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A view on the pandemic from Pinsent Masons – ‘Flying a plane while building it’

You might think that doing the same job for 14 years would become repetitive. I discovered over the years that this is not the case when the organisation constantly grows and changes. It is particularly not the case when an unprecedented pandemic sends the world (and subsequently my organisation) into turmoil. Let me share the different phases of the novel work which the pandemic created for me.

Phase 1 – Dr Bond

During late February and March as the pandemic headed towards the UK we had to think rapidly (and rethink each day) our protocol for allowing people into the office, dependent upon where they had travelled and who they might have contacted. We issued daily updates and operated a dedicated email address. I am lucky enough to have 127 talented people in my global team and the question I ask myself (probably about 50 times per day) is “should I do this piece of work, or should it be delegated”? On this occasion, I decided to man the email address myself, answering questions such as “You say that I should self-isolate if I have a persistent cough. Can you please define ‘persistent’ – is it a cough that I have had persistently for several days, or is it a cough that has only started today, but is persistent in its appearance?”. When I replied with a view that the lawyer concerned should self-isolate in either of these cases, he responded “Oh, I don’t actually have a cough, I was just seeking to define your terms in case I do get one!”. What fun it is working with lawyers.

Phase 2 – Lockdown meltdown

Once we went into lockdown on 23 March, it was obvious that there was a multitude of people questions which needed urgent consideration and discussion. Should we freeze recruitment? What should we do about imminent new joiners? Should our July salary review be deferred? Should our May 1 promotees (who had not yet been confirmed) get their promotion and also the pay rise which went with it? Some questions had easy answers; others were complex and required careful thought. I put together a small HR project team on 20 March and we have held a daily call using MS Teams every working day since then. 20 March was the “day of the Sparrow” so we called our work “Project Sparrow”. One key piece of work for the project was to decide whether or not to furlough – and then to run a furlough process. This was a real challenge, as the concept was new, the government guidelines new, incomplete and in places confusing – and employment lawyers applied a wide range of interpretation to them. We successfully furloughed 146 people on full pay, ensuring that those 146 were treated with utmost respect and dignity, whilst ensuring the process was followed to the letter. Meanwhile, half our Partners thought that we should furlough far more, whilst the other half thought we should not have furloughed any at all, since the Big 4 accountants had announced they would not do so. What fun it is working with lawyers.

Phase 3 – Financial fun

Whilst I was in the midst of leading the team which delivered all the above, the Board asked me to make proposals to save £6M in people costs over the three month period from 1 May, as their analysis showed a marked drop in revenue likely during that period. I therefore spent my evenings creating “Project Eagle”, the big brother of Sparrow. One thing that helped me was revisiting the comparable documents I wrote in 2009 following the global financial crisis. On 17 April I spent half a day with the Board going through my proposals. The cornerstone of these was what we called our “Together plan”, through which we asked all of our employees to take a pay cut of up to 20% for a three month period (and partners a bit more). The key aspect of this was that the first £20K of salary was unaffected and protected – meaning that if you earned £20K per year, you would have no reduction; if you earned £40K per year, it would be 10%, and so on. In one week, the project team devised the comms; built the Together portal; wrote 12 different consent forms (for our 12 different countries); took employment and tax advice; wrote the FAQs;  and devised 12 online pay change calculators so that employees could work out their pay reduction. Post-launch, we then answered over 1000 individual questions, monitored sign up, advised leaders, chased stragglers and dealt with numerous anomalies raised daily across our 26 global offices.

The outcome of this is that over 98% of our global workforce have signed up to a pay reduction with effect from 1 May. If you had said to me three weeks ago that we could achieve this, I would have been staggered but delighted. If you had promised this to the Board three weeks ago, they would have given me a virtual kiss across MS Teams.

The lessons learned from all this work are:

• HR makes an enormous and vital contribution to our organisations, in good times and bad;

• It is strangely enjoyable working on such a high-pressure and novel project

• You can achieve anything with a great HR team…and

• What fun it is working with lawyers!

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