Perspective: “Our preparations for the transition didn’t include the word pandemic”

11th Feb 2021

As she moved into a new role, Kate Swaine also had to contend with a very different world.

I always knew that Gordon Harris would be a tough act to follow as the IP Team Leader at Gowling WLG. No matter how much we prepared for the transition, his experience and impact in shaping the team over many years were not things that could simply be replaced. However, in all our discussions, neither Gordon nor I ever uttered the word pandemic.

Nonetheless, the handover on 1st May 2020, which should have been accompanied by team drinks and a celebration of Gordon’s achievements to date (I say “to date” because he is still a very busy team partner!), had to be conducted by videoconference.

Like everyone else, our team had to adapt overnight. Some changes were initially very welcome. No one complained about saving two hours a day on the daily commute. Several people noticed that their bank balances were looking a lot healthier due to the lack of multiple takeaway coffees that used to punctuate our days. However, as weeks turned into months, some started to speak nostalgically of decaf, skinny, extra wet, almond lattes. Others, and I am included in this, even began to realise that the commute was a useful transition period between home and work. Team meetings conducted from your kitchen do tend to blur those lines.

That brings us to Zoom (other video platforms are available, of course). We have truly embraced videoconferencing – not just for client calls and meetings but also for social catch-ups, job interviews, training, supervision and even the Christmas party. That has made my role easier. I have actually seen some colleagues in overseas offices more frequently than I would pre-pandemic, and I am determined not to lose that once we are back in the office. It may not be the same as seeing someone face to face, but it has allowed our team to maintain and in some cases improve those personal connections. It does also make a real difference to see a friendly face on those days when the world and its news have felt a little overwhelming.

However, becoming one with the world of videoconferencing is not all good. Most of us no longer worry about sartorial elegance from the ribcage down. If an item of clothing doesn’t have an elasticated waist, I don’t want to know. I have lost the ability to blink after hours of staring at the screen. I am slightly deaf in my left ear from using my headset, and my face seems to have settled into a perma-grin that scares my children and the dog. We may all need to work on that before we return to the office.

On the plus side, videoconferencing has meant that we have got to know our clients and colleagues a lot better. I recognise their pets (which frequently appear on screen and on keyboards) and their children (who creep into the room with queries about homework, when dinner will be ready, a complaint about the WiFi and, on one occasion, brandishing a full potty). I have also learned that very few people actually mind these interruptions. We accept them as an inevitable hazard of remote working in challenging times, and it is actually quite reassuring to see that we are all facing our own daily obstacles. 

Movement has become a key challenge of remote working. It is all too easy to unthinkingly sit in front of a screen for hours on end. Our team members have embraced various solutions to this, including exercise breaks with Joe Wicks, walking calls rather than yet more Zooms and blocking out “stand-up time” in diaries. The pre-Christmas period also helped a little. The almost constant carousel of deliveries each day required me to lever myself out of my chair. It also delivered one of the high points of lockdown when I was asked to show my driving licence as proof of age in order to take delivery of a bottle of bourbon. For a brief moment, I thought that perhaps lockdown had helped my visage but my hopes were crushed by Pete from UPS’s assurance that he had to ask everyone for proof of age, “no matter how old they look”. Thanks a lot, Pete.

Webinars have become the order of the day. We have more digital resources than ever before and arguably more opportunities for engagement than we had pre-pandemic. The movement of in-person conferences to online has tested everyone’s IT capabilities, but I suspect those digital platforms are here to stay for many events and have had a positive impact. Having said that, I am still addressing the issues caused when I lost control of my avatar at the CITMA Autumn Conference. If I stood on you, sat on you or walked through you, then please accept my apology.

As we move into 2021, I will take forward some valuable lessons from 2020. I do not underestimate the challenges that our team has faced in having to adapt our homes into office space while also trying to accommodate home schooling, the videoconferencing timetables of partners or housemates and the everyday movements of a household. Remote working in some form is here to stay for most of us, but for some I know that a return to the office will be a welcome relief.

We actually have some team members who I have never met in person. Online cookie decorating, coffee breaks, “wine o’clock” and quizzes have all helped to sustain that essential team glue, but they are not quite the same. So I look forward to team socials with everyone in the same place, meetings where I don’t need to worry about whether the broadband will hold out – and yes, I’m looking forward to raising a glass with Gordon and the team to mark all of the events of the past year, good and bad, in person.

Kate Swaine is Head of IP at Gowling WLG
[email protected]


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