None of us know how long the current pandemic will last, but it is clear that it has created opportunities to review working practices and the way services are delivered to meet client needs.

In some respects, Covid19 has precipitated changes that were already beginning to take place in the legal sector: the use of technology and streamlining of processes have resulted in efficiencies which create leaner and more nimble law firms which are better equipped to help clients irrespective of their geographical location.

The ability to work remotely is now a selection criteria for many client as well as a business development opportunity for lawyers no longer bound by geographical limitations.

However, there’s more to business survival and future success than knowing how to use Zoom and other online collaboration tools. It’s as much about adapting and responding quickly as it is about resilience and long-term sustainability.

The first national lockdown back in March is a case in point: firms had to adapt almost overnight to preserve the needs of their business, clients and employees and employees had to learn new ways of doing their jobs at a distance in a matter of days. For the businesses who got this right – it proved just how quickly organisations can overcome resistance to change when they really have to.

But while changes to working practices have been a positive experience for some people, it’s been more challenging for others. In many ways, the pandemic has heightened awareness that employee wellbeing is essential not only to individuals, but also to the success of the entire firm.

Employee wellbeing in context

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to employee wellbeing. Even so, most employers have it on their radar and recognise the importance of providing health and wellbeing initiatives to their workforce.  

Employee wellbeing has never been more important than it is now. With many people working from home and significant numbers having to self-isolate for weeks at a time, the impact on wellbeing can be huge. In fact, studies have shown that people are working longer hours now than they were before the pandemic. VPN provider NordVPN found that UK employees have been working two extra hours a day, amounting to an extra week of work each month while a joint analysis by workplace software provider Atlassian and Paper Giant revealed that work-life boundaries across the globe were becoming blurred.

At the same time, a survey of just under 1,000 firms by the Institute of Directors (IOD) shows that 74 per cent plan to continue with home working set ups, thereby reducing outlay on business premises and associated costs.

If this home working trend continues and it’s highly likely it is, it’s essential that firms consider alternative, innovative ways to manage the health and wellbeing of their workforce. Otherwise, longer working days, the lack of social contact, numerous online meetings and more emails than ever, will all take its toll.

Interested in Mental Fitness in Business? We have a wealth of articles on this topic from a range of contributors, you can access them all here.

How can managers support employee wellbeing?

Creating a culture of wellbeing can be challenging to achieve and measure at the best of times. Informal communication especially, which is usually spontaneous, will require more effort in a remote setting. However, regular conversations focussed on the challenges thrown up by remote working is now an essential part of any managers role.

Managers can expect a wide difference in productivity across employees as some find working from home energising, whilst others are struggling to be as productive as they would usually be under normal conditions. Employees can feel overwhelmed by the uncertainty surrounding all of us, and a fear of being ‘out of control’ can create high levels of anxiety.

The usual coping mechanisms may not be working; social distancing requirements mean that there are less opportunities to socialise informally, childcare responsibilities can be disruptive, and exercise can`t be done in the safe environment of a gym, so letting off stress is not so easy.

Managers will need to become more trusting of what employees are up to during the working day and empathise with colleagues to understand how best to provide practical professional support. Importantly, managers must know how to encourage employees to be honest about the type of support they actually need. Internal mentoring programmes to encourage colleague collaboration and fostering safe one to one conversations to include wide employee participation will become increasingly critical to employee engagement and wellbeing.

When firms are too focussed on their bottom line, they can forget what made them successful in the first place, failing to see the link between employee wellbeing and profitability.

Focussing on output and the quality of work rather than how many hours an employee has spent working, will finally shift the emphasis away from time recording to measuring efficiency and effectiveness, which are after all more important to achieving client satisfaction.

Employee wellbeing is a competitive advantage

Employee experience is now a hot topic, alongside equality, inclusion, and diversity, as firms become increasingly aware that employee wellbeing can be a competitive advantage.

A happy, resilient workforce with the right skills and competencies and who feel valued and appreciated by their employer is key to both client and employee engagement, not to mention talent retention. Conversely, an unhappy workforce will be less productive and will eventually reduce productivity and damage client relations.

Many employers therefore already recognise the important of wellbeing strategies which improve engagement and resilience through initiatives which focus on the physical, social, emotional and financial health of the workforce. In fact, research from professional services firm Aon found that across Europe, 45 per cent of employees were more resilient if their employer provided a broad health and wellbeing programme compared to just 15 per cent of employees where no health and wellbeing programme was offered.

Yet many firms who want to implement a wellbeing programme simply don`t know where to start and have no clear strategy for employee wellbeing. They often use internal surveys to gauge employee satisfaction, but then fail to act on feedback. The problem is that employee surveys only provide a snapshot of a specific moment in time, but don`t offer up solutions to any problems or issues raised. There can be a large gap between what firms are offering and what employees actually need. Implementing a successful employee wellbeing programme requires planning, a structure, and a clear employee communication strategy.

Finally, it’s important to recognise that there is just no shortcut to gaining trust. Managers need to be generous with their time, have confidence in their own abilities, and act with humility. Employers must be prepared to ask what employees need, listen to feedback, and put wellbeing at the top of their strategic agenda.

Kimberley Williams is managing director of Williams Wroe.