Remote and flexible working arrangements have become a necessity for many businesses as COVID-19 continues to cast a shadow. Now, as such measures become more normal, firms are refining the formula.

Christopher W.H. Bickley, partner and head of Hong Kong Office, Conyers 

Our global leadership team has been monitoring the development of COVID-19 closely and taking actions to ensure, as a firm, the safety of our people remains our priority as we adjust to a different operating model during this challenging time. We appreciate accurate information is crucial to our health and safety in this fast-moving situation. To ensure everyone from Conyers can access the latest situation updates, new policies and precautions from government authorities and public health organisations, a COVID-19 Hub has been set up to store and share such in-formation on our intranet. This helps us understand the real situations faced by our wider network so that we can adjust accordingly. As for our clients, timely commu-nications on our operation arrangement have been sent out to give our clients a sense of reassurance. They know that our team is there for them, which in return gives us the opportunity to provide support and solutions to their businesses and temporary problems that arise during this pandemic. I must stress that these would not be possible without the IT facilities that allow our lawyers to engage as normal. Our firm has collective, solid experience in dealing with natural disasters and dis-ruptions. We have acquired the flexible mindset – which allows us to deal with this complicated situation in a calm and composed manner, and to remain engaged dur-ing COVID-19.

Cynthia Chung, partner, Deacons

I recall that I spent pretty much the whole of the last day of the Chinese New Year holiday discussing with management committee whether to follow the Government's recommen-dation to allow staff to work from home. As the largest Hong Kong law firm with 16 differ-ent practices, it was not an easy decision. We had to balance the business needs of our clients with our staff's health and safety. Whilst same practices which deal mostly with off-shore clients were more palatable to work remotely, other practices which require settle-ment of clients' money or physical completion of transactions and exchange of documents were not. To maintain the essential operation of the firm, some of our staff had to go into the office. For those who could work from home, we had to make sure that our infrastruc-ture could adequately support the increased volume of remote access. Confidentiality was also our primary concern. An urgent assessment of the suitability of our software support and cybersecurity was immediately carried out. We also needed to ensure our colleagues have sufficient support at home to conduct work and set expectation for work required so that clients' interests are not compromised. For staff who provided essential service and had to attend the office, we had to ensure that they were provided with protective gears such as masks and sanitizing products. We also allowed them to go to work at flexible hours. Some groups adopted rosters and shifts to minimize the number of people being in close working space at the same time; others facilitated colleagues of the same team to sit on different floors to ensure business continuity in the unfortunate event of a confirmed case.

Dean Collins, managing partner, Dechert (Singapore)

The global pandemic is a reminder that we are a shared community and we are doing all we can to support our stakeholders and keep our people safe and engaged.  As a firm, we were very quick to anticipate that we might need to move to remote working so we started stress testing whether our systems could cope early on during the crisis.  For example, in Singapore we identified a day where absolutely everyone would work from home – quite some time before we were required to do so — and thankfully we emerged from that test with the confidence we would be able maintain the continuity and quality of service en-trusted to us by our clients. More importantly, we have sought to focus on the wellbeing of our people and have introduced a range of new initiatives to support our people’s wellbe-ing in these challenging circumstances, including a series of webinars with external spe-cialists to help people with managing stress, managing their finances, home-schooling, boosting immunity and healthy living, and much more. We’ve also added over 200 on-demand online courses to Dechert’s learning centre with new topics including mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and COVID-19. Last week, a colleague told me that she felt really cared for by the firm, which is a testament to the success of our approach to date.

Peter Scott, managing partner, Norton Rose Fulbright (EMEA)

The main challenge during this crisis has been to stay ahead of how quickly events have unfolded and continue to change across different jurisdictions: communicating clearly to our people and our clients about proactive and decisive measures to take care of our peo-ple and steer the business through this period. It is top priority to look after the health and well-being of our people, and simultaneously to demonstrate to our clients that we were continuing to operate business as usual by working remotely. We had in place robust business continuity plans and our IT teams have done an excellent job in ensuring our systems are running effectively given the enormity of the task at hand: with now everyone across all of our EMEA offices working from home. We have encouraged our people to stay connected with each other and to make personal contact with our clients. We know many of our clients are receiving a huge amount of material through e-mail and we made a point to pick up the phone to our client contacts to better understand their specific needs and pressures so that we can help and support them accordingly. This has been really ef-fective.

Sharon Ser, managing partner, Withers (Hong Kong)

The new normal is to talk in terms of "the new normal", and flexible and remote working arrangements are certainly that. Although these arrangements have been available for some time, with our London office being required to work at least one day a week remote-ly, the pandemic triggered the need to maintain social distancing in Hong Kong which led to a real embrace of the concept. The key to a successful and seamless transition to re-mote working is good communication. Our firm has regular Skype or Zoom meetings with partners and associates and it becomes less apparent as to who is in the office and who is working remotely. What really matters is the effective delivery of our services to the client, and so the role of supervising partners has become all the more important, as has the de-liberate shedding of all preconceived prejudices by a generation who thought clocking into the office was the only genuine way to start a day's work. Because communication is key, it's absolutely essential to follow up verbal interactions in writing, such as instructions from a client or to an associate, whilst ensuring the right people are copied in. Electronic filing has proved to be invaluable so kudos is due to those who set up the systems so wisely and precipitously that the transition has been seamless. Feedback about working remotely has been good. We've learned it gives people time to think and work without distractions, creating time for strategies for clients, and even business development. Without sacrificing the commitment to the job, people can also spend time during the working day with family or to deal with personal matters. Working remotely isn't being treated like a holiday, in-stead the message we're receiving is that it's the best way to multi-task. We're also seeing positive signs with time recording and no complaints from clients. It seems that the cata-lyst of Covid-19 has enabled us to embrace the technology that has been there for some time but is now more acceptable to access.

Jeremy Shebson, managing partner, HFW

We have more than 1,000 colleagues across the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific, and we've had periods during the outbreak where a significant number of them are working from home. That's been completely unprecedented for us, as I'm sure it has been for most law firms. The technology and systems we had in place allowed us to function seamlessly and continue to help our colleagues and clients during this challenging time, but it was still somewhat of a leap in the unknown. From the very outset, we have been particularly focused on the wellbeing – both mental and physical – of our colleagues, clients and everyone in the HFW community. These are stressful and anxious times for people, and being away from colleagues for a prolonged period can feel isolating – particu-larly if you're not used to working from home. We've therefore made a real effort to keep in regular communication and to encourage everyone to support each other. We're doing a huge amount of videoconferencing, both internally and with clients – just seeing someone's face can make a real difference at times like these. We were very pleased with how quickly the business adapted to the new working environment. That's a real testa-ment to the hard work and dedication of everyone at the firm, including our lawyers, busi-ness services and IT, who have been working around the clock to keep everything running smoothly. That's meant we've been able to focus on working with clients across our indus-try sectors and international network to help them minimise the impact of Covid-19 on their business – and to prepare for what's next. But most of all, we've been incredibly proud of how the firm has really pulled together. We've always had a strong sense of fami-ly at HFW, and I've never seen that more evident than over the past six weeks.

 

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