In the past year, we have had to adopt new ways of working. Teams calls have become a feature of daily working life. Working hours have become somewhat flexible, with some swapping the commute to start work earlier, and others signing on later to catch up on emails while home-schooling. Some businesses have closed their offices, making remote working the new normal. Other businesses have concluded that there is no going back and that they must offer their employees a hybrid of remote/ office working. With so many changes, I wonder how much of this will stick post-pandemic. More importantly, how many of these changes are here to stay for good?
While each person will have their own opinion based on their experience and circumstances, I want to look at working life in 2021, and what this means for trainees and supervisors.
Pre-pandemic, I would have said that a trainee could not do their training contract remotely. I now accept this to be a naive opinion. It was based on concerns about supervision, and whether I could get time with my colleagues to ask questions. While these are valid concerns, they should be seen as challenges that could be overcome with appropriate safeguards. Having completed my training contract, with a year of it spent working remotely, I now know that I was not disadvantaged.
Remote working does not need to be seen as working alone. As a trainee, you should feel supported at all times. You must also feel that you are able to raise your hand whenever you need to ask a question. So how does one do this remotely?
Remote working does not need to be seen as working alone. As a trainee, you should feel supported at all times
First, as a trainee you should have regular catch-ups with your supervisor. During my training contract we had something called daily stand-ups. This lasted only 15-20 minutes but was an opportunity to catch up with my team and run through our work. I used it as an opportunity to ask questions and for work allocation, taking on new work, or getting support for an existing matter. A byproduct of these meetings was that it served as my guaranteed human interaction for the day, keeping personal feelings of isolation at bay.
For supervisors reading this article who may be alarmed by this concept, I know 15 minutes a day may not be manageable – but five minutes is. As a supervisor you should have an oversight of everyone in your team, including junior members of staff who might need extra support. A guaranteed five minutes a day could make all the difference. This could be the meeting that mitigates the risk of a mistake being made, or an opportunity to give feedback.
You should also have regular meetings with your training principal to monitor your training.
Wellbeing at work
Reading this, you might notice the running theme of communication. It is easy to fall into bad habits when remote working. These can include a lack of distinction between working hours and home life, which can quickly lead to burn-out.
As trainees, we are often keen to please without an afterthought for our own well-being. Why? Because we want to be seen as hard workers, an asset and deserving of being kept on post-qualification.
In the office, you can see who works late. In the remote-working world, there is a lack of visibility. Do you know who in your team is regularly working late? Is this late working a choice they have made out of convenience, or is it a result of a culture where you need to be ‘seen’ working at all times? Do you know who is struggling in your team?
Junior lawyers are far more likely to find themselves adopting the habits of their supervisors. I would urge supervisors to consider whether that email needs to be sent outside ‘traditional’ working hours. Of course, there will be exceptions where extra hours are required. However, an email sent at your convenience at 11pm might give the impression to the recipient that such work needs to be tended to at that time. This can lead to a culture where the division between work and home life is blurred – or worse yet, non-existent. If you find this is a familiar occurrence, consider making it clear that your email does not require an immediate response, checking in with both your trainees’ wellbeing, and your own.
Looking at the rest of the year and beyond, I do not expect firms or companies to start remote training contracts, or to make remote working the default. As a profession, office working is, for the most part, here to stay post-pandemic. However, where remote working is offered, either fully or flexibly, I hope that employers will embrace it for all staff, including trainees, by having the confidence to support them. In turn, trainees can then expect to have the confidence in themselves to work remotely.
The Law Society has published new guidance on supervising and supporting junior staff and trainees via hybrid and flexible working models.