A perspective on agile working during Covid-19

This article by Grant Beecham, senior innovation manager at Linklaters, first appeared in the October 2020 edition of Managing for Success, the magazine of the Law Society’s Law Management Section (www.lawsociety.org.uk/lawmanagement). 

The conversation around agile working has increased greatly over the last couple of years, with many firms deploying technology that has enabled its people to be able to work from anywhere.
COVID-19 has obviously made it essential for us to work remotely, and in remote teams, while continuing to deliver excellent client service, but what will this mean for the future adoption of agile working?

The business case for agile working

According to Katie Tant, Linklaters’ global diversity and inclusion (D&I) manager, agile working is important for businesses to embrace, for the following reasons.

  • “At Linklaters, we recognise that our people have busy lives inside and outside of work and so there are many health and wellbeing benefits of empowering our people to balance all their responsibilities.
  • “Agile working has a great impact in improving retention of female talent in the business (because of factors like the continuing disparity in caring responsibilities).
  • “It allows us to flex to deliver excellent client service – even before the quarantine, this is the case, but in this new working environment, being flexible, agile and embracing these issues has allowed a continuity of service that has been challenging but that we are proud of.
  • “More and more people are asking for it – the job market and especially the younger generation are pushing us to consider this; more pre-COVID-19 but still important.”

The key elements of successful agile working

Culture

Successful and continued agile working is very much about culture, and our global D&I team has been helping to drive this culture for some time. Under the tag line “Work is something you do, not a place that you go”, we succeeded in getting leaders and teams to start thinking and talking about agile working long before COVID-19. Ensuring people feel trusted and empowered to make their own decisions regarding how, when and where they work is a huge factor to making it lasting and successful. A network of agile working champions has been formed across our offices, and many great examples about successful agile working were communicated through personal experience and storytelling.

In 2019, our Singapore office ran an ideas campaign using the Ideas Pathway, our innovation platform for collaboration and capturing ideas. I believe that culture can only change through continued conversation between diverse groups, with strong sponsorship from internal leadership, and the ideas campaign allowed for just that. I have been surprised at how much our Ideas Pathway has been used for change management and culture change across the firm, as opposed to just capturing ideas on new ways of working. The platform has allowed people to collaborate on a level not seen when capturing feedback and ideas through more traditional means, such as surveys. Driving continued change and then embedding that change can only happen through collaboration and conversation.

During COVID-19, practices and teams have had to quickly adapt to a new way of working, and the culture of the team, practice and firm has never been more important. Technology has made this possible in a very short space of time, but it’s the human response to the challenge that has been most encouraging for me. As we are aware, working from home has also meant everyone has faced different challenges – home schooling, separation from family, and mental health, to name but a few. Teams have had to embrace these challenges and accept that not everyone is able to work in the same way.

Another way we have used our Ideas Pathway was to run a global campaign for parents to share different ideas on how people can entertain and educate their children during lockdown. This meant that we were bringing these challenges into the open and collaborating and sharing ideas on how we can help each other – whether that was through sharing online resources for children to learn coding or setting up networking groups for parents of similar-aged children.

Innovation itself is heavily entwined with the firm’s culture, and a lot of work has been done in the past to ensure we are adopting an innovative mindset to the work that we do. Innovation is not just about the next cutting-edge piece of technology, but more importantly, a way of thinking and behaving that can change how we work together to deliver our services with what we already have, and being open to change.

On the flip side, if the culture isn’t right in a firm, it can be the biggest challenge to successful agile working.

Technology adoption

Technology has played an important role in ensuring we can continue to provide our usual levels of client service. Many companies have been using video conferencing software for some time, but before COVID-19, video meetings were not always a level playing field. Quite often, there would have been a mix of participants, some physically in the meeting room, some on the phone, and others attending by video conference.

But now, we are all connecting in the same way. My colleague Andreas Steck, our senior partner in Germany, recently said: “Remote working has brought us closer together as a law firm. At present, we are all equally distant from each other, both across countries, locations and teams, namely only one click away from a video call or instant message. This is how we have formed cross-functional working groups that deal with sector-specific challenges of our clients.” This has meant that teams have had to adapt to using video conferencing technology in order to run an inclusive meeting, which is a real positive. Meetings with a mix of people in the room and dialling in through video may have usually focussed around the conversation in the room. Teams need to make sure that this behaviour changes, as we move back into a world where some people are in the office and others at home.

The other area I believe that COVID-19 is going to accelerate in terms of technology is the adoption of legal technologies that provide automation and efficiency, and collaboration technologies where matter teams can work together in a single space to deliver legal services. Communication and collaboration are key areas for any team; but having a space where teams can work together on the same documents, call / video-chat and manage tasks while not having to be in the same building will deliver many benefits.

Automation and efficiency in the legal industry are not new, but there is a wave of start-ups coming to market with cutting-edge solutions for specific processes and tasks. I believe that our recent way of working has given people a different perspective and highlighted ways in which we can be more efficient and collaborative.

However, innovation is not always about introducing new technology – many firms have a large number of existing tools that, with the time and training, can also change how its people work.

Trust

People, teams and managers need to begin on a basis of trust that working in an agile way is the right thing to do, and will benefit both them, and the delivery of services. People will be more motivated to make it work knowing that they are trusted to do so.

Empowering people

People need to feel empowered to decide how and where they want to work. I think this is especially key for junior members of the team or people new to the firm. This challenge becomes easier over time, and as the culture changes. At Linklaters, a global group of agile working champions, from all levels across our global network, has been formed to share ideas and stories on successful agile working. This, combined with senior sponsorship and role modelling, can be very effective in changing mindsets.

Information

Individuals and teams need to know what information is available to them to make agile working a success. This could be anything from simple guidance on how to have successful conversations on agile working, to information on what technology is available and training on how to use it. Our global D&I team has developed an agile working toolkit which people can access to ensure they have everything they need to make it successful. Our technology team has a dedicated intranet page and training series so that our people can access information about the technologies which could help them.

Communication

This is something that came up regularly when discussing agile working pre-COVID-19. Communication is a key factor to the success of agile working, and feeds directly into addressing the challenge around trust and making agile working the norm. The firm needs to communicate change effectively, communication channels need to be two-way so both concerns and successes can be communicated, and teams need to communicate clearly about agile working patterns.

The future

I am very optimistic about the future of agile working within the workplace. We have recently implemented a new global policy on agile working (tinyurl.com/y525txv8). Under it, employees will be able to work remotely for 20-50% of their time, as long it is communicated to teams in advance and operational roles are fulfilled. The policy captures the lessons learned from remote working during the pandemic, but it is a long-term policy, intended to apply beyond COVID-19 restrictions. In the meantime, offices will continue to follow the most recent guidance applicable in their jurisdiction on returning to the office.

The current situation has shown companies not only that it is possible to continue to deliver excellent client service when agile working, but also that, with the right culture, agile working can bring the best out of people and teams. COVID-19 has also brought forward a more human element to work. We all knew before that our colleagues had lives outside the office, but never before had we seen inside their houses or said hello to their children.

The key thing is choice: some people prefer the office, and some jobs are more easily done when people are in the same room. It is important that “remote” working and “office” working are not seen as two binary options. If you trust your people, communicate effectively as teams, share information effectively and embrace the available technology, your people can make choices about when, where and how best to get their work done. They can combine the benefits of each option in a way which is empowering for them and beneficial for your business.

By Grant Beecham, senior innovation manager in legal operations at Linklaters.