Virtual supervision – the modern dilemma

A guest post by Mark Beesley, chair of Lime Solicitors and Corclaim – part of Shakespeare Martineau

Beesley: You should be available whenever you are needed

Almost a year ago, I caught up with a contemporary of mine for one of my first Zoom calls. He was channelling his “inner Gruffalo” in a rather odd onesie arrangement, set against a backdrop of the Pyramids of Giza.

How excited he was, that he could conduct business calls from his bedroom, without having to travel to work.

Fast forward most of that year, and I caught up again with him recently. He was sat in his chair in his study, an actual backdrop of his bookcase, wearing a white shirt and looking at the screen with his Zoom death stare.

I think it was fair to conclude he probably wasn’t as enthusiastic about Zoom calls as he had been at the outset.

I am sure we have all experienced Zoom fatigue, that series of meetings, back to back, where it feels as if one’s eyes are trapped upon a screen, and the day will never end.

But think of those newer entrants to the business, or the profession, who had expected to be working alongside their peers, mentors and supervisors, experiencing the busy goings-on of an office and learning from all of the experience that brings.

Instead, they have the remoteness of working at home, in some cases isolated from their colleagues, and not having had any office experience for over a year now.

Looking at our role as supervisors of those individuals, how do we ensure that, firstly, they get the experience which they signed up for and, secondly that they have the safety net and enrichment of the supervision which they need and are entitled to expect?

Well, there are the Zoom or Teams calls which do fulfil a purpose and can be an effective way of discussing issues and ensuring matters are kept up-to-date.

There is, however, the risk of them being increasingly formulaic entries in the diary which do not always survive a busy day, or meetings which follow the same pattern and do not achieve as much as they should do, in particular the need to ask an impulsive question when a particular situation arises.

Virtual supervision is important, but it is very important that that supervision doesn’t become virtual, and not fit for purpose. So how do we guard against that?

It is important to look at the bigger picture. It is not all about work and office matters; it all starts with the mental and physical health and wellbeing of the individuals concerned.

Firms should look to have a ‘wellbeing hub’ offering resources to support the individual’s wellbeing in all respects, with guidance as to how and where any additional support can be found, and people both within the business, and sometimes outside, who can make a real difference where the need arises.

There is also the social aspect, and it is important that those joining the business are made to feel part of a team.

So socials, particularly those which have a team-building aspect to them, and perhaps even an element of competition, can really make a difference to a day which can begin to look very groundhog as the weeks and months progress.

I am not a fan of regular Zoom meetings, same time, same day of a week. I think they become more box-ticking exercises if one is not careful.

If it is your responsibility to supervise or mentor an individual, you should be available whenever that individual needs you – not necessarily at the immediate moment, but certainly within a short period of time, whether it is a brief call followed by a later meeting, or whatever suits.

The fact that you are available, and are approachable, is a positive and a reassurance in itself.

Mix up the method of contact, whether it be by telephone, or even switching between Zoom and Teams, and perhaps, if one dare say it and where lockdown rules allow, the odd office meet or coffee.

Take time not just to discuss work, but to see how things are going generally, making sure that the individual feels wanted, supported, part of the team and ‘safe’, in that they feel that the work they are doing is being properly reviewed and supervised.

It is about building up a working relationship and a trust, which is probably taken for granted in the more immediate scenario of an office working relationship.

It is vital that the supervision is effective, is genuine, and is seen as an important part of the working day, not something that has to be done to tick a box. If the latter is the case, it will not work for any lengthy period, if at all, and all it will lead to is distance and disillusionment over the medium and long term.

I go out of my way to contact those I am supporting, rather than just wait for them to contact me, at times to just see how they are doing, to discuss something that has happened in the world, or the firm, just to check in on progress.

I have found over a period of time that this has led to a more natural form of contact back, where the individuals concerned have felt empowered to contact me, and we have had some very good chats, on both work and other issues which have really kept the working relationship alive and flourishing.

Involving others, and getting others to join a catch up call, or indeed working with you on supervision or mentoring, just for a change of voice or approach, can also work well. Variety is the spice of life!

It is unlikely that we will revert to being fully office based, so it is exceptionally important we get this right. There is no one size fits all, it is very much around judging the needs, and sensitivities of an individual.

One thing is for sure, though: if we do not nail supervision properly, it will lead to problems. Whether those problems are errors, which may lead to complaints or claims, or simply the breakdown of working relationships, that must be avoided at all costs.

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