The Covid-19 Pandemic: How did UK IP firms respond?
As I write England is in the midst of yet another lockdown. The way we work has inevitably changed as a result of the pandemic and we, the lovely people at Fellows and Associates, thought it might be interesting to explore how the IP community, in particular, has responded both in the short and (now even) longer term.
Following the announcement in March 2020 regarding working from home it seemed most firms were already geared up for such an event and, after a period of testing, both in anticipation of and immediately after the announcement, the transition was relatively smooth. It might seem strange to some but Zoom did actually exist prior to lockdown and this, along with Microsoft Teams and Lifesize, were in place to allow firms to work from home almost overnight. Cloud based phone systems also allowed colleagues to message and call each other quickly and easily. There were some whose systems were more suited to sporadic cases of remote working but these firms acted quickly and migrated to a more appropriate platform. The big issue seemed to be logistical with a lot of staff that had not necessarily worked from home before, for example support and secretarial staff, not having the necessary equipment such as laptops etc.
For most firms the focus shifted very quickly from the logistics of people working from home and ensuring they had the necessary equipment, to their mental well-being and questioning how they could help them emotionally. Chris Ball, Head of Talent Acquisition at EIP notes that their in-house IT systems enabled them to respond incredibly quickly in the run up to and immediately following the announcement in March and that the practical infrastructure solutions were rapidly replaced by well-being initiatives such as weekly vlogs from one of the partners, maintaining frequent communications on non-work topics and the welcome initiatives of their internal team of Mental Health First Aiders. He also adds that even though remote/flexible working was already part of the EIP ethos, lockdown has shifted everyone's perspective on what that might look like. Whilst the offices remain a key part of EIP's strategy moving forward, working from home/flexible working/remote working will be an evolving conversation as we emerge at the end of the pandemic. For now, cross-office teams have found additional ways to communicate and the firm is working efficiently whilst away from the office without the overall shape of the business being affected.
Technology has played a major role in helping to create a sense of togetherness for colleagues whilst they are unable to see each other in person. Hubs, intranets and staff portals have been transformed into more than a way of simply exchanging work and are allowing teams to meet for virtual coffees, upload videos and share stories and experiences. Firms hope that these avenues are providing vital lifelines to staff that could be suffering in a potentially very lonely time. This has taken many forms, including Zoom quizzes, virtual ‘escape the room’ sessions, mental wellbeing support groups, Murder Mystery events and weekly vlogs. Heidi Williams, HR Operations Manager at Marks & Clerk, explains that the firm responded quickly to the needs of their individual team members, but also considered family and childcare needs as well, with flexible shifts to accommodate home schooling, and family friendly activities to keep the kids happy whilst not at school. Ongoing communication has been vital, with a focus on business updates, but also on social activities and keeping people across the firm connected. A trend across a lot of firms has been a ramp up in communication, with Partners and management encouraging their teams to look out for one another. Positively, some have noted an increase in extended conversation across all levels of seniority, rather than a quick phone call or email exchange.
The way firms are training their staff has changed too with both internal and external courses (the Queen Mary for example) being completed remotely. Recently the UK patent attorney examinations went ahead on line and feedback has shown it was a success, hopefully this remains the case once the results are announced next March.
There’s been no real dip in work thankfully, with the drop in some areas being compensated by a surge in others. Automotive and aerospace did take quite a hit, however clients in the health sector or those with an online focus/edge have seen a significant increase in work. The lack of office time does not seem to have impacted productivity with work being completed to the same deadlines and standard as before. Some firms have even taken the time as an opportunity to focus on investing in thriving areas of the business or expanding the business further geographically.
Social distancing and the various forms of lockdown over recent months has meant that conferences, networking events and face to face client meetings have all but ceased to exist, at least in their previous form. Conferences have gone on line with events such as the AIPPI World Congress and CITMA Autumn using chat rooms, video calls and even avatars to help bring the events to people’s home office, kitchen table or spare room. Some firms thought this was a great idea as they were able to ‘dip in and out’ of the itinerary whilst still concentrating on other work, whereas others opted to focus their online efforts elsewhere such as creating webinars or scheduling client meetings via Zoom around the same time they would have met at such a conference. The lack of networking opportunities and chance meetings to exchange a business card has meant that firms have had to revaluate their marketing strategies. The pandemic has also forced firms to look at other ways of reaching out to potential clients through avenues such as vlogs and social media.
Patent attorneys, on the whole, are solitary creatures, preferring to work the majority of the time behind closed doors. This has made it quite difficult for firms to gauge how everyone is coping when not everyone wants to participate in the weekly Zoom quiz/virtual cocktail night. A lot tried to overcome this by crafting surveys geared at gaining an insight into people’s thoughts and ideas on how to improve their working from home experience, as well as leaving open comments sections encouraging people to provide more detailed feedback. Individual budgets are being introduced so that people can kit out their home office with everything that they need and EAP schemes are being put in place where there perhaps wasn’t any help before. These surveys were also used to help firm’s plan in the longer term and manage the transition back from home to office working. They asked for preferred working times and were able to use them to stagger the number of people in the office at any one time, something that could prove difficult normally in an open plan setting, as well as if people actually wanted to return to the office at all. Sue Antoine, Head of HR at Haseltine Lake Kempner, notes that some staff perhaps want to come back to the office purely for the social aspect as they missed the useful (and useless) information they were gaining when having a quick chat at their desk or in the kitchen. Sue also notes that HLK is now constantly evolving to meet the needs of staff, adhere to the guidelines, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It is no longer about surviving a few months but adapting to new working practices for the longer term, and there needs to be an equilibrium that marries aspects of before and the ‘new normal’.
Interestingly there has been a difference between firms on who would prefer to return to an office environment. For the larger IP firms with both regional and London offices, some noticed the regional staff have wanted to return, whereas for others they are happy with their home working set-up and it’s those in the capital who have made use of the office space once Covid safe. This might be because they have less than adequate working conditions (if living in a shared or smaller space) and there is an easier and safer commute by car in the regions as opposed to risking the tube and buses in city centres. Cost is also a factor, especially in London, with some perhaps no longer seeing the travel as a necessity if they are able to work from home. In terms of level, most agreed that their trainees and more junior fee earners were keen to come back in, again perhaps mostly down to their home set up and the need for more support. Some firms have even made the decision to shut their regional offices permanently or downsize to accommodate the smaller number of staff who want to remain in the office.
In terms of recruitment many firms implemented an ‘unofficial’ freeze whereas others very much closed, locked and bolted the doors to anyone coming in. Recruitment at graduate level did continue, although the intake numbers reduced and some start dates for those already scheduled to join were pushed back from the Summer. Instructional videos for universities and online careers fairs have helped firms remain present to prospective new starters. Many remain cautious about bringing in new people and have switched from proactively recruiting ahead of the curve to being reactive, and even when replacing leavers there is careful consideration about whether the role is really needed. They need confidence that they can rely on work they have historically had and develop this before growing the team, something that can prove difficult if their clients are also being more careful and money conscious. From our perspective we can’t deny that activity has dramatically reduced. Interestingly, the placements we have made have been quite different to our normal day to day pre Covid, and has mostly been cross jurisdictional moves or a focus overseas. An interesting point was made by one firm who predicted that the more time workers stay away from the office the more disengaged they may become, resulting in them potentially considering a new role, especially if their firm is not doing all they can to keep the level of connectedness up. They may forget their close bonds with team members and without the bells and whistles of office life in the cold light of their kitchen table they may think the grass could be greener.
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