Out-Law Analysis | 26 Jan 2021 | 3:24 pm | 4 min. read
In-house legal teams and general counsel will need to be agile and flexible if they are to meet the changing demands of their business in the coming year.
Flexible resourcing, better work-life balance and further investment in remote working technology were just some of the 2021 objectives highlighted by Asia-based GCs interviewed by Pinsent Masons Vario.
Asian businesses had previously been slower to adapt to remote and flexible working models due to the importance of face-to-face working as a way of building trust and relationships. For these businesses, the pandemic has shown that staff can maintain productivity and achieve their objectives even where people are not physically in the office, according to our interviewees.
Carl Watson, GC at Arcadis Asia, said: "The pandemic has been a shot in the arm for remote working".
"Trust is the key, as is businesses getting comfortable with setting goals and having them delivered remotely. It's about creating a customised work environment. Companies also need to give line managers training and the skills they need to develop talent remotely," he said.
General Counsel, Arcadis
Companies need to give line managers training and the skills they need to develop talent remotely.
Campbell Clark, vice-president for legal and compliance at medical technology firm Medtronic Asia, said that businesses should "take the best of what the last 12 months have taught us", rather than return to old ways of working.
"I'm probably closer now to some of the colleagues I need to be closer to, as I've been very intentional about scheduling regular updates rather than waiting to be in that location or communicating via email," he said.
"I've tried to be absolutely flexible in terms of timing of meetings, looking at what's really urgent and reprioritising. We can't micromanage how people do their work at home. They could be sharing a dining table to work from, be looking after their children and have other constraints – we need to be conscious of that," he said.
However, our respondents are not predicting a permanent shift to remote working. Clark pointed out that parts of the legal and compliance role depend on face-to-face interaction.
"It's often most instructive to be on the ground, walk the corridors and speak with people at different levels of the organisation," he said. "People at all levels of an organisation are observant, and share thoughts and ideas in the office, but it can be difficult to maintain contact with those people in these circumstances."
"I have a friend who runs investigations for a multinational company who, as part of his job, conducts interviews with people. This year, he has had to do so over Zoom, which has worked well – but there is more of a chance you miss certain cues, which wouldn't happen if you were meeting face to face," he said.
GC and head of compliance, AXA Asia
Some conversations have to be had face to face, particularly the difficult ones
AXA Asia GC and head of compliance Cindy Tong said: "Personally, I don't believe in working from home 100% of the time – it's very important to interact with your team and it's usually the more personal conversations that don't happen when we aren't in the office. Some conversations have to be had face to face, particularly the difficult ones."
In-house legal teams have had to react quickly to support the business in a fast-moving environment. For Cindy Tong, regulatory issues had to be overcome to allow for certain complex financial products to be sold remotely. Regulators in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and elsewhere in the region "almost immediately" started work on 'hybrid' arrangements, allowing agents to talk to customers without necessarily sitting across from each other, she said.
There were also employment issues that needed to be considered when people first started working from home.
"Some expats, for example, wanted to leave, while others were stuck overseas," she said. "We worked very closely with our HR team, looking at the tax implications as well as employment-related issues. We've also relied on external counsel support," she said.
"As a legal function, we support the business and we need to be as responsive as we can be to the changing needs of the business," said Campbell Clark. "While we need to remember that people are working under challenging circumstances, there is still a work outcome to be achieved - and it's a lot less draining if you get to the end of the day and have had a number of conversations on substantive issues, rather than on matters beyond our control."
VP for legal and compliance, Medtronic
People are working under challenging circumstances, but there is still a work outcome to be achieved
"In Asia, lots of countries focused on developing anti-corruption regimes, but levels of enforcement have been mixed. There is now a renewed focus on corruption, so legal and compliance functions will need to address that. Competition law will also be a focus. Restrictive trade practices could impact the free flow of goods. When air travel has been curtailed and there are shortages of products that are desperately required I think that, in the short to medium term, these increased barriers to international trade will continue to create work for legal teams".
While the enforced change in working patterns imposed by the pandemic cannot last forever, our interviewees were keen to see the lessons learned used to improve flexibility in the "high-pressure environment" of in-house legal.
Carl Watson said: "We have to recognise that the brain has a finite capacity and, if constantly saturated, it's not sustainable. We need to check in with each other in order to ensure the business and objectives we handle are sustainable".
"There will always be pressure to drive revenue, but it's important not to lose the personal connections - work is important, but it's equally important to stay mindful on wellbeing, and continue to show concern and care to our teams and colleagues as we all embrace new ways of working and some of the uncertainty that can come with that," he said.
"Even when our office had reopened, people were still given the option of working from home two days per week, allowing them the flexibility to spend time with family," said Cindy Tong. "People appreciate that, and it changes the way we work quite radically."
"Being prepared and adopting an agile mindset will be key as legal departments will need to adapt along with the business. It's also very important not to stop learning. We're focused on training lawyers on soft skills, and coaching to ensure teams stay motivated," she said.