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How to Realistically Manage Work-Life Balance Expectations Post COVID

Written by Amanda Felt

Interview with AndrewMcGaan, a Senior Partner with Kirkland & Ellis


The Great Resignation. QuietQuitting. There seems to be a new term every week that attempts to capture what people leaders are managing in the upheaval of COVID. Clearly, the ways in which we collectively approach our relationship to work and expectations of work-life balance have evolved. Much of this has been driven by the upheaval of COVID, but many aspects of this phenomenon have been brewing for quite some time, and emotionally intelligent leaders will be critical to navigate the differing and evolving expectations around work-life balance.

I recently connected with AndrewMcGaan, a senior partner with the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, to gather his thoughts about what is driving the renewed focus on work-life balance, and how firms can / should react if they a re to remain competitive and retain top talent. Below is what he had to share:

Andrew, how different are theexpectations related to work-life balance when you were rising through your firm versus today?

Andrew: They are very different. There were no formal expectations orguidelines related to work-life balance 30 years ago when I started at my firm. You simply stayed focused on getting the job done, period. You did whatever it took to do your work well and satisfy clients. That was a given. If I had personal obligations that conflicted with my work, I wouldn’t consider raising them with partners I was working for, much less clients. The idea that I would go to a senior lawyer and say, “Can you find someone else to take on this work so I can have personal time or go on vacation?” would have been absurd.

Today, the work culture has changed enormously, some of it good, some of it not so good in my opinion. All levels of leadership recognize that evolution, which has by and large been healthy. There is more openness to recognizing and accommodating work-life balance among attorneys, but there are of course limits if we are to continue providing elite service. Our clients expect us to deliver without exception, but we also appreciate that people who feel balanced are happier and more loyal. There is a middle ground when it comes to work-life balance that every employer wants to achieve.

Particularly for women, work-lifebalance takes on outsized importance. Firms have an obligation to make it clear that women won’t be “punished” or held back because they took time to have and raise children. That is criticalfor firms to be successful, and it’s the right thing to do. Equally, paternity leave is common and accepted now. It used to be an “oddity,” even a joke, but thankfully that has changed and it’s now commonplace.

We believe that there’s greaterpressure on leaders to strike the right balance between accommodating their employees’ desire for work-life balance and meeting market demands. Would you agree? 

Yes, that sort of acceptance of thechanging norms of work-life balance comes from the top down. Cultural shifts in the workplace start with leadership. The bottom line is if you aren’t adapting to the new realities, your competitors will hire the better candidates. You might be able to fill the ranks, but can you fill the ranks with the best talent? That requires meeting employees where they want to be while still being clear about performance expectations. I think the leadership in our firm has been particularly good at this.

So, what does work-life balance really mean today? Can you give some examples? 

Andrew: Three decades ago I would have defined work-life balancesimply as, “How much time do you have to spend at home with your family versus work.” Today, it is much more nuanced. “Can I go live in a different state or a small town and still do my work?” “Can I clock in at noon and work until 10 p.m.?” “Can I take a sabbatical or an extended leave when I’m feeling exhausted or burned out?” Of course, there are many other examples of how work-life balance expectations manifest themselves today.

The reality is COVID has acceleratedhow flexible a firm is willing to be when it comes to how, where and when people work, provided the work product does not suffer, nor do your teammates. That is no small thing. Ultimately, it’s up to each person to navigate how to satisfy his or her personal commitments while still producing high-quality work. In myriad ways, our firm works to try to accommodate this balancing. The combination of hard work with increased flexibility can be a powerful incentive.

Are those expectations realistic? Ultimately, do you feel they will be a good thing for organizations and their bottom lines … or a drag on productivity and culture?

 Andrew: It’s driven by the competition what is realistic and what isnot realistic. Your name is on every job you do. I believe that means you do not stop until it’s done, and you don’t do it unless you can do it well. That’s
how I was brought up, and I still believe strongly in that work ethic.

The reality is productivity is down among American workers. In theory, working differently works well, assuming the work gets done. But the idea of working less and less and still remaining competitive as a firm and an individual is not realistic long term. It is imperative for our nation and economy that we remain the innovative, hard-working country we’ve always been. If we can make that happen working “differently,” then great.

What are the consequences for firmsthat don’t accommodate the expectations of Gen Z and other workers when it comes to how, where and when they want to work? Can they remain competitive?

Andrew: In our business, pressure to adapt comes from the law studentswe recruit, and they are fairly sophisticated critics of the law firms courting them. To a degree, it also comes from the clients we serve. If a law firm instituted a policy that was not well accepted by the top half of graduating classes of lawyers or regarded as problematic by its clients, good luck. If you think it’s important to hire the best talent, you are not going to be able to revert back to “the way things were.” If you don’t keep up with cultural / workplace expectations, the employees you want to hire and retain will go elsewhere. They have that luxury, especially today. Leadership needs to
recognize this new reality and carefully plot the path forward. Refusing to do so is done at your and your firm’s peril.

 Do you think this is our “newnormal” going forward? And if so, how well prepared are leaders to manage these different expectations?

 Andrew: There is going to be a pendulum effect thatwill take place. Whenever there is competitive pressure in the workplace, that causes a reaction to meet worker and client expectations. However, if that is a demand to simply “work less,” there will be individuals and organizations who will step in to fill that void and win new business. So, the expectations related to work-life balance will likely swing back and forth until we achieve a sort of equilibrium. That could take a while, and it will require emotionally intelligent and human-centered leadership to get there. But in the end, I believe it will be enormously healthy for everyone involved.

Amanda Felt is a partner and executivecoach with The Center for Advanced Emotional Intelligence, an executive coaching andorganizational consulting firm that works with senior leaders to enhance their leadership capability and build thriving, sustainable organizations.  

The views expressed in this article are of Amanda Felt and Andrew McGaan, and not those of Kirkland & Ellis.