By Roy Smollan, Auckland University Of Technology, New Zealand
Cheetham and Wynne, a fast-growing law firm started in 1976 by Owen Cheetham and Jack Wynne, had been located in a downtown Auckland office for nearly 40 years. The company specialised in commercial law, with many of their clients being banking, insurance and finance organisations. For a long time, all of the lawyers had been white males, most of whom had gone to the same school as Owen and Jack. The administrative and paralegal staff were mostly younger women. Late on Friday afternoons the lawyers often went to the O’Connell Club, a members-only club, styled on those found in London, where they could eat, drink and play snooker and darts. Originally, it was an all-male domain, but when the club had been accused of discrimination it had opened its doors to female members. Only a few women had joined in the past decade, though, and there were also only a few non- white members. Many deals were done by the Cheetham and Wynne law firm in this club or on the golf course.
Two new partners had joined the firm four years ago, Mark Cheetham and Cathy Wynne. Like their fathers, they had been classmates at university. Cathy was the first female lawyer to be hired. Since the two had started at the practice, the number of clients—many of which were internet, mobile and software companies—had grown significantly. These firms were aggressively sought by the two young lawyers, who specialised in the protection of patents and other intellectual property. It had taken considerable persuasion from the two younger partners for the firm to hire Anand Moodley, who concentrated on environmental issues, and Pauline Herata, who had strong connections with Mãori businesses and community organisations. The two senior partners had initially been reluctant to employ lawyers, who, as Jack had put it, were ‘not like us’, or to go into fields that were different from the safe commercial arena they knew well. However, they had softened their stance somewhat when the firm experienced strong growth in the newer areas.
The size of the firm had grown, too, from a stable 14 to a total of 30 staff, and the premises were found to be too small. In addition to the four partners there were 13 other lawyers, five legal executives (staff who concentrate on debt collection and property transfers but who are not qualified lawyers), six secretaries, a receptionist and an accountant.
A few weeks ago the firm moved into a brand-new office building opposite the harbour. Mark and Cathy had persuaded their fathers to agree to an open-plan form of office design. An email from the partners to all staff one month before the move pointed out the reasons for the move and for the new office layout. It was suggested that the benefits included more flexibility and opportunities for teamwork. The email noted that open plan is a more economical use of space. Since the firm was growing, building walls for offices and then knocking them down and rebuilding them for new offices would be very expensive. The cost savings on building fixed walls was significant and part of this would be put into providing more expensive and more comfortable furniture. A team atmosphere would develop when people were working ‘side-by-side’ and communicating more often. Confidential meetings were to be held in a number of meeting rooms, with a new online system used to book the rooms. Cathy Wynne had been behind the office move and had liaised with the interiors firm that had furnished it. The walls were painted in a range of pastel colours, decorated with modern paintings, and the desks had glass tops. There was a large informal kitchen and a staff area that included beanbags, magazines, comics and games. The idea had been to create a more relaxed and vibrant work space where more creativity and social interaction could take place. She and Mark allocated the desk spaces to all of the staff.
The senior partners, Jack and Owen, were opposed to mixing with the rest of the staff but were happy to share an enclosed corner office. Jack now worked only in the afternoons and Owen, whose appearances were becoming less and less frequent, often played golf in the afternoons. Mark and Cathy were to be part of the open-plan layout but their ‘spaces’ were located on the other side of the office, also facing the harbour.
A mixed response
A few weeks after the move the two senior partners were lunching, at the expense of the firm, at an upmarket restaurant and discussing the staff response to the new office setting.
‘Cheeky buggers’, said Jack, ‘I saw a fake memo claiming that some people are more equal than others. Probably referring to our office, Owen. And was that picture of two fat pigs supposed to be us? Of course we aren’t equal, never were, never will be! Some senior associates complain that they have lost status without their own offices and that the online booking system does not work properly. And I think that “playpen” that Cathy created just encourages them to loaf and chat. Law is a serious business.’
‘That’s nothing’, claimed Owen, ‘I heard two secretaries moaning that they couldn’t talk to their boyfriends now that others could listen in. Ah, things are not what they used to be. Since we let our kids take over too much has changed. The office decor is revolting, and as for all these new people around . . . I don’t recognise the place. I was asking a group of people in the kitchen what they thought of the rugby test match and most said they didn’t watch rugby.’
‘Well, you can’t expect women to’, replied Owen, ‘but these Chinese and Indians just don’t care about that stuff. And another thing, I was telling a really funny joke the other day about Jewish lawyers, Mãori lawyers and Indian lawyers and nobody laughed. A few stalked out . . . bloody cheek! This is our firm but I am beginning to feel like a stranger.’
At another lunchtime gathering, several of the administrative and paralegal staff were talking about the new offices. Some liked the modern feel of the place and its sweeping harbour views, while others were nostalgic about the old premises.
‘I don’t like this open-plan stuff’, complained Mai Ling, ‘you can’t talk without everybody listening to you. I have to go outside to speak to my boyfriend on my mobile. Costs a lot more, too.’
‘We are too far from the shops’, was the opinion of Candy Wood, ‘and the cafés here are just too expensive’.
‘Yeah, I got moaned at the other day for being on Facebook’, said Brian Talanoa, ‘even though it was about the new environmental initiative we are working on. You get the feeling everyone knows everyone’s business, and that big brother—and sister—are spying on you. But what I do like is that this is a nice place to go jogging.’
‘I like the open-plan thing’, said Candy, ‘I hated being stuck in that cramped coffin next to Mr Wynne’s office. We chat where we are; it’s much friendlier than before.’
‘I know’, replied Mai, ‘we can hear you all the time! And we do have other problems with
the new set-up. Some lawyers have complained that they often need to discuss private matters with clients over the phone and can’t always take the calls in the meeting rooms. They moan that it is only the grumpy old men who have their own office. And no one got asked what they wanted in the new offices. Seems like Catherine the Great did it all by herself. And of course she is in the corner with the best views. From where I sit I can’t even see outside.’
The old boys’ club
One day, Anand and Pauline were in a meeting room discussing an issue that had arisen with a Mãori community in the Bay of Islands. A plan to develop a new community centre had fallen foul of local council regulations because of concerns about the safety of the site on top of a cliff. The two lawyers had become firm friends since joining the firm within the same week two years ago.
‘This has been a fantastic career move for me’, enthused Anand. ‘Working for a distinguished law firm really opens doors. Mark and Cathy have been really supportive and winning some of the cases we have taken on is incredibly gratifying. I recall that time we won the case over the toxic fertilisers used on a farm near the Waikato River. Both Mark and Cathy came to court in Hamilton for a week to give me a hand.’
‘I am not so sure’, responded Pauline. ‘I was happy when they agreed to pay off my student loan when I joined. That really helped, so I should be more grateful. Working with Mãori communities and businesses is great but sometimes I get the feeling that I am just a token representative. There are only two female lawyers here too—it still feels like an old boys’ club to me. I have never been invited to the O’Connell Club for drinks with the grumpy old men, though they seem to take all the male lawyers there. But I am not even sure I want to go. There are only a few women or Mãori members.’
‘Well, I’ve never been invited either’, replied Anand. ‘And I would not go. I don’t drink alcohol. And I heard Brian complain that he went a few times on Fridays but felt awkward there, and he didn’t like it that he felt he couldn’t leave till 9 p.m. His wife really moaned at him. I must say, they do demand a lot from us. I had to miss my son’s soccer tournament last weekend.’
‘Well, I don’t seem to have time for much of a social life myself’, Pauline remarked. ’I seem to get out of here well after seven most days and I have spent a lot of time out of town on business this year. I have asked for some help on cases, but when I spoke to Jack about it he was very curt with me. Said we were too short-staffed. Yet when the partners need more staff they even hire temps.’
Meanwhile, after a meeting, a few of the paralegal staff had stayed behind in one of the meeting rooms to talk about their jobs. Anna Ivanova was clearly unhappy. ‘When I joined I was told that that I would get a salary increase if I had a good performance review. So how good is 4 per cent? That is barely above the cost of living increase everyone else got. And since I got that contract for my brother’s property company, you would think I would have been given a bonus for that alone. Telling me I had done a good job is one thing—being properly rewarded is quite another.’ What she did not say was that she had given her brother some confidential information about one of his competitors, who was also a client of the firm. Jack had suspected this but could not prove it. He had, however, voiced his opinion to Owen, who had said nothing about it to Anna.
‘So you think that is bad!’ exclaimed Mai. ‘I got no increase except the 2 per cent everyone got. You don’t even know what they expect from you or how you are going to be judged in these performance reviews. In mine Mr Wynne said that I was too slow to process contracts and that I make too many mistakes. When I asked him what mistakes I had made he said he had seen quite a few but had just corrected them himself. I don’t know whether to believe him or not. And when I asked if I could handle the McArthur contract myself he told me I did not have enough experience. He did not say one nice thing about what I have done. He just dumps work on me then goes off to play golf!’
Candy chipped in, ‘I don’t think things are so bad here. We have a lot of fun. The Sunday hike and picnic was a great idea of Cathy’s and it was really funny when they put ants down Pauline’s top. Boy, did she squeal.’
‘Well, she was really angry’, Anna remarked, ‘and embarrassed too. She didn’t think it was so funny. And Anand did not like it when someone made a joke about the food he had brought.’
‘Some people have no sense of humour’, said Candy as she left.
‘She thinks she’s special, just because she is a sexy redhead’, was Mai’s opinion. ‘I think she and Mark are having an affair. I saw them the other day at Vinnie’s, laughing and giggling. I think she was quite drunk.’ Mai had also emailed a few ‘fiery redhead’ cartoons to her friends in the office and uploaded them to her Facebook and Instagram pages. She had also told some of her colleagues that Candy had had to pay a fine for driving over the alcohol limit and that she had heard she had been fired from her previous job for drinking at lunchtime.
John Carlton, the accountant, was pondering his future. He had been hired after a chance introduction to Jack and Owen at the O’Connell Club. Over a few drinks they had indicated that they were looking for an accountant, who, in due course, would take over the supervision of many of the administrative and paralegal staff. Jack had spoken of a ‘type of general manager role’ that would allow the partners to manage the lawyers while the accountant supervised the rest of the staff.
However, nine months later, John was still managing only four of the staff and the restructuring of the firm had not taken place. Owen had said this was on hold until people had settled into the new offices, but after three months in the new premises, despite several inquiries, John was still not convinced it would go ahead. He had also believed that when he had enrolled for an MBA his fees would be paid by the law firm. He based this on a conversation with Jack, also in the club, about supporting him financially. However, when Jack saw that the qualification would cost over $30 000 he said he had never agreed to pay such a high amount. He said that as far as he knew university fees were usually only about $6000 p.a. and that is the most the firm would pay.
1.a. Identify the reasons for employees resisting the change to an open-plan office approach.
b. Explain what the partners might have done better to have minimised the resistance.
2.a. Analyse the barriers to communication (‘noise’) that appear to exist in the law firm.
b. Discuss how they could be overcome.
3.a. Discuss the sources of power the partners and others appear to have and the impact this may have on other employees.
b. What influence tactics have been used by some of the partners and employees and how effective might they have been?
In this case study, communication issues that have taken place due to the open plan system of a law firm has been discussed. The case study is based on two partners name Cheetham and Wynne who started their business and eventually evidenced some communication issues. In the following paragraph few question associated with the issues has been answered.
- The open plan approach is not liked by the founder of the law firm Jack and Owen partly due to their conservative mentality. Besides that they also dislike the unofficial conversations that they can now more evidently notice due to the open plan approach.
- Secondly, since the office is multicultural, the choices of the employees are collapsing and as a result there develops a potential chance of conflict.
- Several employees feels that it is difficult to conduct personal conversation over phone since all the employees are able to hear the conversation in the open plan approach.
- Some of the employees dislike this system since they were being warned to use social media platforms for unofficial reasons within the office hours.
- Some lawyers have complained that they often need to discuss private matters with clients over the phone and can’t always take the calls in the meeting rooms.
- A good number of the employees feel being unrecognized since during the decision making session, they were not involved by the management.
- Finally, unethical gossips about the coworkers that may give rise to conflict or attrition of skilled coworkers is another major issue faced by employees in the open plan system.
Besides that, several other potential issues of the open plan approach can be detected. The high level of interaction that occur in an undivided workplace often makes it difficult for the employees to concentrate to their work (Armstrong and Taylor 2014). Besides that, the lack of privacy is another potential issue where computer screens are easily visible from behind and telephone conversation can be easily overheard.
b. In order to minimize the resistance the following steps could have been taken by the partners. The first thing that could have been done by the partners is to provide a separation planks so that each and every cubicle can be separated from others. This would have been prevented the coworkers sitting a adjacent sits to state at the computer screen of an employee. Thus the privacy associated with the computer screen could have been resolved to a great extent. Secondly, in order to provide privacy to employees while they are in a conversation a separate room for conversation with the clients could have been created so that employees can obtain privacy while conversing over the phone. Besides that, employees could have been provided with the permission to move out of the office for a certain period of time, for instance, for 15 mi ns per day so that they can attain personal calls at a isolated place away from the office premises (Nankervis et al. 2016).
Since communicating with other coworkers from different background d is a raising issue that is lading to resistance of few employees, employees could have been trained and educated about the importance of multicultural employees in the law firms. They need to be educated about each other’s cultural heritage so that they can develop respect for each other’s culture. Ice breaking sessions could have been organized where all the employees can communicate unofficially. This in turn will help the employees to develop respect towards each other’s culture (Aswathappa 2013). This will enhance their bonding and reduce the potential risk of conflict within the organization.
Another step that could have taken by the partner includes incorporating the employees in the decision making process. Considering the fact that the whole idea of incorporating the open plan approach has been taken by one of the partners entirely by herself, majority of the employees feel that this is unethical. Incorporating employees in the decision making process would have been highly helpful since the supervisors would have got beneficial recommendations from the side of employees which would have the potential to minimize or even eradicate the resistance faced by the organization regarding the open plan approach.
2.a. Some of the major communication issues that has been detected in the law farm are as follows:
- Firstly, there is a major issue of overhearing the conversation of coworkers. One of the employees, Anna Ivanova was given only 4 percent hike since one o the partners, Jack had suspected her to share confidential information of the company with her brother. Considering the fact that this unethical act , if done by Anna will impose negative impact on the company’s revenues, the deduction has been done from her hike. However, there is no proof of whether this phenomenon has actually taken place or not. Thus, it can be clearly understood that decisions are been taken in the organization on he basis of mere assumption. This in turn is leading to job dissatisfaction among the employees.
- Secondly, the communication gap between the employees and the supervisors is another issue of the organization. one of the employees Mai, had been told by the Wayne that he is too bad at his work. However, when he asked about what are the mistakes that he has conducted, he had been told that the mistakes had been corrected. This response has imposed negative impact on not only the employee’s job satisfaction but also on his profession. Bing unable to understand his mistakes, Mai will not be able to correct them. This will not only reduce his motivation to work for the organization but will also affect his future carrier.
- Another communication issue that has been detected is unethical gossips. He gossips that had taken place about candy is not only unethical but also has nothing to with her professional life. Moreover, the information shared by Mai about candy is not proven and hence can be untrue. This type of unethical gossips posses the potential to cause conflict between the employees. Not only that, this may also result in attrition of skilled workers fro the workplace.
b. The mentioned issue could be overcome by introducing organizational socialization into the organization. Along with that, several measures needed to be adopted by the supervisors. Organizational socialization can be defined as the process by which individuals learn the values, expected behaviors and social knowledge necessary to assume their roles in the organization. Employees should be made aware of the fact that unethical gossip about the employees within the office premises could result in termination. In order to make all the employees aware of organizational socialization, a policy and procedure needs to be developed by the organization. In order to deal with the overhearing issue, the supervisors should be educated about the negative impact of overhearing the conversation of the subordinates. They should be made aware of the negative consequences of taking action based on assumptions that includes employee dissatisfaction and employee attrition. Finally, in order to ensure that all employees could understand their mistakes, the communication gap between employees and supervisors needs to be reduced. For this the organization could opt for intranet or any other internal communication tactics.
3.a. Owen Cheetham and Jack Wynne are the oldest partner in the firm and there are the founder as well. Mark Cheetham and Cathy Wynne are the two new partners of this firm. In the new office, Mark Cheetham and Cathy Wynne have the major regulatory power. The open-plan which was not supported by all the employees were imposed depending only on the decision of upper management. From the scenario, it is also clear that the founders namely Owen Cheetham and Jack Wynne are not involved enough in the current internal conditions in terms of employee-employer and employee-employee relationship. At the same time, Mark Cheetham and Cathy Wynne does not has enough experience about human resource controlling considering all their emotional, psychological, social and cultural interference within the organisation’s culture (Cameron and Green 2015). The less frequency of visiting the office by the older partners namely Owen Cheetham and Jack Wynne may not change the current situation. Moreover, the two major powers are utilised by the new partners, including the identity of their parents and the absence of the superior monitoring.
The power and influence of older partners on the new partners who are their children are not appreciated by significant amount of the employees, who have been working in this firm from the beginning when the senior partners were controlling the organisational process and policies (Cameron and Green 2015). As per the discussion of the employees, it is clear that the two younger partners are not prioritising the perception of the subordinates. At the same time, because of the low involvement in the internal factors of the organisation the unethical cultural factors are growing rapidly including gender discrimination, lower mutual respects and others. On the other hand, Owen Cheetham and Jack Wynne do not interfere or monitor the internal operation or employee management system of the organisation that reducing the efficiency and sequence of the organisational workflow. At the same time, the older employees who used to perceive the Owen Cheetham and Jack Wynne as their superior, are facing some ego problems to accept the new partners as the superior. The new partners did not taken any steps to normalise all these major discrepancies that are bounding the potential growth of the employee performance.
b. In the critical situation of declining mutual respect, cooperation some significant strategic human resource plan should be incorporate in the organisational policies and procedures. In the refreezing section of the change management procedure the management of the organisation especially the older and new partners should work together to get the maximum support and collaboration. Refreezing is not a strategic implementation of finalising the project, it ensures the sustainability and the future progress of the new changes as well (Daley 2012). Therefore, both older partners and new partners have not prioritise the value of all the employees by collecting their reviews and feedback. Apart from that, the direct monitoring system through the social and friendly gathering within the employees has helped the upper management to understand the feasibility and profitability of new changes implemented by the new partners. However, lack of collaboration within the older partners and the new partners has made some major discrepancies in the interpretation process and perception of the workforce.
One of the major strategic activity would be minimising the resistance force against the changes. To incorporating the changes and make the employee flexible in this situation acceptation the management of the organisation can follow the formal change management procedure while taking care of the need and expectation of the employees (Doppelt 2017). Communication, learning, involvement, stress management and negotiation can be the most effective implementation framework. In this framework both new and the old partner and the other upper management employees should listen the opinion of the ground level employees through effective and consistent communication. From the scenario, it is also clear that the founders namely Owen Cheetham and Jack Wynne are not involved enough in the current internal conditions in terms of employee-employer and employee-employee relationship. By learning from this communication, the management can develop several negotiation procedures to help the ground level and other resisting employees interpreting the purpose and vision of the changes (Daley 2012). Convincing the resistance perception by focusing on the potential positive outcomes of the new changes is the only solution.
From the above discussion, it can be concluded that the power and influence of older partners on the new partners who are their children are not appreciated by significant amount of the employees, who have been working in this firm from the beginning when the senior partners were controlling the organisational process and policies
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