Slater Heelis is a full-service regional firm with more than 160 employees across four offices based around Greater Manchester. Its managing partner, Chris Bishop, spoke to The Brief about how the firm has adapted to home working while maintaining productivity levels and safeguarding employee well-being.
What has happened to productivity among your lawyers since we all started working from home a year ago?
As a general trend across the firm, productivity levels have remained unchanged or even risen since implementing homeworking practices. Ninety per cent of respondents in our recent employee well-being survey, conducted by third-party organisation Lima Healthcare, said that homeworking had “not at all” or “only moderately” impacted on their ability to do their job.
The survey, which had an encouraging response rate across the firm of around 75 per cent, also recorded positive feedback in terms of job satisfaction.
There are, of course, some exceptions. A significant minority in the survey reported increased levels of negative thoughts and difficulty concentrating.
In response, we have worked with Lima Healthcare to provide well-being resources and health plans on our intranet as a regular touchpoint for staff seeking support for their physical and mental well-being. These resources cover topics including sleep, nutrition, exercise and mental health.
Have there been any innovations during the past 12 months that have improved productivity for lawyers who are working from home?
The shift to remote working has forced improvements to online case management systems. By updating and digitising these processes, even in as simple a way as making documents easier to save or being able to tab and hyperlink pages in lengthy case files, we have seen gains in terms of both efficiency and sustainability.
The legal industry is a notorious culprit for paper waste; yet, by accelerating digital transformation, homeworking has empowered Slater Heelis to take the next step in the journey from paper-light to paperless. Departments like property law still prefer putting pen to paper, because they handle matters with incredibly technical fine lines, but the aim moving forward is for these beneficial changes to be embedded into the firm’s practices and processes long-term, so it becomes a habit to scan and file documents rather than amass reams of printouts.
Have any departments adapted more easily than others to remote working?
Remote working tends to be less conducive to more collaborative work, at least instinctively, and so employees working in practice areas that rely more on teamwork have found it more difficult to adjust. Corporate law is one example: corporate lawyers typically handle huge transactions requiring multiple people to work simultaneously on one document.
On the flip side, many departments have found video conferencing to be a vehicle for greater collaboration. Pre-pandemic, in-person team meetings often took a back seat to intensive workloads and urgent deadlines; now, platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams make meetings more efficient, meaning that cancellations are less common and everyone stays in the loop.
How have you adapted to get the best out of those lawyers and other employees who might struggle with home working?
This is why we embrace agile ways of working at Slater Heelis: those who benefit from being within eyeshot of each other can safely work together in-person, while those in roles with a greater emphasis on casework and admin can take advantage of the hours they save from not commuting daily. Our survey found that 70 per cent preferred a mix of office and home-working, with only ten per cent expressing the desire to return to permanent office working post-pandemic.
Agile working enables a flexibility that can accommodate a variety of working preferences, providing an environment that empowers lawyers to perform at their best. This inevitably has a positive impact on productivity levels too.
Office life can be full of distractions, making the independence of homeworking an attractive option for many time-pressed lawyers. This is, of course, complicated by home-schooling duties and other challenges unique to each person’s domestic set-up.
Employee well-being naturally feeds into productivity levels; when employees feel best supported, they’re able to work better and enjoy their work more. Just as productivity varies from team to team, it changes from individual to individual.
An agile approach to working practices means that firms are able to understand individual circumstances and incorporate flexibility into the weekday. So, while at Slater Heelis we encourage those who can do so to work from home, we also maintain capacity to safely house those who struggle to do so effectively.
To what extent do you expect the changes the legal sector has made to working practices to continue post-pandemic?
Agile working in the legal sector will likely have to play out on a team-by-team basis, but its general principles are nonetheless applicable. The legal industry must learn to celebrate flexibility because catering to each lawyer’s unique circumstances has a positive domino effect: improvements to employee well-being mean greater productivity, and greater productivity goes hand-in-hand with servicing clients even more effectively.
There’s an attitudinal shift that accompanies this too. The pre-pandemic rigidity of office workspaces, with everybody tied to their own desk, makes way for the idea of the office as a social, collaborative hub: a space for teams to work together and where senior associates can mentor junior team members and learn from one another.