A new structure and brand were already in the pipeline as legal and professional services company Ampa entered the pandemic. Here’s how its HR team navigated change and built a culture of engagement to win this year’s award.
Most law firms went through a period of dramatic change during the pandemic, but Ampa was already in the throes of transition when Covid hit in 2020. Over the past three years it has also welcomed a new CEO and a new management structure, all while employees pivoted to hybrid working.
The HR team at Ampa felt that this was an opportunity to review the firm’s culture and processes and whether they reflected where it wanted to be. The challenge was to “strip out” old fashioned working practices and ensure employees could work in a way most suited to their circumstances. The team’s achievements led them to be nominated HR team of the Year (over 750 employees) at this year’s People in Law Awards.
Helen Hay, head of talent and culture, says: “Before the pandemic we were already on a transformation journey in terms of our strategy, values and purpose, so we were already thinking about where we were as a people function.” The Ampa brand was announced in 2021, bringing together existing companies Shakespeare Martineau, Lime Solicitors, Marrons Planning and Corclaim under one legal and professional services umbrella.
But this brought with it some reflection on what suited the new structure and what would serve it going forward, Hay explains: “People love working here but we wanted to see the company from the outside in – we’re growing up, so how do we mature, how can we have better impact?”
The changes have been extensive. The firm has upskilled its in-house recruiters on how to attract and source talent, saving £1m annually on recruitment fees and reducing time to hire from 15 weeks to an average of eight weeks. They redesigned the onboarding experience to make it more engaging, something particularly important with so many new starters starting their role from home. Probation periods have been abolished so managers can invest in their people from day one, and appraisals have been replaced by regular performance conversations that can happen at any time of the year as and when they are needed.
“Removing the appraisals was our starting point,” she adds. “People were nervous as we were asking them to do things in a new way and they wondered if it would work or how their role would change. But we kept it simple, they know they still have to have those regular conversations and it’s built their confidence.”
Ampa has also introduced “empowered work principles” that encompass everything from what people wear to work to setting aside time for taking care of their wellbeing. There are no rules that require employees to be in the office for a set amount of time, instead employees are treated “like adults”, according to Hay. Employees can also block out time in their diaries where there are no meetings or interruptions so they can think about their work or plan ahead.
“We’ve set out what we call ‘golden tramlines’ of transparency, accountability and empowerment,” adds Hay. The pandemic has helped leaders become more accepting of different work styles. “We got a lot of ‘I would not have done this had it not been for Covid’ and working flexibly is now business as usual,” she says. HR sits alongside marketing in Ampa, and the teams have worked together on building “personas” of existing employees and candidates so they can serve their needs better.
The HR and learning teams have run information sessions on empowered working and how managers can get the best out of employees who may work in different ways than they do. “There’s a collective understanding in teams now that you might come together one day a week but you use that time to really collaborate. You don’t want to pay to commute to come to the office and sit on calls, it needs to be worthwhile,” she adds.
Wellbeing is central to the new ethos at Ampa. In winter 2020, the firm introduced a mental and physical wellbeing campaign where employees were offered extra support from mindfulness sessions, virtual exercise classes and support from a psychologist and mental health coach. Some of these were led by employees, meaning colleagues engaged even more closely, says Hay.
This has since evolved into a year-round programme as part of an overarching health and wellbeing strategy, including a dedicated online wellbeing hub that has received more than 3,000 views since launch. It includes mental health awareness training, bereavement training, menopause awareness and team resilience and wellbeing meetings.
These investments have clearly paid off: the firm has achieved its highest retention rate in five years at 84%, and ranks in the top 20 law firms to work for. It achieved its highest ever scores for feelings of belonging in recent pulse surveys and is also recording impressive business growth, with the final quarter of 2020/21 its strongest ever.
Despite a relatively small team and the challenges of working remotely for much of the time, Hay argues that Ampa employees’ perception of what HR can do has improved. “HR teams have a reputation for saying ‘you can’t do this because…’ but our approach is ‘why not?’,” she says. “You need to take people with you and make sure they understand the reasons if things are changing, accept that things aren’t perfect and ask for feedback so you can enhance.”