IMS Insights Podcast: Episode 23 - Helene Wasserman on Advancing Culture and DEI Initiatives Remotely
In this episode, we speak with Littler Mendelson Shareholder and former Litigation and Trial Practice Group Co-Chair, Helene Wasserman. Helene joins us to share practical tips for law firm leaders, corporate executives, and in-house counsel on advancing culture and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in a remote working environment.
Teresa Barber: Helene, thank you so much for joining us today on IMS Insights Podcast. It's really a joy to have you here.
Helene Wasserman: Oh, thank you so much for inviting me.
Barber: So I wanted to talk to you. You've had some really interesting work you've been doing lately, and some articles that caught our attention here at IMS. In the spring of just last year, 2020, U.S. communities and businesses were beginning to appreciate, just beginning to appreciate, the severity of the pandemic. At that time, we saw companies and businesses shifting to send employees home.
Barber: Around that time, you and your colleagues at Littler conducted a survey around May of 2020. And you guys found that a majority of in-house counsel, HR professionals, C-suite execs believed everything would be back to normal by summer's end. So obviously, that hasn't quite panned out. How have law firms and in-house counsel been able to keep cases and just keep business moving?
Wasserman: Well, the key is planning and flexibility are the two keys. I know that our firm, way before this all started, put together plans in place, and the plans in place had to shift and keep shifting as things went on. And as the length of the pandemic and the length of the remote work went on. And flexibility is key. It's not only about sending people home with the right equipment that they need to use to be able to keep working. It's other things like, what is the infrastructure to be able to support all of those people working remotely, with all of that different equipment? And will that infrastructure change or need to be added to? Will the equipment be sufficient?
Wasserman: And then you've got the entire issue of how to support people who are working at home and planning and being flexible about that. Will people need to work flexible hours, for example, because they may have childcare issues? They may have to be a teacher during the day and work during the night. And how to be flexible about doing that? Maybe thinking about offering benefits and added benefits to help support people working in a remote environment. So the real key is the combination of having a plan in place and being able to be flexible, to be able to pivot when things change, and you need to add to that plan.
Barber: And it's so interesting, too, because you think about the legal industry and law firms, not always the fastest adopters of innovation right?
Wasserman: No, not at all. Part of the issue is we grew up learning about stare decisis, and how everything we do is based upon prior precedents and prior precedents. But 2020 was an unprecedented year. And clearly, an unprecedented year in our legal community and in our society. So we clearly have had to figure out how to move forward, past the precedents to create new precedents.
Barber: Yeah. It's been an interesting moment. And you hit on continuity, and such a focus. It's just COVID has forced such a focus on continuity for businesses, but also for firms. And I'm curious to hear your thoughts on what the legal community, and what really the litigation community has learned from those necessary shifts that have had to be made.
Wasserman: So much. I've spoken about flexibility, but the key is innovation. The saying used to be necessity is the mother of invention. Well, here, it's been necessity has been the mother of innovation and coming up with new ways. And all of the ways that we are now practicing law are very different in so many respects than we were prior to the pandemic.
Wasserman: And we've had to learn, and we've had to develop new skills. And that's really what's been necessary, the flexibility and the resilience to be able to make those changes. And the understanding of the technology and the willingness to learn the technology to be able to move forward.
Barber: It's so interesting. And just in the corporate world too. In 2020, we saw a rash of announcements. Big tech firms, large professional services, corporations saying they would be working remotely in perpetuity, right?
Barber: So that raises the question for in-house counsel especially, is the corporate professional services office a thing of the past? And how are corporate leaders and in-house counsel going to adapt, or should they be adapting, to this new normal?
Wasserman: Well, it's interesting because you've got to look at it from a positive perspective. And it's hard to find a positive in all of this, but you do. And by working remotely, whether it is a corporate structure or a law firm, you are open to be able to retain and hire a whole different group of talent. There are people out there that would be fully equipped to perform jobs, both in the legal profession and tech, and in any business.
Wasserman: But for very reasons, whether they be family care issues, whether they be due to individual disabilities or health conditions, are not physically capable of working in an office environment. By moving to a completely remote environment, or a significant portion of your work environment being remote, you are basically opening yourself to an entire new talent pool that you may never have thought of and who may never have thought about working with you. So that is something that a business needs to look at, as far as maintaining in this remote environment.
Wasserman: Listen, losing the bill for real estate every month is not going to cause heartburn. Because obviously, businesses are going to save money on real estate, if they're going to a largely remote workforce. But one of the big challenges is the notion of corporate or business culture, because that's what is getting lost in the shuffle. By sending everyone to work remotely, you don't have the water cooler conversations.
Barber: Walking down the hall.
Wasserman: You don't have the walking down the hall. One of the things that I miss the most is just walking down to one of my colleagues opposite to me in the afternoon and say, "Hey, bean or buck?" Meaning, are we going to go down to Starbucks, or are we going to go get a coffee bean today? Which one are we going to do? We miss that by not being in the office.
Wasserman: So businesses need to spend more time, and maybe spend some of the financial resources that they're saving on the real estate side, to find ways of helping develop and foster firm culture—which is a challenge when everyone's working in their own little cubicle that's miles and miles away from someone else's own little cubicle. It's difficult enough to maintain a culture when people are working together. That's multiplied manyfold when people are all in a remote environment.
Barber: That raises some questions, too, in my brain. Diversity, equity, and inclusion has been so important, especially in the post-Weinstein world. We all watched the #MeToo movement. Some of us participated in it. It's created a new normal; pre-COVID created a new normal, specifically regarding corporate culture. Now, in the remote environment, what are the special considerations for companies and for in-house counsel?
Wasserman: And one of the things to add to the list, in 2020, we saw the resurgence of the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement in light of George Floyd’s murder.
Wasserman: So you look at 2020, you want to... I'm glad it's over with because what else could have gone horribly, horribly wrong in 2020? There are ways to work with D&I or DEI issues, and that will help in the same thing that I was just talking about before, as far as corporate culture. For example, the American Bar Association came up with their 21-day Racial Equality Challenge or Racial Equity Challenge, where I know law firms and businesses likewise looked at it as a way of bringing people together, to get people to learn more, and read and understand more about this—this was specific as to racial equity issues.
Wasserman: And have meetings and have meetings via Zoom, or whatever your platform of choice is, to discuss issues. Having and dealing with other issues. You were talking about the #MeToo movement and dealing with women in the workplace. There are studies. Women are, oftentimes, the caregivers in a household and taking care of children. So to the extent that there are benefits that can be offered or meetings that could be offered to have people talk and share their common experience, because we are all experiencing working remotely and dealing with pandemic issues personally, and yet it's a common experience.
Wasserman: And by having affinity groups, having affinity groups within organizations who can work as a group, both to be able to address their shared experiences and to share their experiences with others outside of the affinity groups, those are all ways to both foster a company culture during a pandemic, as well as deal with the DEI issues. It's not as easy to do it as if you'd meet in person, but we've all been at these various office happy hours and office meetings, and that's what needs to be done. There needs to be extra steps taken to bring people into the fold than otherwise would have been there because of the remote working environment.
Barber: That makes sense. Just a deliberate focus, but just translate it into this new Zoom world that we're in.