, the distractions are supersized when we are sitting at our computer. Who among us has not found ourselves in a virtual meeting or event focusing on other work for at least part of the time? It is just too easy to do that in a virtual gathering, and the allure of multi-tasking in this context inevitably distracts our attention in most instances.

As we look ahead, we again come back to the hybrid model as the better new normal. We want to keep the benefits of expanded access and the increased diversity of experience and thought that comes from being able to include a wider range of voices. At the same time, we want to recapture the unmatched personal connection and the associated benefits that come from experiencing conferences, trainings, and events in person.

The conference of the future can have some content that is made to be watched online (I recommend the Goodman Center as a great resource on that front), some programs that are produced live but are streamed for remote audiences at the same time, and some programs and events that are geared towards in-person audiences. There can be different price points depending on which option people choose.

It will take creativity, planning, solid execution, and a commitment to learning and adapting to make the hybrid model work in this context. Most of us probably will not get it completely right on the first try. It typically will require new technological setups and dual-track planning to account for both live and virtual audiences, but when we can get this balance right, we will be so much better for it.

Onward to the Better New Normal

There will be some understandable pressure to use the experience of this last year to reduce expenses going forward, by reducing our office footprint and/or limiting travel and live participation in conferences, trainings, and events.

As we go through that exercise, which is completely appropriate, we need to resist the urge to chase short term savings at the expense of the long-term consequences and lost opportunities for what a new hybrid approach can bring. We have the potential to create a much better new normal if we can get it right.