Carol Hopwood on what aspects of pandemic working will be worth keeping
17 June 2021
7 minute read
Our Head of Serious and Catastrophic Injury, Carol Hopwood, spoke with PI Focus Magazine about what aspects of pandemic working will be worth keeping.
"On the 23rd March 2020, with a mix of bewilderment and an attitude that belied the gravity of the situation that we were about to face, I locked the door on our office fully expecting to be back within the month. I suspect I was not alone with that thought process. I had not heard of Zoom, video calls were the exception not the norm, remote appointments were rare and as for working from home – I was not a fan.
Yet, here we are, over a year later. How things have changed for all of us involved in the litigation process. Judges presiding over remote hearings with electronic bundles. Experts assessing clients and our own client meetings and conferences via video conferencing. When Professor Robert Kelly or “BBC Dad” was interrupted by his children during a live video interview in 2017 it went viral and was broadcast around the world. Many will now have experienced something similar and any embarrassment has largely gone. It has almost become a welcome relief to have long video conferences interrupted by the unpredictability of pets and children.
Necessity is said to be the mother of invention and we have learnt that there is nothing like a pandemic to put that to the test. Our IT team were incredible and, unless you are in IT, I do not actually think we have a true understanding of the logistics of switching an entire workforce of nearly 1000 people to working from home at short notice. Managing the frustrations and expectations of the work force would no doubt have required the patience of multiple saints, but they did it with a smile on their faces and despite a few bumps in the road, we were soon operating as business as usual, just from our bedroom, study or kitchen with a big sprinkling of flexible working. We achieved in a few short weeks what would likely have taken many months but for Covid.
My children are at University so I am thankful that the particular challenge of home schooling passed me by. I have absolute respect and admiration for my colleagues who have somehow managed to continue to perform as if in non-pandemic times, maintaining outstanding five star client reviews at the same time as home schooling. I think that brings a completely new meaning to the definition of multi-tasking.
So, one year on, it is a good time to reflect on those enforced changes and how our “new normal” may look here at Carpenters Group.
Our ability to maintain “business as usual” required us to re-visit our attitude to flexible working. Whilst our work force has formal “flexi- time”, this was elevated to a completely new level and once schools closed, we were proactive in supporting our colleagues to work hours that allowed them to meet home and work commitments rather than the traditional office hours. Our clients, many of whom were in the same predicament, welcomed being able to talk to their lawyers outside of normal hours. The feedback from the team is that being able to work flexibly helped ensure that work and family life remained balanced. However, we are very mindful of the importance of on-the-job learnings that is more difficult to achieve working remotely. Like many other organisations, we are now in the process of a full review of agile working for the future. We are currently surveying our entire work force on this area but general feedback during the pandemic has been that a hybrid system of part office, part home based working would be the ideal and overwhelmingly that the work/life balance is much improved with agile working. I don’t ever see us going back to the “old normal”.
These have been difficult and testing times for all of us and we have been acutely aware of the difficulties our people have faced. Thankfully, only a limited number have been ill with Covid but our people have lost loved ones and it has been very important to the Owners and Senior Leadership Team at Carpenters Group that we have been proactive to offer as much support as possible to our colleagues and their families. Carpenters Group have: appointed wellbeing ambassadors across the firm; organised online monthly wellbeing sessions; have held open discussions about mental health; have installed an ethos of ‘it’s Ok not to be OK”; offered the ability to work non-conventional hours; planned social activities and online events such as quizzes and awards; and have delivered “thank you” parcels to every team member. These initiatives are underpinned by the day-to-day support and wellbeing checks that our managers across the business provide.
On a personal level, I have met children (and pets) that I almost certainly would never have met and feel like I know more about my team and their daily lives than I would have otherwise. I feel it has made us stronger as a unit and I hope that this feeling is widespread. I am very proud of what our teams have delivered in the last year -professionalism, teamwork, resilience and compassion, all in testing times.
If you’d asked me a year ago, I would probably have said that Zoom was an airline. I had no clue. However, like many others, I quickly got up to speed (thank you IT, again) and along with Teams, this forms the bedrock of all communication with clients, experts, counsel, the Courts and of course until recently social interaction with friends and family. I am a convert. Whilst there is no substitute in serious injury litigation for meeting your clients in person, moving forward I will try to use video conferencing in place of telephone calls with my clients and their families. I think it is more personable, you can get a better feel for how they are doing, and client feedback is that they feel more as if they are having a proper social interaction rather than a faceless call. That is particularly important for our clients who are socially isolated or have few friends and family. One of my brain-injured clients put it quite succinctly when he pointed out that the pandemic was nothing new for him. Social isolation was his normal and seeing us on a Zoom call really cheered him up. In some cases, we have arranged for tablets to be provided to our clients so that they can stay in touch with us.
These too have moved, where possible, to remote assessment. Protection of our clients’ health has been critical and for many who are extremely clinically vulnerable and have been shielding, in-person assessments were simply not possible. Zoom, WhatsApp or FaceTime have become the norm for many. Our clients have appreciated the steps we have taken to protect them. Calls are scheduled to avoid times of maximum fatigue, travel to and from appointments is no longer necessary, clients can be supported by family members who may otherwise not have been available to travel with the restrictions and calls are arranged at our clients’ convenience and, above all, our clients are in the comfort of their own home. This does not suit all types of assessment, and there will be cases where domestic circumstances are such that our clients want to be seen outside of the home, but I do feel that the last 12 months has proven that for the right cases, this approach works well.
Rehabilitation during pandemic
The way that rehabilitation is delivered, both privately and on the NHS, will differ from Trust to Trust, but much rehabilitation has been delivered remotely by telephone or video call during the various lockdowns.
Working in partnership with insurers to get a proactive case manager and private rehabilitation has been critical. Securing places in private neuro-rehabilitation units that are Covid-free or arranging packages of rehabilitation that have been remotely delivered such as psychology, physiotherapy, OT and case management has been logistically challenging. In addition, clients’ family networks are suffering greater stress due to the reports of alcohol misuse, suicide attempts, breakdown of relationships and homelessness. Having a good working relationship with the Defendant Insurer has been critical and makes all the difference. My experience is that in many situations the insurers have been very proactive in working with us to find solutions to difficult situations.
The Court System
I think this is one of the biggest positives to come from the pandemic in the sense that the use of technology has been accelerated significantly and has demonstrated how the systems can be improved. Electronic filing, video hearings, e-bundles and the local pilot of online issuing are just some examples. Court colleagues have been fantastic in working with us to ensure minimum disruption to our cases. I hope that the pandemic has been the catalyst for a more permanent change rather than a temporary fix.
Some final thoughts...
The coronavirus pandemic certainly presented new challenges to the way in which serious injury cases are managed, but by working consensually with our opponents where possible, adopting new procedures and utilising the available technology, we have continued to deliver our business as usual, just a different usual. Many of the changes that were forced upon us have resulted in improved systems and processes, improved methods of communication and better work life balance at home. However, I for one will still be glad to get back to the office and to see my clients and teams in person."
Head of Serious and Catastrophic Injury, Carpenters Group
Credit: PI Focus Magazine