Like many firms our size (170 colleagues across England and Wales), Stowe Family Law was unprepared when the first lockdown was announced in March last year.
At that point in time, we had 25 offices, all of which had to be closed, displacing people wholesale from working from the office to working from home. This radical shift in the working pattern presented us with unique challenges of which we had no experience and no blueprint with which to address them.
We have not only survived but thrived thanks to living the values of our firm. One of our core values is: ‘We have spirit’. This encompasses a ‘can do’ attitude that lifts and inspires us to work as one, with passion, creativity and camaraderie. At a time when a workforce is so physically disjointed, communicating a clear and uplifting message is key.
Homeworking has put our values as well as our resilience to the test. Despite the challenges, we have demonstrated that it is possible to maintain good client service delivery and engagement levels.
The importance of taking the time to understand how people were coping with the shift should not be underestimated. We regularly asked our people to feedback on their wellbeing and what we could do to support them.
Wellbeing comes to each individual who feels valued and acknowledged in the workplace. A simple way of showing one another we care is through expressing appreciation. We introduced thank you postcards that colleagues could handwrite and send to each other and wellbeing tips and shout-outs of support on our employee intranet.
Another effect of the pandemic has been to encourage us to focus keenly on clear, regular and consistent communication. Open and caring communication, including offering and responding to feedback, fosters empathy and the ability to work as one unit. These attitudes and ways of working have been key to our ability to respond creatively and pragmatically to a wide range of problems and challenges.
Shortly before the first lockdown, we announced an ambitious and challenging new three-year strategy for the firm: Stowe 2.0. The goal is to treble the number of clients we serve whilst also improving our colleagues’ experience and clients’ satisfaction levels.
Initially, in the spring, like many, we took stock of the likely impact of the pandemic on our operations and, ‘battened down the hatches’ for a few months. However, when summer arrived, we reactivated our Stowe 2.0 plan and started to take steps to implement it. An important element of this was the opening of nine new Stowe offices – being present across the country to support clients in their local communities is an important illustration of our firm’s commitment to clients.
Strategic decisions made by SME management should focus on supporting best practices at work and client service. To achieve this, it is important to understand how a firm’s office network can evolve to meet the needs of both clients and colleagues going forward. When making these kinds of strategic decisions, the needs and desires of clients and colleagues alike must be of uppermost importance.
Building on a firm’s technology infrastructure is crucial in operating effectively in the current climate. The launch of our first end-to-end technology-enabled workflow last year allows us to deliver services to clients more efficiently and cost-effectively whilst maintaining standards of practice and high-quality support levels.
The pandemic has dramatically accelerated shifts that were already underway in terms of how SMEs work and deliver client services. Like others, we are now wrestling with how our strategy might need to change or evolve to reflect these trends.
We anticipate that flexibility and choice will be watchwords as we figure out the best ways for colleagues to interact and for clients to access our services. SMEs would do well to gather an understanding of colleagues and clients’ preferences. At Stowe, 75% of our workforce responded that they would be happy with some combination of home and office-based working, so we need a flexible hybrid model that offers choice.
It is not a given that businesses can’t grow and continue to flourish because of the pandemic. Many can and did with the right approach. At Stowe, we were able to open new offices and recruit lawyers and legal executives to join local teams as well as client-facing key colleagues.
We can safely say that 2020 was a year like no other, and I predict 2021 will be equally dynamic. Perhaps Stowe Family Law’s model and the values and practices that spring from it will add to your own to help you navigate a year when you, too, could not only survive but thrive.
Ken Fowlie is Chairman at Stowe Family Law