Peter Taylor, regional managing partner at Paris Smith LLP, shares his experience of managing a firm during lockdown while shielding.
2020 will undoubtedly be a year to remember and, for many, it will be one of intense suffering and loss. My heart reaches out to those whose lives, families and friends have been so permanently affected by the pandemic.
It was in January when I took note of the development of coronavirus in Wuhan. My interest was pricked by the impact on the supply chain for products to our client businesses. It was not long before we had reports of the virus in Europe and then the UK.
The day I knew COVID-19 would impact me
It was 8am on Sunday 22 March. The Radio 4 news reported that those who had a suppressed immune system or specific underlying health conditions would need to stay at home for 12 weeks.
For me, COVID-19 poses a serious personal threat. I was placed in the extremely vulnerable category, having undergone a kidney transplant 17 years ago. For the next 12 weeks, I would need to be shielded away from family and friends. My boundaries were to be the house and garden.
It was an emotional moment when I had to accept restricted contact with other family members, but I was lucky to have my wife and younger daughter both committed to self-isolation too. That day, my emotions certainly got the better of me.
I turned my attention to how we would manage and lead Paris Smith and its team of 260 people through the pandemic remotely. I was mindful that every one of us would be dealing with our own emotions and fears. I knew that my priority was to put the health and wellbeing of staff first.
But how could I best serve the firm and all who work for it from my shielded position? The key to this came to me quickly – people will remember how they felt, and how they were made to feel during the pandemic, long after COVID-19 has passed.
So, it was important to understand how staff were feeling. How might we best instil a greater degree of confidence and safety in these uncertain times?
Speaking to the business
It boiled down to communication – open and honest sharing of what was on my mind, and that of the leadership team, too. We made it our business to have as many conversations with staff as we could. We used these for conveying information, and for listening to what they said and how they said it. If our people felt that they had a voice which was being heard, we could build on that as a basis for a united approach to us navigating through the pandemic, as one team.
Technology has played a huge role. I have delivered weekly video messages, three to four minutes long, to the firm. I make sure that I address everyone, whatever their role: sharing my own thoughts on the current position (ensuring that these are realistic and authentic); insights into conversations I have had with clients or stakeholders across the region; and displaying hope and optimism for the future. I have also taken the opportunity in the videos to show personal vulnerability as to how tough I have found the pandemic.
I have been helped immensely by the Paris Smith leadership team and the entire partner group. The partners share the vision, values and purpose of the firm. Most importantly, they recognise the importance of being consistent in how we look after our people. We have stood united as a group. That has been an immense strength of the firm.
Equally, the commitment of the leadership team to having open and honest discussions as well as collective responsibility for any decision made has been invaluable in ensuring that all receive the same messages across Paris Smith.
All these elements have been key components in building a safe, secure and trusting environment in which all staff can continue to perform at their best.
I am a person who is always keen to learn from situations, to adopt a glass-half-full approach to life. Negativity and I are not the best of pals. I was able to retain a sense of optimism for the future. I knew that I would be failing our people if I was overly positive about the present situation. I have always been open and honest as to the reality of the firm’s position at any time and how I was thinking. It has always served me well and enabled me to sleep easier at night.
There were periods during the first lockdown which were very tough. Being confined to home, whilst comfortable, was at times hard for a person who enjoys meeting and talking to others. As the weeks passed, my energy levels did flag.
My first excursion after about eight weeks of shielding was driving to the local hospital for a blood test. At the hospital, I was extremely careful to keep well away from anyone else, such was my nervousness of catching anything. When I got home, my wife, who is very protective of my health, told me to wash my clothes immediately and take a shower to avoid any risk of the virus having been picked up on my clothes.
The end of the first lockdown and the pausing of shielding at the end of July was a great relief. I could escape. Visiting a supermarket after so long was a surreal experience.
The rise in COVID-19 cases in October served as a reminder of the need to continue to be cautious. I owed it to my family, my brother who donated my kidney, my friends, colleagues and myself to stay safe and healthy.
The second lockdown did not come as a surprise. I was mentally prepared for it. It was to be short. It felt different to the first, primarily because of the season. Getting up in hours of darkness, working at home, turning the laptop off when the sun had already set, all become repetitive. I was mindful that if I was feeling that way, there would be colleagues and others less fortunate than me who would be struggling more.
We now look forward to the rollout of the vaccine. I am fortunate that I will receive it ahead of many due to my condition. I am optimistic for the future, having learned a lot about myself and others during the pandemic. I am mentally richer for the experience, and grateful for what I have.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.