Peter Scott: 'Even at the start of March, I don't think people appreciated how quickly the crisis would be upon us.'
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Norton Rose Fulbright is asking Europe, Middle East and Asia staff to volunteer to reduce their working house by up to 20%. Newly installed regional managing partner Peter Scott explains the thinking behind the plan.
You have only just taken up your post as EMEA managing partner. That must have been particularly difficult.
My first day was on 1 April and I was elected to the role in February. But what is so striking about the Covid-19 pandemic is how quickly everything has changed. Even at the start of March, I don’t think people appreciated how quickly the crisis would be upon us. It is true that our offices in China, Hong Kong and Singapore were affected and we had implemented a degree of remote working. But it was really only in March that we saw the reports of what was happening in Italy and that unlike with Sars and Mers, the virus was spreading very quickly. It is clear in hindsight that Asian countries were much better equipped to manage this outbreak than in Europe and North America.
What prompted you to revive the Flex scheme?
It has been very much a team effort. We looked at what we did during the financial crisis and felt it was the right response to revive the scheme, given that we hope that this is a temporary shock as governments get the virus under control. When the economy comes back we want to be able to ensure the firm is intact. I've been at Norton Rose Fulbright throughout my career. I was a partner when Flex was introduced, but I was at the start of my partnership. And for me it was striking how the scheme distinguished us from the rest of the marketplace. And that is what we are looking to do this time. It is about being proactive and decisive in demonstrating that we are taking steps to protect the business for the future. We're very busy at the moment and it is certainly not the case everyone will be put on the 80% work arrangement. But we can foresee disruption down the track and we want to build in the ability to manage capacity if we see a downturn in work in certain teams as and when the need arises. We want to reassure people that we have a mechanism in place that guards against redundancies as far as possible.
Your announcement referred to eligible staff taking part – isn’t it firmwide?
That is a reference to the fact that different countries have different employment laws and in some countries we will have to adapt the scheme to reflect that. We are working through those arrangements right now.
And what will happen if the stated figure of 75% of staff don’t volunteer?
This has to be a voluntary scheme. And there will be some people who feel they cannot take part. But we achieved a high take up last time, of more than 90%. If an insufficient number of people volunteer, we will have to look at other measures and we would address that as and when it was necessary. But we hope people will agree that this is the right approach as it worked 12 years ago, and a lot of people who experienced the scheme then are still with the firm. It is important to stress that not everybody will be affected. Some teams are busy now and will remain busy throughout; others may be busy now, but they may become quieter later on. And although we are asking people to sign up to the scheme for 12 months, we’re hoping that the economy will pick up more quickly than that. Last time the scheme was operated for nine months and I hope the economy recovers within the year.
Unlike the last time Flex was introduced, everyone is working from home. Communicating these measures must have been a challenge.
I spent all Friday morning conducing virtual town halls with 2,000 people and I certainly got the impression there is broad agreement with the principles behind the scheme. In some respect the fact we are all remote working has improved the connections between people across our offices and with clients as we are not just relying on email. I feel it has generated a team spirit. People are also coming up with innovative ideas on how to improve communication. We have set up a collaboration site on our intranet where we are encouraging people to make suggestions on how we can stay in touch with clients and each other.
Alongside the proposed introduction of Flex, you are also deferring partner distributions and bonuses and staff salary rises and bonuses. Are you taking any other measures?
We are looking at whether it would be appropriate to accept government support for people who cannot work from home. So, for example, we could put some staff on the UK government’s furlough scheme. We’ll make that decision at the same time as we implement the Flex scheme. We’re also not actively recruiting.
Further reading on the Covid-19 pandemic