How to build meaningful connections in a hybrid world
There’s a good chance you’re reading this in sweatpants. That’s okay, I’m writing it in sweatpants too, on the couch, way after dark when I've always found that, for better or worse, my brain kicks into high gear. And luckily, these kinds of unorthodox workplace arrangements are increasingly common as remote and hybrid environments have expanded the possibilities for when, where, how, and in what dress code we get our tasks done.
But that’s nothing new. With the start of the pandemic now three years behind us, most office workers could navigate a Teams call in their sleep. In fact, research indicates that as of last April, 46% of Canadians were still working from home at least part of the time.1
And while there are definite advantages to remote work (there better be, as it doesn’t look like we’re returning to the office full time any time soon), some have begun to pay attention to the drawbacks of this arrangement, especially for early career lawyers who may be more likely to have trouble building the types of professional connections that face-to-face interactions have always enabled.
This has repercussions for partners too. Doug Beazley cites these concerns as a factor in the intensifying talent wars in his article “Please Don’t Go,” for CBA National Magazine. Beazley suggests that lawyers who don’t feel connected to their work environments are more likely to look for opportunities elsewhere more often. “If you’re a junior associate right now,” he quotes Sameera Sereda, managing partner at The Counsel, “half of your career has been spent online. If your firm isn’t reaching out to you on a regular basis to have meaningful conversations about work, you might be asking yourself, ‘Why should I care about this firm? What’s the point?’”
Alone at home
“I absolutely think it would be hard for someone starting out as a lawyer today,” says Sania Chaudhry, an employee, labour, and human rights lawyer at Forte Workplace Law. For her, the pandemic-enforced switch to remote work was stark. “I was articling in family and immigration law at the time,” she describes. “I used to go into court early just to watch other lawyers working, but when everything went online all that changed. I was no longer running into people, and I missed opportunities for small talk. Sure, you can still watch everything remotely, but it’s not the same.”
She eventually switched to employment law, and currently works remotely from her home in Calgary for Forte Workplace Law, which is based in Vancouver. Though she recalls initially struggling to find community events and networking opportunities in her new specialty, Chaudhry is quick to emphasize the advantages of remote work, particularly as a young mother: “Some people say, ‘Oh, if you’re at home, there’s no off switch, but I don’t find that. I like being able to see my daughter more. I can drop her off at pre-school, then get back to work, instead of being at the office downtown all day. I feel more involved in her life.” She also adds that research has shown that racialized people are less likely to experience microaggressions in remote work environments.2
It helps, of course, that her current workplace has made fostering connection among its employees a genuine priority. After all, while sitting alone at our kitchen tables day after day may sometimes feel depressing, there’s nothing worse than going to a crowded office and still feeling isolated. “Our meetings are really meaningful,” Chaudhry says. “Which isn’t always the case. But with things like wellness check-ins and conversations about burnout, there’s a personal connection built into the agenda.” Forte Workplace Law also has a structured mentorship program, which sees Chaudhry having regular meetings and check-ins with a senior lawyer.
When asked if these types of structured relationships can truly replace the organic connections that might be more likely to form when physical paths cross, Chaudhry hesitates before affirming that both are important. “Assigned mentors are good. They give you knowledge of the firm, and what the expectations are. I think one of the hardest things when you’re starting out is really not knowing what’s expected of you. But it’s also good to get to know people outside of your firm. You can discuss ideas you might not be comfortable talking about at work, you might feel more free to be yourself. Without these types of connections, I wouldn’t have my job now.”
Whose role is it anyways?
“I would say to early career lawyers right now that you have to be intentional about making connections,” says Jessica Forman, employment lawyer and workplace investigator at Forte Workplace Law, who also happens to be Chaudhry’s mentor. “But of course, that’s easy for me to say, I’m comfortable in my career. As much as younger lawyers need to take initiative when it comes to building relationships, senior lawyers also have a responsibility to help them.”
It’s something Forte Law doesn’t take lightly. Beyond the practices Chaudhry mentions, their office has made their commitment to remote employees clear by ensuring comfortable home office equipment. This includes the obvious things, like laptops, ergonomic chairs, and standing desks, but doesn’t stop there. “While most of us work a few days a week in the office, we have two lawyers who aren’t local,” Forman says. “When one of them couldn’t make it to the holiday party this year, we made sure she could zoom in and mailed her everything in advance, from the games we were going to play to the snacks we were having.” The firm also has an intensive onboarding experience and pro-active training program to make sure new employees start their work on the right foot.
Looking beyond the billable hour
You’ll notice that none of these tasks fall into the “billable” category of legal work, and that’s on purpose. “This type of thing wouldn’t be possible in a traditional legal environment,” says Forman, “but we see the value in making sure our employees are happy, comfortable, and willing to stay with us for a long time.”
Here, she points out that isolation among new lawyers might not be as directly linked to remote work as we might assume. After all, feeling lost, alone, and insecure in a new profession didn’t start with Covid, and it won’t end with one more anchor day a week. “When I first started out,” she describes. “I had only one mentor who actually sat down with me and talked things through. Other than that, it was just, ‘hold my bag and watch me work.’ There was no priority for mentorship or connection because those aren’t billable activities.”
She adds that while lawyers are starting to talk more and more about mental health and wellness, these conversations can only go so far without structural changes within the profession. “If you truly believe in wellness, you’ve got to start giving credit for the types of non-billable activities that will actually promote it amongst your employees.” Sure, it might detract from the bottom line, but for Forman: “I'll take happiness over another $10,000 a year any day.”
Seeing the laptop half-charged
If you’re feeling isolated, know that you’re not alone. New research suggests a link between working remotely and mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and exhaustion, especially for those who may already struggle with these issues.3
It might help to lean into the advantages of our new “post” Covid world. “I love that I can attend virtual events in, say, Ontario, without having to pay for and arrange travel,” says Chaudhry. “It’s been a real boost to my career, my learning, and my network.” There are also plenty of resources, such as provincial lawyers associations, like the Alberta Lawyers Assistance Society, or Assist, where Chaudhry volunteers in their Peer Support Program. “You can call them up and talk about anything,” she says. “Practical advice, burnout, or help connecting with people in your area.” Similar organizations exist across the country, and a good place to start looking may be the CBA website, which maintains a list of resources to support all members of Canada’s legal community.
Chaudhry also encourages law students and early career lawyers to reach out to potential connections directly by email or on LinkedIn. “It feels weird, but so what? Lawyers love to talk. We love to talk about ourselves. I’m always happy to talk to someone and help them if I can.”
Forman seconds this, adding that she gets similar requests all the time: “I always make time for a quick coffee over Zoom. Sure, some people are going to say no, but keep going and you’ll find someone who’ll meet with you.” Unfortunately for the introverts out there, relationships are key to the legal profession, and there’s no getting around it. Forman recommends setting aside time every week to focus solely on building connections, both in your workplace and among the legal community at large through bar associations or mentorship programs. “But again,” she adds, “I know that it’s easy for me to say all this stuff. It’s a lot harder when you’re in that position. That's why I can’t stress enough why it’s so important for senior lawyers to bridge the gap.”
Being a lawyer is a hard enough job already, and feeling alone while you’re doing it doesn’t make it any easier. Who hasn’t encountered the familiar doubts: Am I doing good work? Am I fast enough? Did I make the right facial expressions in that Zoom meeting?
And feeling bewildered in the one place we normally feel most comfortable—our homes—adds another layer of disorientating discomfort in an already trying situation. But just because you might be alone from 9-5, doesn’t mean your situation is unique. More than 4,000 law school graduates are called to the bar every year.4 Some of you may be lucky enough to have landed at a firm that fosters a sense of community, while others are still searching. But however hard it’s been so far, it’s worth it to keep trying. After all, while home may be our office, it’s out there too, among the peers, collaborators, and mentors who will shape our professional lives for years to come.
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Written by Frankie Barnet.
Sources: 1. Ranstad Canada, “Is work from home the future?” January 2023. 2. Similar research is cited in the Washington Post article, “Microaggressions at the office can make remote work even more appealing,” published on May 13, 2021. 3. Forbes, “Remote workers report negative mental health impacts, new study finds,” October 2021. 4. In 2019, the Federation of Canadian Law Societies reported that approximately 4,700 law students were called to the bar.