Jonathan Bond, former Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at law firm Pinsent Masons, led transformational change in a sector not known for being progressive. That future-forward thinking has continued with his new book ‘Workolution’, set to hit the shelves early next year, which considers how profound shifts in the workplace are changing the talent game.
Katrina Stewart, Partner in our Human Resources Practice, sat down with Jonathan to talk about his extensive experience at the top of the HR function and his thought-provoking new book.
Kat Stewart: Jonathan, could you start by telling us about your career so far?
Jonathan Bond: Yes, before taking my sabbatical, I was Director of HR and Learning at Pinsent Masons for 17 years. During that time, there was a great deal of change in the organisation – the board was openminded to innovation and they thought, quite rightly, that it would help the firm stand out and be able to attract the best talent. It was a chance to build something that was different. Throughout my tenure, we went through several big economic events – a global financial crisis, a recession, a boom, a pandemic – these major events meant that as an organisation, we had to reorient. In my opinion, the most critical part of those cycles is always related to people, and the board turned to me to manage that.
KS: So what did you do at Pinsent Masons that was different to the norm in the legal profession?
JB: Well, we were an early adopter of a diversity strategy at a time when most law firms hadn’t thought meaningfully about diversity or inclusion. We were the only law firm to be on the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, which tracks the top UK employers for LGBTQ+ people. That really helped to establish the brand of the firm and we were able to attract hard-to-find talent because people felt they were able to be themselves at Pinsent Masons and we encouraged that. Other employees, meanwhile, felt proud to work for an organisation that was an early adopter. We also made massive progress on gender going from 17% of our partners being female to 34% over a 5 year period.
We became really interested in the way people worked. Most law firms had people sitting in small offices with the doors closed, but we launched our open-plan environment when we moved to a new office at Crown Place in 2012. The senior people were much more accessible and there was a lot more learning going on; people felt trusted because we gave them the freedom to work where they wanted. That was revolutionary in the way law firms worked back then; the fact that people felt trusted was often a reason why they chose to stay at Pinsent Masons. It rewrote the psychological contract with the workforce and was an enabling factor in attracting and retaining really high-quality talent.
KS: Driving these changes must have required support from the leadership team – did you face any resistance? And if so, how did you overcome it in a sector that is traditionally quite set in its ways?
JB: You do get resistance, so there were a couple of things I did to help get things over the line. One was to make sure I knew who my allies were; there was a senior partner who was really interested in innovation so I knew I had somebody in the boardroom who would support a more innovative approach. The other thing was to talk to our clients; for example, the old system was to bonus on the amount of time billed, but when I talked to clients, they said that they didn’t want ‘tired minds and busy fools’; they wanted creative people who understood their business and brought solutions. So, I redesigned the bonus scheme based on what clients wanted. When one or two conservative colleagues queried my proposals, I explained that all fifteen of our top-billing clients wanted us to make the changes I recommended. That was a persuasive argument.
KS: After 17 successful years at Pinsent Masons, you’ve decided to put pen to paper and write a book, what was behind that move?
JB: Over the years, I’ve seen enormous change in the workplace. Organisations are interested in how the world is changing and what they need to do about it. I had the idea of writing a book talking about the profound changes in the workplace and the importance of taking the time to think deeply about what those changes mean. I’ve developed a number of examples which illustrate that change and some thoughts on how we can adapt to it in the book.
KS: The book is called ‘Workolution’ – what’s behind the title?
JB: There has been a revolution in the workplace and there are three things driving this. One is technology and how we work so differently now compared to 30 years ago. The second is generational change with the expectations of Generation Z being so different. And the third factor is the pandemic, which reset the way we think about work and changed attitudes to being present in an office. You put those three things together and you have a very substantial change, which I regard as a revolution.
KS: There’s a section in your book where you talk about technology, and you introduce the idea of ‘Technology Ted’ – can you tell us more about that?
JB: If we imagine that all the technology that has been invented for people was created by one person called ‘Technology Ted’. That leads you to ask; what attitude does Ted have?
Unfortunately, many of the technologies we use lack careful consideration for the intricacies of the human mind. For example, ‘Technology Ted’ assumes the human brain is capable of being interrupted every few seconds and can go back to high-quality thought straight after. But the human mind isn’t really capable of doing that; the science shows it takes 25 minutes to get back to that level of analytical thought after an interruption.
My thesis is that ‘Technology Ted’ hasn’t really thought about how people in business need to work, so we have technology that’s not quite fit for purpose; it needs adaptions. The smart organisation has norms which are clearly communicated and understood so technology is serving them, not the other way round.
KS: Going back to generations, can you tell us more about the generational shift you’ve seen in the workplace?
JB: Generation Z are moulded by different influences, and one of the key ones is the level of patience. Potential employers have to make a fast impression, and people’s time expectations are very different now. In the past, you might have said “come and train here and then after another 15 years, you’ve got a chance of being partner”. Now you have to say, “in your first year, you will have the following opportunities”. Time horizons have to be much quicker, and the psychological contract has shifted. Another factor is that Generation Z are not just looking at opportunities and pay, they are looking at the relationship of that organisation with the planet and the initiatives in place.
KS: The pandemic clearly affected attitudes; what kind of issues have you seen as a result of this?
JB: The obvious issue is place of work and whether everyone should be in an office, at home or a combination of the two. I think there have been one or two things that have been overplayed here. One is that we need ‘water cooler’ moments in the workplace to foster creativity. That said, I do think young people are really missing out if they are not working with more experienced colleagues in the office. There’s a place for pushing people to be in a collaborative environment, but the emphasis must be on learning rather than having people sit at a bank of desks with heads down answering emails because there’s no point being there in that case.
KS: Can you tell us a bit more about the different leadership styles you talk about in your book?
JB: So, you have the ‘superhero leader’ who is the first person in the office and the last to leave at night. But when you speak to the people who work for them, they say it’s demoralising because nothing you do will ever meet the ‘superhero leader’s’ standard. We can help that leader come up with a different message, and then the motivation of the workers can improve.
Then you have the ‘absent leader,’ it might be that you can never find them or that they are there physically but not mentally; they say they have time to talk, but then don’t actually listen. To improve this, we can work on making sure the leader finds the right time to actively listen to their peers.
Empowering people, realising your high-quality resources, trusting people, and avoiding micromanaging are all examples of leadership styles that can achieve higher performance, increasing the likelihood of retaining top talent in your organisation.
My thanks to Jonathan for sharing both his deep expertise leading the People function and fascinating insights from his new book. Please get in touch to continue the conversation.
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