I recently departed a family video conference call that included a multitude of generations: from my tech-averse, almost-80-year-old mother all the way to her ’tween Generation Z grandchildren. Bringing everyone together showed how, these days, everyone needs to master virtual conferencing to connect with family members who are sheltering beyond their own home.
Beyond this family context, I’ve wondered what impact this pandemic will have on some stereotypical generational divides—like technology adoption—seen in the corporate world. Because, before we know it, it will be 2025, when three-quarters of the global workforce will be Millennials and Gen-Zers; additionally, the last of the Boomers will have left the workforce and Gen-Xers will begin to retire.
In the corporate context, has COVID impacted these generational divides and stereotypes? Early indications are yes: In these early days of the pandemic, it is no longer only Millennials and Generation Z who are embracing technology for business continuity. Suddenly, like my elderly mother and her ability to navigate Zoom, it appears that all generations must embrace technology that was once the exclusive realm of Millennials: Use a smartphone to order groceries! Go online to patronize your favorite restaurants and retail stores! Meet up after work for socially distanced “happy hours” on a video platform nearest you! For anyone who may have doubted these new ways a few months ago, the rise of the global COVID-19 pandemic has shone an even brighter spotlight on the need for all generations to harness the power of technology.
Because of its unprecedented nature, corporations have been reactive to the pandemic situation. While this immediate change may have accelerated some digital adoption (as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it recently, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”), more change is on the horizon for multi-generation workforces.
For legal departments, the most pressing challenge will be at the executive level—namely the GC/CLO. GCs of larger enterprises are disproportionately represented by the Boomer generation, and they often embody the institutional memory of the legal organization. If that knowledge is not captured in a systematic and teachable way, a GC’s retirement party could be cause for panic, not celebration.
Related, one “stereotype” of the Millennial generation that is borne out by research is that they are more likely to change companies more often than their predecessors. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does make the need for documented processes and transition plans all the more important.
Perhaps in light of these trends, the newly released Corporate Legal Operations Consortium “Core 12” model touches on several considerations in connection with succession planning. For instance, under “Knowledge Management,” legal department operations (LDO) professionals must address the fact that departments often struggle to find and retain knowledge and best practices, and they rely primarily on unstructured “tribal knowledge” that fails to scale as the team grows or changes. Under the “Organization Optimization & Health” competency, legal departments are encouraged to create a pipeline of talent by investing in mentoring, internship programs, and succession planning. Finally, on the technology front, departments are encouraged to create a clear technology vision to automate manual processes, digitize physical tasks, and improve speed and quality through technology solutions, like contract lifecycle management.
But how to begin? Here are three ways to start:
Have Clear Succession and Training Plans in Place
As part of long-term strategic planning, legal departments should create succession plans—not just for the GC (though that is a must), but also for each attorney and legal department operations professional. GCs and LDOs should partner and identify likely turnover within their department. Is that turnover based on retirement? A transient workforce? Unforeseen business disruptions or even shutdowns? Where might there be gaps in the delivery of legal services to the business caused by movement—retirements, layoffs, closures or otherwise? And are these succession plans adaptable enough to be usable both by workforces located in a central office and those that work remotely—and by employees who must unexpectedly shift from one mode to the other?
After identifying potential movement, from the GC down, members of the legal department should have a clear plan for who will fill each role when employees leave the company, or when outside circumstances force an organizational shakeup and reassignment of responsibilities. For GCs, this means having a codified succession plan that allows them to coach an heir apparent for each position. For others, the key is more about having clear definitions about what their job responsibilities are and how they can be repeated and trained. Take into consideration what can be done to onboard new employees entering the department or provide additional support to those who (perhaps without warning) are promoted into new roles. Being proactive in making sure that your successors are trained and feel supported during a transition is vital to success and using technology wherever possible to facilitate these transitions will greatly enhance your company’s chances.
Leave a Legacy of Good Technology
Technology can be a powerful tool to mitigate challenges caused by generational or other changes. Be it a SharePoint folder or something more robust, technology can capture and preserve workflow processes and other tribal knowledge so they can be easily learned and repeated during a transition.
Consider a long-time contract manager in your department. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of where documents live in her Outlook folder and is always happy to dig something up for you if you need it. But that’s not a repeatable process. Instead, she should use a digital repository to get all those documents out of her Outlook and personal One Drive and onto a centralized platform for managing the lifecycle of a contract (e.g., contract management software) that others can search in. She can also document, or even automate, where different contracts need to be routed before approval. She’s essentially uploading her skills into the system. Corporate counsel can build templates, dynamic clause libraries and digitized contract playbooks for generations of legal professionals to come. Our current COVID-19 crisis, as social distancing and working from home scatters employees far from a company’s main offices, provides even more evidence that a centralized digital repository is not only more convenient, it’s indispensable.
Having technology in place will also help keep a Millennial workforce in place. As a generation with little tolerance for inefficiencies, they will expect automation and tech to be the backbone of what they do, and will appreciate departments that make them a priority. For continuity and knowledge exchange in the face of workforce turnover or outside disruptions, a retiring GC should work with her LDO partner to leave a legacy of technology use and adoption that will make a transition much smoother.
Leave a Legacy of Data
Building off the above recommendation, a byproduct of good technology use is good data.
Data can tell amazing stories, but only if you capture it, and the COVID-19 crisis has further emphasized this. Legal departments should think hard about what data they are collecting and whether it will help new employees (or employees in new roles) pick up where their predecessors left off.
In ongoing or volatile business situations, workforce changes will be streamlined and employees placed in a better position with a data-driven legal department able to address the following questions: What trends are you seeing in outside legal costs? Which business divisions are asking for the most support? Which contract templates are seeing the most deviations? Especially for a generation that has grown accustomed to Big Data, this information will meet them where they’re at and empower them to drive the business forward in the decades to come.
While some generational differences will be erased by COVID-19, other differences will remain pressing. Legal departments that ignore generational changes, whether foreseen or sudden, and the necessity of automation to facilitate these changes, do so at their own peril. The next generation of legal ops professionals will no doubt take the profession to new heights; whether that will be true for your individual company depends on how well you set them up for success.
Despite what you might have heard, in my opinion, this generational change is a good thing. Far from the lazy, entitled generation of lore, Millennials are digital natives who are enthusiastic about finding ways to be faster and more efficient—and recent developments have further disproved that pernicious myth.
Millennials ushered in a world where you could order dinner or shop for a world of consumer goods, all with a smartphone. Not surprisingly, they also want to make business processes just as seamless.
But the speedy adoption of Zoom was only a first step. This shift is exposing the inadequacies of traditional, unautomated business methods. Generational shifts are never without challenges, but the COVID-19 crisis is forcing companies to face the technological expectations and requirements of a new younger cohort of workers now, rather than somewhere down the road. The importance of carrying out these changes smoothly should not be taken for granted.