Influencers Forum WEB

Welcome to the Influencer Forum. I’d like to introduce our panel today Andrew Griggs, Senior Partner Kreston Reeves, Nigel Lambe, CEO of the Sussex Innovation Centre. John Yates, Partner of DMH Stallard. Scott Nursten, CEO of ITHQ, and Richard Spofforth, Partner at Kreston Reeves, thank you very much for joining us.

We’re discussing the broad subject of shaping and aligning technology and human resources. Ensuring you have employees with the right skill sets to help run a business efficiently and effectively is a challenge. However, beyond profit reports and spreadsheets, a company is made up of its employees. So human resources remain one of the most important departments that should never be underestimated. A good HR department bridges the communication gap between management and employees, provides insight into what employees need, and develop long term strategies to boost satisfaction and loyalty. With the help of technology, it can achieve much more in considerably less time.

The pandemic has created fundamental changes in how we live and work, and it seems that those changes
will not be temporary. We’re at that inflection point where we need to start thinking about what our world might look like in the coming decades.

If I may, I’ll come to you first, Andrew. Has Kreston Reeves grasped this nettle? How steep is the learning curve?

AG: The answer is yes, I think we have. Do we have all the answers and solutions? Probably not.

Before we went into the pandemic, hybrid style working was quite a topical area in organisations; people wanting to have flexible working. Clearly on March 23rd 2020, when we all compulsorily had to work from home, it was a kind of monumental change in our lives.

And what organisations prove to themselves, where you suddenly have 520 people working from home permanently; will the IT cope? But actually, there was a forced change, and that led people to continue thinking of flexible working, and what was right for them. So with the choices people are making, we’re trying to be as flexible as we can recognising the business needs, but also the people’s needs.

20% of our people are in training. And some of those people have said to me, “my career’s on hold. I don’t feel I can get the same training and development, working from home as I can just having that coffee conversation around the photocopier.”


MH: John, in terms of working from home, the fact that it does look to be a permanent move, how involved is DMH in the technology required to efficiently have a workforce that is hybrid at best?

JY: We’ve been through a similar thing as Andrew, though we haven’t had the same uptake. We probably see a handful of people going in each day, and the reason for that is technology. We have been running an IT project prior to March 23rd 2020, and that project has meant it’s far easier to do meetings with clients from home, usually via Zoom.

For us the key thing is delivery to clients. We have delivered successfully. We have managed to complete a number of corporate projects over the past 18 months. Technology such as DocuSign has helped with completions. So it’s been a seamless process as far as the clients are concerned. 


MH: Nigel, within SINC, you’re surrounded by a wealth of new young technology companies. How much is tech is getting involved in HR within Sussex Innovation Centre?

NL: Quite a lot, because it is very much a people-first thing. We then get the technology to follow that.
So the one thing that the pandemic has done is get a lot of companies talking about hybrid working and remote working. However, it was always a question of trust in their staff which is what the bosses were afraid of.

But guess what? Everyone’s not sitting at home watching Richard & Judy. So the whole focus was actually on an issue that wasn’t an issue. And it’s because of technology, all the things we’re used to using – Office 365, SharePoint, Zoom – and the advent of asynchronous working, where it’s much less about online, and discussions or face-to-face meetings, and much more about getting the job done. All the tools are there.

One place where technology is unresolved is around the true hybrid working pattern. This is when you have some people in the office and some people at home, and you’re trying to have a discussion with all of them. What we’re finding for our key management meetings, is that we either have to do it fully remote or fully in the office.


MH: A recent survey said that more than half of UK workers (56%) reported an increase in productivity when working from home. Are you finding a problem with hybrid working? Or are you finding a level playing field to do it?

RS: I can be super-efficient working from home, I can get up, start when I want to crack on; get stuff done. But I don’t find this as effective. There’s a difference between productivity and actually delivering the outputs.
In a business like ours, whilst it is quite technical, a lot of it’s about advising clients and bringing people together.

Being in an office with people where you can catch them, not waiting for them to stop being on Teams, or they’ve gone into another virtual meeting, is preferable given the immediate social interaction and being physically together.

So I think collaboration, which is a big part of our business, is quite hard. However, you can get a lot done at home without the distractions. So it’s a balance between effectiveness and efficiency. And that then flows into people planning a lot more with the people they work with and about how they’ll do their work.


MH: I think we have all learned the problems with this. It’s a case of ‘how can we fix the problems?’ You’re on the front line with this Scott with ITHQ. Where are we going? Will technology allow our workforce to be as competent and as effective sitting at home than they would be in any office?

SN: Well, the obvious answer is what Mark Zuckerberg is trying to create, which is this Metaverse concept. But
I find that a lot of people will buck that quite heavily. Wearing VR headsets to a meeting would mean that even if you’re in the same room, you’re all in essence cut off and have to meet in the metaverse. But it does level
the playing field. 

What I find interesting is that everyone has been hearing this as a technology issue. And that’s been great for my business, but it’s not a technology issue. There’s a flywheel of issues here, in my opinion.

Most businesses I’ve spoken to have not changed their processes at all; it’s still the same office-driven process. If you used to carry this piece of paper from your office to the finance office, they have replaced that with a DocuSign. But the process has stayed very much the same, just using technology to bridge those gaps. So I would encourage businesses to look at how you change the process. Now that you’ve got this new, hybrid, working environment, with two thirds of businesses saying it’s here to stay. 

Businesses were already putting in agile working practices, pre-pandemic. This is just accelerating something that was going to happen. So if you’ve got flexible start and end times, and people can work from home or work from the office, how do you then re-engineer the process to be as efficient because individual productivity is higher?

The end-to-end process is less efficient, because changing swimlanes is where you lose all of the momentum. And because of Zoom, etc, we’re having to change swimlanes all the time. It’s different to productivity. And I think people are measuring the wrong thing in terms of individual hours and individual productivity versus end-to-end output.

But then you’ve got that social aspect. And I really like Jordan B Peterson’s line that it takes a village to organise a mind. That concept of social interaction; that you need constant communication to organise your thoughts, and to stay on track and to be rationally minded, and to engage in a reasonable thought is really important. Because people being isolated while being über-productive isn’t good overall. It isn’t good for people’s mental state. It isn’t good for us as a society. 

JY: My team is six lawyers. What we’ve found is we have a 30-minute meeting every morning, and it gives us a touch point. So everyone sees each other in the team. It also gives an opportunity to talk through what work we’ve got on and what needs to happen. We’ve done this for 18 months.

When we had a return to the office last year, people were saying, ‘can we carry on doing the daily meetings?’, because they felt more part of the team than they had done from when we were in offices. 

SN: We’ve done the same. So there’s three of us working in the office today, the rest are all remote. But we always have our daily stand up on Zoom that everyone participates, no matter what.


MH: Regarding hybrid working, we are all still dragging some of the old systems with us, that effectively might be able to be replaced. If we come on to recruitment, that’s having to be done remotely. We’ve many tech systems coming in that do employee selection and background checks without a single human hand touching it. What is your view on the problem of recruitment in a non-human touch way?

RS: We interviewed our marketing and business development director who was in Singapore at the time and her camera was broken. But she got through the first and second stage interviews to appointment. She’d been with us six months before I physically met her and we actually sat in a room for 20 minutes before we realised that was the first time we’d ever met in person. So I think it’s eminently possible. 

SN: In general, it’s a sort of inverted pyramid concept that probably the more senior the role, the less likely
that you would hire that person on purely a digital platform. If you’re hiring someone to pack shelves
you can get away with that very easily on the digital platforms alone. I think once it’s more senior people, there’s elements of non-verbal communication, and getting to know the person and getting a sense of
what they’re like in the room, to appoint them.

But we also had to make two senior appointments through the pandemic. That only happened remotely and both have been very successful anyway. So it’s not to say that you can’t, but that you would probably want people in the room for the more senior positions.

NL: I’ve a slightly tangential point, but it’s a really important one for us. Because we have moved much more to online recruitments, and much more to blind recruitment, one of our big agenda items is trying to increase the diversity of our group. There’s no doubt, whether we like to admit it or not, you do increase diversity, you get a broader range of candidates that can be geographic, but also in terms of background. And that’s a very positive thing. 

AG: I think you can be more efficient with your time in terms of some of the screening. We’re seeing a lot more candidates coming through. 

JY: From the senior recruitment point of view, it’s somewhat easier doing it virtually. I’ve recruited two senior associates. We recruited partners into the firm over the past 18 months, and that process has been quite straight-forward. You’ve got a proven track record you can look at. You’ve got a CV to look at. We do typically senior appointments of two to three interviews with different people, so you can get a feel for somebody over the course of a set of interviews.

Meanwhile, at the junior level, we’ve got increased numbers of people applying for roles. And that’s great. And there are huge numbers of people who are applying because it’s a lot easier to apply.


MH: I sense there is a de-humanising factor coming in here that maybe we just have to adapt to. There’s an awful lot of AI – or as one of Scott’s best headlines in the magazine put it, ‘Is AI more A than I?’ There’s a bot to basically interview candidates. For example, if, when I was 18, and I said something that made complete sense to me when I was 18, but would be ill-advised now, should I be penalised by a computer when I’m 35 and looking for a secure job with DMH or Kreston Reeves or SINC?

SN: As we all know, these are just algorithms. So if the algorithm is well written, if that was when you were
18, if it was that far in the past, and there’s no recurrence of that, you would imagine it would have a very
low weight.

So you ought to have some sort of weighting algorithm on there. If it was well written, it probably wouldn’t impact you negatively at all. If it was badly written, and just looked for any hate speech and then automatically excluded you based on that, even if it was 40 or so years ago, then that wouldn’t make any sense. And that’s the problem with algorithmic-based AI; it’s very often a one and a zero, it doesn’t have any grey areas.

AG: Recently we received 700 applications for six graduate trainee places in our London office for this coming September. We would then need to decide whether we would be using a bot that would be some sort of early screening to help sift through those applicants, rather than just doing it on the traditional gradings or some other way.

RS: It is only as good as the algorithm and there is quite a lot of stuff around population bias. So the issue I think for you, Maarten, was whether you said something inappropriate when you were 18. Is that applied against everybody else of your age group in the population who’ve applied for the job to see if you’re an outlier? 

Or is it just that the views were different a long time ago, and actually, you might get filtered out by changes in people’s perceptions and behaviours over a period of time. So population bias in AI is really critical.

SN: Imagine if the first gate, Maarten, was ‘if hate speech, then exclude’, then you wouldn’t get to any of the nuance that we were talking about, regardless of population bias, how long ago it was, or whether it was a joke or not. How would AI even know that? 


MH: Unfortunately, the youth of today are posting every-thing they do. One of my daughters cleaned the fridge out last night which in itself nearly gave me a heart attack. She posted what she was doing just so as she can share with her friends the fact she was cleaning the fridge! My concern is, in 10 years from now, when they want to enter the workforce in something more than a starter job, this will be trawled up. A human might not use it against them but a bot, dependent on how the algorithm is designed, won’t know the algorithm is based won’t know the difference between humour and a rabid view on some-thing. And we’re in danger of alienating a huge number
of people who could be very good for our workforce.


SN: What you guys need to do is jump on to a good search engine, not necessarily Google. Not that I’m opposed to Google, although their spyware and destructive approach to internet advertising should be curtailed. Actually, I’ll stop that rant right there.

But responsible AI is what you need to just put into a search engine. And you’ll find institutes have been set up around the globe. How you address it long term and make sure that you’re not systematically coding bias into platforms is a challenge; it’s a real challenge that everyone’s aware of, and that we’re actively working on.  

AG: There is that bias programming into algorithms that I was going to raise. Professional firms have historically recruited from academia, with qualifications as one of its criteria. Now there’s a great tendency for professional firms to look beyond that and encourage people to recruit from underprivileged backgrounds. Depending on what your practice systems and processes are for doing that, it’s actually seen as a negative if you don’t do that. But can you programme that into an algorithm? And if you did, would that be positive discrimination?

RS: What people have done is probably going to have more prominence going forward, because we will probably feel a bit nervous about differentiating people on their A-grades or their 1st or 2:1 degrees. I don’t think we as a business have really thought about this yet. But I do think that is a challenge employers will have coming through probably over the next three or four years. 


MH: It’s been pretty much established, that it now tends to be the candidates choosing the employer and not the other way around. Candidates are looking for who the company is and what the company does, outside of what they do as an accountant, a law firm or whatever. That’s going to become more of a problem as we get into recruitment being put into the hands of technology. Perhaps the new candidates coming in will judge the company on the standard of their recruitment before they go any further. Scott, is this our future? 

SN: Certainly employees are more picky. I think that’s a good thing; the Great Resignation in the States, this
changing mindset. There’s a whole anti-work movement online at the moment where people are refusing to just be another number, the next McDonald’s employee, the next Walmart employee, etc. 

NL: The interesting thing about the candidates choosing the company is that we, at SINC, recruit about 10 graduates a year. There has been a big shift in what really drives the people that we’re seeing coming to us.

Previously, there would have been very business-driven and career-driven attitudes. But now, there’s two common themes coming out all the time with everyone I’ve recruited in the past 18 months.

One is a hatred of the consolidation of wealth. And that’s both amongst a small handful of people that control the vast majority of money in the world, and also against the big companies; the Facebooks and the companies
that consolidate all that knowledge and wealth. The other one is environmental issues; they genuinely care about the planet. They won’t work for a company that simply doesn’t care. Companies have to think about where they position themselves on those two issues. That’s really what’s driving the next generation as far as I can see. 


MH: Have you experienced the same thing at DMH John, with the candidates interviewing you?

JY: At the senior level – yes, they are making the decision as to whether they want to come and join us as much as we are making the decision if we want to take them forward.

At the junior level, it’s a slightly different dynamic, and that’s probably driven by the nature of the law and the steps that one needs to go through to qualify as a solicitor. So with young people who’ve come out of law school, done a law degree, their primary objective is to become a qualified solicitor. What’s driving them is getting the practising certificate. 

The challenge that we’ve got when we train them, is retaining them once they get to that end point. It’s then the things that you do – e.g. CSR, environment – that will make a difference. Your position around flexible working, those factors will come into play. 

AG: Whilst I agree on the CSR, and the environmental issues, which are all key things people look at, for an employer now, it’s also how you’re seen in the community, how you treat your customers, how you treat your suppliers. I just think there’s a completely different emphasis.

And I would say to people at all levels in our organisation, look at us on that basis. I send out a monthly update about the firm. In terms of where I prioritise things, people are more interested in what we’re giving, and what we’re doing for people and the community than they are about business-related issues. 


MH: When does that worm turn; that we spend so much time trying to look like a great company for the protection of employees, that we’ve lost the focus of what our company is supposed to be doing in the first place?

SN: It’s not about trying to look a certain way to potential employees, it’s about being a certain way. It’s about being a business that is behaving responsibly, thinking about more than just how many dollars we can accumulate, unlike Jeff Bezos.

Obviously, profits are important and l am not saying we shouldn’t be thinking about that but that should only be part of the picture. How you used to perceive job success was wealth and title. Now it’s your home life, your mental stability. Your job and your title are only parts of those. 


Do you find you’re putting a lot more focus into how your actions are perceived in this area? 

RS: Andrew has someone in his office who absolutely is driving some of the things we’re doing around net zero, and he’s probably as commercial an auditor as you’ll ever get. The two can go hand-in-hand, it’s not ‘one at the cost of the other’. 

AG: I think its got to become a differentiator because no disrespect to automation, you still need organisational behaviour here. You need that in all aspects now, whether it’s sales, purchases, people, finance – the whole caboodle.


MH: Within this technological shift, there are certain sectors that it works with. Within all sectors though, we’re going to have the problem with things like CPD – continuing professional development. Is that all going to now be done online? And are you doing such things online?

JY: To a certain extent, CPD has been online for the past five years. We do a number of course online and they’re all fixed thing that each and every person within the firm has got to do. Anti-money laundering training, data protection etc. is delivered online. There’s a test, you get a scorecard and you’re not allowed to progress until you’ve passed the test. That is all recorded and you sign a certificate at the end of every practice year. And that’s worked quite well.

It came about when the legal profession abolished the concept of 16 CPD hours each year. What people used to
do under the fixed hours process was wait until the practice year was ending, and then they’d all sign up and do a two-day course, which was completely irrelevant. They would just do it to get the hours. And that was it.

SN: We’re in a different world now. With delivering training, it’s one of the easiest things to solve. It depends on the type of training, but certainly for technology for cybersecurity, you can deliver it in bite-sized chunks. People can engage with it when they want.

So I actually think digital training is one of the major positives to come out of this. And it actually drives the concepts that you see, and the inevitable is that people want stuff that’s easy to discover, easy to access and that they can take with them on mobiles, tablets, computers, etc. Training was one of those things that was always classroom-based.

RS: Mass online courses are really easy to deliver. But I’m not sure it’s really that engaging. People sitting in front of a pre-recorded three-hour session on some accounting updates, is pretty dull and dry.

So we’ve moved to having our whole team with a lecturer we know. It’s a Zoom thing with interaction, which definitely does work because we get specific examples and questions, and it’s much more interactive than a mass online course.

And then we have quite a lot of content on stream. It’s consumable in the office, it can get streamed on
their phone or their tablet, watch it when they like, and watch it as many times as they want.


MH: If we take one of the things that we’re coming on to, that Scott got to, about ‘is this something that we think we are going to move into further down the road of technological advancement?’ Or do you think at some point we’re going to put our hand up and say ‘stop’?

JY: I think we are going to carry on adopting technology as it delivers many things. I can only talk about our business and the things that I see in practice. So if I think about the main areas where technology is key. The first one is around Virtual Data rooms; document repositories, which have made corporate transactions a lot easier.

For lawyers, it means it’s not taking work away from them, it just means they can do things quicker, they still need to do the checking, and still need to look at things. It’s just how you rationalise a process where you’ve got an awful lot of documents, how you can quickly work out what really does need to be looked at and what doesn’t. 

Cybersecurity is the one that presents the most challenges because law firms and accountants are a great target for those who want to take money off people. Ransomware is probably the biggest challenge that we all face. And we now have law firms that have suffered ransomware attacks, and just dealing with that kind of attack is so time consuming to fix. The cost is huge, and there’s the reputational damage. 

SN: Adoption of technology is only going to increase and something like the metaverse is guaranteed to happen. We’ve always had a generation looking down at the technology of the next generation. We literally
had the parents of the 80s shaking their heads at Walkmans. And so it keeps going on.

AG: I was just going to pick up on one of John’s points about the document review software on contracts.
They can do a lot of the basic work, but one of the interesting things for me, is do people then become
lazy because they rely on technology and miss things? 

JY: Certainly the technology doesn’t take away the legal input that’s required. Thinking about what might be
needed next maybe doesn’t sit well with someone who’s reviewing a contract. The process will involve people
of a senior level, the IT team, and thinking about where we look to next, and what areas of the business need to be addressed. But technology does help within the workplace.

There is the generational difference, and that is a key challenge for businesses. And it doesn’t matter where
you look, there is a generational difference between those who see technology as helpful, and those who don’t like it. 


I guess the difference here is that Scott’s analogy of the Walkman is sound but the next one after
the Walkman was probably 10 years later. At the moment where technology is moving so fast, that
from a Monday to a Friday, the whole landscape kind of shifted. I remember moaning for probably 10 years that I’d bought a Betamax, and they all ended up being VHS. It took me 10 years to moan. Today, I’d moan on Monday, and on Tuesday, there be another 53 systems in there.

RS: If you think about the metaverse and virtual reality headsets, think about the 15 to 18 year-olds today or
younger. The cost of these things comes down from £500 to £100, they’re going to have virtual reality headsets for gaming.

Put them forward 10 years into the workplace. Now I’m very fortunate working from home today. I’m sitting in a large spare bedroom, I’ve got a large desk, I’ve got a wide screen. For a new trainee coming in, who might be sharing a flat with two other people, I would, if I could, interact with VR in a nice environment. I think it’s the logical way forward, and that’s where we are going to be.

SN: My kids are 15, 17 and 19. They all kill zombies, play golf, chase each other around with machine guns on Fortnite and Call of Duty and their VR headsets are ready. I go home and have to move towards them very carefully and tap them on the shoulder to say hello to them, so I don’t get a black eye when they are swinging around. It’s already happened!

RS: And in the workplace when they start working, a Zoom meeting is going to be a degraded experience from what they’re used to?

SN: And they’ll moan ‘why isn’t it done on a VR headset?’

RS: And how they interact with their friends. And then you’ll have exactly what we’ve got effectively in terms of people running their business on WhatsApp, effectively outside the approved systems. People will move off from that and they’ll go ‘let’s not Zoom, let’s VR’. They’ll have IT running outside their IT system, which will have to embraced by the IT departments.


MH: For a final comment, if I start with you, Andrew. What do you feel the future of technology – in all areas, including the recruitment area – is over the next decade for Kreston Reeves?

AG: Technology, as we’ve all been saying, will be a great enabler. We’re already seeing it replace some of our
systems and processes, but it’s doing some of the work that our people have traditionally done. So our role increasingly becomes one of interpreters rather than processors. That won’t abate, that will just continue. I do think that the technology or the algorithms can only be as good as the people that actually develop them, so that we need to continue to create a learning and development environment for people to thrive to create the new technologies going forward.

And the one thing I’ve taken away from this conversation; it’s something that was said in the first 20 minutes, is that – are we adapting our systems and processes to be less office-based than perhaps we did in the past? And I think that there will be an increase in that over the next 10 years quite significantly.

JY: We will. It’s inevitable, and there are pluses for the people working within the firm. If we can be efficient, and if we can get the technology right, so people can collaborate effectively, can learn effectively, it can become a great place to work. A hybrid world can be a real positive place to work, because there are many upsides as we recognise. For instance, what working from home offers in terms of saving commuting time and we just need to find a way forwards on those collaborative pieces to get those to be as effective as they were in the real world. And I think technology will deliver on those. 


MH: Nigel, do you think the next decade is going to embrace this with the gusto we’re all feeling? 

NL: It’s inevitable. The challenge is making sure that we remain a people-first organisation, and that we use technology to enable our people to work better, as opposed to the technology tail wagging the dog. But we now need to review how we operate the process to make sure that we’re making the best use of technology. But at all times remain ‘people-first’.

RS: Three key things, for me. The rapid change of the last two years has dramatically changed people’s propensity to change. And that’s a great opportunity. People are prepared to try to do new things that they might have been reluctant to do. So they’re much more open to changing processes and systems, because they’ve seen that forced on them. And it’s worked well. It’s worked well and it’s worked quite rapidly.

As a profession, we have great opportunities to automate. And as a business from an HR and leadership development point of view, how do we train people to do the high level stuff if they’ve never done the low level stuff that we’ve automated? So we’re going to have to change our learning development structures around that. I’m not sure we’re 100% ready for that - teaching people to be experts on something they’ve never done the basics on it is probably quite challenging.


MH: Gentlemen, thank you very much. I think I do feel like we could probably go on for another couple of hours. But sadly, we’re not allowed to. Thank you very much for your input.

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