Managing partner Peter Taylor shares his views on what lessons Hampshire-based law firm Paris Smith has learned from the coronavirus pandemic.
The Covid-19 crisis has been a major test for a firm with an ethos of enabling its people to be the ‘best versions of themselves’. Not surprisingly, the impact of the pandemic on its staff has been front-of-mind for managing partner Peter Taylor, as the firm continues to develop collaborative ways of working which also benefit the wider community.
“People will remember how their employers made them feel during the pandemic long after the virus has gone and the vaccine has done its work,” Taylor emphasised.
At the outset of the lockdown, he sent an all-employee email that began a supportive communications programme aimed at ensuring staff still felt connected and part of the Paris Smith team, “even though we were now running 250 home offices”.
Taylor said: “I was very conscious we had to ensure the firm’s culture and team ethic were maintained. It’s important that we are open, honest and transparent with everyone about the present circumstances while optimistic about the opportunities for the future.”
He added: “I’m immensely proud of all our staff. The way they have responded to the pandemic has been absolutely outstanding. It is a pleasure and privilege to serve them.”
Paris Smith’s offices are Covid-safe. The staff had the opportunity to contribute to the framework of measures which were implemented to ensure that the members of the firm felt safe in the offices.
The firm is also mindful of the fact that some staff feel anxious about their journey to work in the midst of the virus. Many have readily adapted to working from home. Indeed, a staff survey revealed that the majority said they would prefer to be able to work two or three days a week from home after the pandemic is past.
“We are factoring this in to our future business model,” Taylor noted. “It will impact the amount of office space we need, how we use that space, how we supervise, develop and support our staff, while continuing to work collaboratively and maintaining the special Paris Smith culture.”
Communication is key
Providing regular and consistent communication was another key lesson learned – and not just internally.
“We opened the ‘PS community hub’ on our website,” said Taylor. “It’s an online platform for staff, clients and anyone else to share ideas and support on dealing with physical and mental wellbeing issues associated with remote working.”
The firm also set up a ‘COBRA-style’ emergency committee. “This helps us to respond quickly to government instructions and demonstrate to staff that we are putting in place plans to keep them safe,” he noted.
Since lockdown started, Taylor has broadcast his own personal weekly video to all in Paris Smith, in which he aims to be open and frank. This was particularly pertinent for him, as a kidney transplant meant he had to shield at home.
“I talk about how I’m feeling with life and try not to shy away from showing vulnerability. I think it brings us all closer together. As a business leader, you should accept that you don’t have all the answers, especially concerning the pandemic, and you are open to suggestions.”
He added: “If you don’t communicate regularly with staff, there is a risk they may become disenfranchised because they feel isolated. You can’t allow a vacuum in communications to arise. If it does, people may reach conclusions that are not borne out by the facts.”
For example, when the first lockdown kicked in, the south coast’s professional services rumour mill was soon speculating about possible redundancies and salary reductions. “I quickly made it clear that neither were on our agenda. We have maintained 100% salaries throughout, whether or not people have been furloughed. Any financial pain has been felt by the partners, not by staff,” Taylor emphasised.
Paris Smith is particularly pleased that its efforts have been recognised by the Law Society in its 2020 Annual Excellence Awards, where the firm was highly commended for Excellence in Marketing and Communications.
Better corporate governance
Another thing the pandemic has highlighted is the benefit to businesses of talking through problems and trying to see both sides of a situation. “In particular, the way companies resolve commercial conflicts is playing an increasingly important role in what determines good corporate governance,” thought Taylor.
He explained: “The traditional approach to resolving conflicts tends to be attritional and confrontational. Businesses are now looking for win/win outcomes. Taking a more balanced way of dealing with conflicts enhances your reputation and will attract interest from like-minded businesses as partners, suppliers and customers, to build long-term relationships.”
Covid-19 has also meant competitors are more willing to talk to each other about common issues they face. “We are learning from each other and sharing ideas on actions,” Taylor observed. “Collectively, we’re looking for solutions that benefit us, and the communities where we work.”
During the pandemic, Paris Smith has also strengthened its relationships with local universities, chambers of commerce and LEPs.
“People want to support local businesses and see their own economic hubs thrive. That requires shorter and wider supply chains, where the focus is on buying locally and travelling less to reduce pollution,” said Taylor. “This creates more opportunities for firms like ours to work with, and for, the local community.”
He believes the traditional single business pillar of achieving profitability has been joined by two more: people and planet. “Businesses are reviewing their sense of purpose and that is a positive step.”
City of culture bid
The virus and lockdown are changing business attitudes about people, collaboration and community. Taylor reckons the positive energy these new attitudes generate can be put to good use in supporting Southampton’s bid to be the 2025 City of Culture.
“The bid will rely on collaboration across Hampshire and the south coast,” said Taylor. “It provides a fantastic opportunity for businesses to come together around the single, shared purpose of creating a lasting legacy for the region.”