Workplaces have changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses must find tools to support their workers in the current climate and going forward that emphasize substance over form and consider the individual circumstances of their employees. Moreover, lawyers must find tools to support themselves to ensure that their well-being and careers get the attention they need and deserve.
Businesses need to be responsive to their employees’ individual needs and assess them on an ongoing basis. “Communication is key,” says Rachel Sachs, chair of the OBA’s Women Lawyers Forum and principal lawyer at Sachs Law. She took note of the challenges facing lawyers with increased care responsibilities, such as childcare and care for elderly relatives, before the pandemic and the result is the Parent and Caregivers Network. The group is dedicated to creating a community for lawyers and other workers facing care responsibilities while trying to navigate their careers.
“Our society places so much emphasis on the individual to the detriment of the community that it hinders our ability to ask for help, at work or in our communities,” says Sachs. For women, BIPOC families, and traditionally disadvantaged groups, including those with disabilities or caring for loved ones with disabilities, single parents, low-income workers, “Everything is exacerbated,” she says. Those who depend heavily on external care supports or healthcare providers were cut off from these resources. It is critical that businesses take these factors into account.
At BMO Financial Group, the overarching question governing the bank’s response to the pandemic was “How do we ensure that we are connecting, and that we stay connected?” says Shannon O’Hearn, vice-president and chief operating officer in BMO’s Legal & Regulatory Compliance group. The business acted quickly to move its operations to remote work but understood immediately that workers would not be in a position to replicate their usual working conditions. Therefore, the bank went further. “There are things that we may not know but that we could guess about an individual employee’s circumstances,” says O’Hearn. Putting in place flexible systems, such as a paid leave program, a virtual health app, and “ask an expert” conference calls, took the onus off individual employees to say that they were struggling.
BMO Capital Markets lawyer Bianca Thomas says the bank’s efforts have paid off. Her work remains rewarding thanks to the strides the bank has made in its technology, and the culture of inclusivity and support that was always present has kicked into high hear. “It was really isolating at the start,” she says. “The thing that I really appreciated and where BMO really shines is making people feel connected.”
Thomas notes that while things have gone smoothly in supporting the business, not everything is easy. “Networking has been more difficult; it is a bit awkward to reach out to someone new on a Zoom call. That has been a bit of an adjustment.”
Paulette Pommells, principal coach and CEO of Creative Choices for the 21st Century Lawyer Inc., suggests that notwithstanding the challenges, now is the ideal time for lawyers to take stock of their careers and what they need for themselves in the long term. Pommells reminds lawyers that careers will last beyond the pandemic: “This will be one of the few moments in our lives when it’s considered normal to engage in self-reflection. Don’t miss a prime opportunity to think about what you really want, what makes you happy and what’s most important to you.”
Workers need to feel that they are welcome for who they are in their workplace. It is the small steps that employers take to build an innovative and supportive culture that ensure the resilience of the company’s most vulnerable employees and of the enterprise as a whole when that enterprise is tested: “It’s remarkable what a company can accomplish when they take the time to really listen to the needs of their workforce,” Pommells says. However, she notes, “businesses must also act on what they learn in a meaningful way.”
For O’Hearn, listening to the employees in her group means remembering the advice she was given when she started at BMO: “I was told, ‘bring your whole self to the office.’” Working from home, while juggling the many stressors that entails means that no one can hide who they are. “The curtain is now open. The level of empathy is now expanded,” she says. “We really understand who it is we work with, and how we can best support them.”
Rachel Sachs offers this advice to lawyers who are feeling overwhelmed at work and in their careers: “We are our harshest critics. No one can do it all and no one should have to. Ask for help from family, friends, health care providers, or your employer if you feel comfortable. Talk to someone you trust and try to find a support group (such as the Parent and Caregiver Network) and remember that you are not alone and under the circumstances, you are doing great.”
Paulette Pommells is the principal coach and CEO at Creative Choices for the 21st Century Lawyer Inc. Her website includes access to a free assessment tool for discovering values. Seehttps://21stcenturylawyer.ca/creative-choices/.
Rachel Sachs is the founding lawyer of Sachs Law, the chair of the OBA Women Lawyers’ Forum and the founder of the Parent Caregiver Network at the OBA. If you’re a lawyer, join the Parent and Caregiver Network slack group to find your peers atclparentcaregiverntwk.slack.com.
Rachel Migicovsky is a lawyer and the technology liaison on the OBA’s Civil Litigation Section Executive.