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East Midlands Chamber News

Embracing the 'new normal’: Geldards chairman David Williams on returning to offices, millennials and the lockdown 'grief process'

After more than 30 years at one of the East Midlands’ largest law firms, David Williams has been through many periods of change – but the biggest transformation could be just around the corner as we enter the so-called “new normal”. He tells Dan Robinson what he thinks this will look like – and why millennials may have been a few steps ahead of their employers all along

 

 

Almost every working day since the middle of March, David Williams has written a blog for his colleagues at Geldards.

He has covered the kinds of personal topics that have occupied the minds of many people since a Covid-induced lockdown begun, ranging from the challenges of mental health and entertaining children through to the simple joy of receiving an Amazon parcel.

After 100-plus days, finding original ideas to explore has grown rather tiring – much like the novelty of being confined to living rooms, spare bedrooms and kitchens has worn off for many of the nation’s office workers.

“It doesn’t feel like I’m working from home at this point – it’s more like living at work,” says David.

“For a lot of people, that’s a problem because they’re working from Monday to Friday, and then on a Saturday they’re opening their laptop because that’s just what they do now.

“Wherever they’re choosing to work inside their home, the environment is the same for both work and life. People are desperate for some variety.

“Humans are also social animals – we want to be around people and not having the opportunity to do that is causing frustration.”

 

Has Covid-19 changed perceptions of office working in the new normal?

This was highlighted by a survey of Geldards’ 340 staff carried out several months into lockdown.

It found that, while 83% of employees felt they were equipped to work from home, 92% wanted to return to the office.

“That’s not a bad thing because it means they have something that holds them together,” says David, who is chairman of the firm where he has worked since 1989.

“If you spend your life working at home, I don’t know where the mothership fits into that because people need to be bound into a team and friendship group.

“But a percentage in the high-80s want to work flexibly when they return to the office. They don’t just want to go back to the nine ’til five routine but have a way of working that fits around school hours, commuting or other aspects of their lifestyle.”

An adjustment of the work-life balance pendulum is a central pillar of the “new normal” that has become a favourite buzzword of these times.

Adopting new technologies has been crucial and David has witnessed a “monstrous evolution” in which his company transformed in four months – arguably even four days – at a rate that he previously didn’t believe would be possible in four years.

But it also relies on a measure of trust between employers and their staff – who he reasons should no longer be doubted by sceptical managers for not putting in the hard yards should they wish to spend a day working on their kitchen tabletop once everyone is back in the office.

David admits he wasn’t immune to such an “old school” mentality but, like many, has modernised his outlook on the workplace during the pandemic.

“We’ve all had duvet days, but because we went into this with a siege mentality to work really hard in order to make sure the business survived and prospered, that attitude just went overnight.”

 

Are employers now adopting millennials' attitudes to working in the new normal?

From spending too much money on iPhones and Costa coffees to being embroiled in a perpetual struggle to get on the housing ladder, millennials make for fascinating subject material among social commentators.

The US think-tank Pew Research Center defines Generation Y, another name for this cohort, as those born between 1981 and 1996.

With a 33-year-old son and 30-year-old daughter – as well as numerous employees from this age group – David is very familiar with how millennial expectations and ways of life differ to his own generation.

“They have a very serious attitude to building careers and working hard, but they don’t think that needs to be nine ‘til five,” says the 63-year-old, who lives in Smalley, Derbyshire.

“My son in particular will work at any time in the 24 hours and doesn’t see a difficulty in that. He might be going for a run while most people are in the office but then he will come back in the evening and do some more work.

“So the millennial generation was already thinking in a different way. They probably looked at their parents and thought they had no quality of life – they just work to live and live to work – so they said ‘I’m not doing that’.

“When lockdown hit and the work was still getting done, this group of people said ‘I told you so, now just let us get on with it’.

“We might have fixed the national productivity problem in one fell swoop because everyone is now just focused on delivery.”

For corporations like Geldards – a full-service firm with offices in Derby, Nottingham, Cardiff and London that ranks in the top 100 of the Legal 500 across numerous sectors – however, this could have unintended consequences if the new world is not put into full perspective.

David can already smell the danger of remote workers with no physical ties to their employers losing a sense of loyalty that makes it far easier for them to take their intellectual capital elsewhere when the opportunity suits.

But he is reassured by the surveys showing most people do want to be back in the office at some level, while he believes his company’s clients – which include Walgreens Boots Alliance and Derby City Football Club – are drawn to the bespoke advice and values that can only come from lawyers feeling part of a group.

It means that while Geldards will not, by his own admission, emerge unscathed from the Covid-19 crisis – like many businesses, it has some people on the furlough scheme and growth on the £26m turnover it posted in July 2019 has been subdued – he can already plot a V-shaped recovery.

He adds: “The ‘new normal’ is going to look different to everyone. There’s probably those who are desperate to go back to the nine ‘til five in the office and there will be others who don’t want to go back to that at all.

“The key is to be flexible. If you can deliver what you’re supposed to deliver then, within reason, it doesn’t matter where and when you do it as long as you’re accessible to your clients and customers – which we all are because our devices are welded to us 24/7.

“So to me, the ‘new normal’ means changing the habits of a working lifetime. I’ve made a career from meeting people and suddenly I can only do that on Teams and Zoom, but it’s still working.

“If I can change, it’s not too late for everyone else.”

 

How Covid-19 lockdown has affected mental health for home workers

David will soon have another blog to write, should he be able to find a new subject to broach that hasn’t already been covered over the course of lockdown.

He’s been keen to make his posts very personal and admits, even as the chairman of the firm, that he can sometimes be “fed up” with lockdown life and isn’t exactly “bouncing the few yards from my bed to my desk on a Monday morning” just like everyone else.

Some people have endured significant mental health struggles, he notes, due to the claustrophobia associated with less luxurious living conditions or the lack of certainty that follows furlough or redundancy.

But there’s also those less spoken about during the crisis – the people who have kept working, remained safe and aren’t in any immediate crisis.

“Yet at the same time, there’s been no huge excitement at all – they’ve just been going along gradually,” he says.

David, who is also interim chairman of the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership, compares the lockdown situation to a grief process that everyone has gone through.

"Initially, it was excitement because it was all new,” he adds. “The sun shone so we could sit outside with a cup of coffee for the first time while working and people were saying ‘hey, this actually works’.

“Then there was the realisation that lockdown doesn’t change things overnight, and of course the weather changed. That put us in the grudging acceptance period.

“The next phase is potentially exciting, as we hope the world wakes up again and we can return to that world – but not in the way it was operating before.

“Not necessarily having to do the commute every morning, or go to the office every day, so we can have the life we had before – but better.”

 

David Williams' interview featured in the August/September edition in Business Network magazine, which is now available to read here.

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