I speak to a lot of people and, after a fair amount of thought, as much of Europe plunges into a second COVID-19 lockdown, it feels right to share with you that many of the people I speak to in the legal tech sector are just not ok.
At the start of the coronavirus crisis, the pressure to make sure that we could continue to work from home meant that few people had time to be morose. Terrified? Possibly. Overwhelmed? Absolutely. Wondering how the bloody hell we could juggle home and work life more than ever before? Frickin definitely.
Each of us in our own way has juggled, struggled, and found new ways to get our work done, and those who live alone have in many cases found it mentally harder than most. But what I’ve experienced in my conversations with people lately is different. People with families who are normally upbeat and enthusiastic are visibly down. One US CIO I spoke to last week talked mostly about struggles at home. Another was lamenting the lack of travel but, quite frankly, it seemed as if his stuffing had fallen out. Don’t get me started on the people (mainly women, myself included) who are terrified that their children will have to be home schooled again, if that hasn’t happened already. For goodness sakes, pass me the Sauvignon.
Whereas at the start of 2020, most of us assumed or hoped that by November life would be back to normal, it’s become very clear that’s not the case, not even close. The realisation that things will get worse before they get better and that our working life isn’t going to return to normal seems to be hitting people very hard. The lack of personal interaction is a big factor. And unlike in February, we now know that jumping on nightly Zoom socials and quizzes is not going to cut it: Zoom fatigue is real dudes.
The lack of divide between home and office, and for those working for international organisations, night and day, is gruelling. In a survey in the summer by workplace app Blind, of 9726 responses, 66% said working from home was hurting their mental health. An engineer working for Microsoft said: “The extended working hours and no line between home and work are certainly hurting.”
To their credit, law firms and legal tech vendors have in many cases done a better job of making allowances for wellbeing since COVID19. When the UK government again began encouraging office workers to stay at home in September, the CIO of one UK top 100 firm told me that the office would remain open, commenting: “We’re following government guidelines, but we also need to think about people’s mental health.” Many firms have said the same thing, and those who have been in the legal sector long enough will know that’s a big fricking deal.
The danger or risk, I’d argue, is that organisations congratulate themselves for talking about mental health, when what they should be doing is asking whether their culture is now fit for purpose in a post COVID-19 age.
What is required, according to those far more qualified than me to dispense advice on corporate culture, is a culture of genuine empathy. Empathy is most famously described as Apple’s secret sauce and key to its success. Addressing MIT graduates in 2017, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said: “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.”
Writing to employees at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, he said: “Our paramount concern is with the people who make up Apple’s community of employees, partners, customers, and suppliers in China. I also want to recognize the many people across our teams who have been working around the clock to manage Apple’s global COVID-19 response with diligence and thoughtfulness.”
With a million things on the to-do list, a cultural refresh might appear very low on the list of priorities.
But empathy is, now more than ever, critical, and the days of expecting a gold star for simply jumping on the mental health bandwagon are well and truly over.