The day New Zealand went into lockdown was the day junior solicitor Josh Nyika had been scheduled to spend working at home. March 25 was meant to have been his ‘test day’, to ensure his technology and systems at home all worked well should the time come for the Tompkins Wake team to be sent into lockdown.
Instead, he didn’t get that test day. Rather, he spent the day setting up not just his laptop but his entire desktop. Josh’s kitchen table in his open plan living-dining room had just become his office.
And the challenges that brought mirror those experienced by people around New Zealand, who found themselves suddenly uprooted from their workplaces, creating makeshift offices at home as Kiwis were forced into isolation to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Josh and his wife were isolating with their one-year-old son.
“We’ve got a two-bedroom house… there wasn’t any separation as you can imagine. And my son kept jumping on my lap trying to watch videos online. My boss might not be too impressed with the search history…. Hickory Dickory Dock, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star!” he laughs.
The reality is, however, his boss understood. Everyone understood. Three years ago, the world laughed at the viral video of Associate Professor Robert Kelly whose two young children and wife were spotted in the background during an interview he was doing with the BBC from his home office.
But fast forward to 2020 and we’re now all familiar with – and tolerant, if not understanding, of – interruptions during Zoom and MS Teams calls.
For several weeks it became our new normal. Juggling work commitments in our bubbles, with family, kids, pets.
Josh’s sister Ruby joined his bubble during Alert Level 3 so Ruby could help with childcare and Josh moved his office setup to Ruby’s house where he had fewer interruptions and no need to search for children’s nursery rhymes on YouTube.
But while Josh and his colleagues got to grips with the challenges of working from home, there was one major consideration they didn’t have to worry about during lockdown: their jobs.
“The management team have done a great job in helping everyone feel supported and able to focus on doing their work, rather than worrying about their jobs or the effect on the firm,” said professional support advisor Catherine Bryant.
And that sentiment was echoed by many of her colleagues.
“I’m so proud of the way this has all been handled and the confidence the firm had in us to get through this. That gave me a lot of confidence,” solicitor Kirsty Dibley said.
“I felt really reassured that the firm was coping well and a lot of that came from [chief executive] Jon Calder addressing everyone every Friday over MS Teams. He was really transparent in terms of how we were doing. He told us ‘If you’re quiet with work don’t worry about that. We will cope.’.”
And communicating to the team that their jobs were safe came on the back of the firm being resolute that it wouldn’t take up the Government’s Wage Subsidy Scheme. “I’m incredibly proud of the fact that [our management and governance team] backed themselves not to need the wage subsidy. Huge corporations… other large law firms… they were taking it. We didn’t,” Josh said.
Tompkins Wake was one of seven of the country’s top 15 law firms not to claim the wage subsidy.
“Instead, partners chose to reduce drawings and absorb the impact preserving our team and preparing the firm for recovery,” said chief executive Jon Calder.
There have been no redundancies, no wage cuts. Indeed, the opposite has happened. Every staff member was given an Easter bonus in their pay to act as a lockdown support payment along with an internet allowance to cover that cost while working from home.
“Who does all that? Tompkins Wake does that, to show its employees that people matter, and we are okay,” associate Christine Gavin said.
“There would be a lot of firms that wouldn’t even think about that and I think that the majority of our staff wouldn’t have expected it either. We were in this together, working toward the common goal of business as usual. Not once did I think my job was at stake.”
And while the reassurance of job security enabled the team to focus on delivering for their clients and taking care of their own mental and physical wellbeing, there were other measures being put in place to take care of staff and maintain the strong, cohesive, collegial culture the firm has worked so hard to build over the past four years.
There has been daily communication between teams and virtual CEO updates every week. And teams have kept doing things they used to do at work, albeit virtually.
“We’ve had morning teas together and coffees,” Josh said. “We’ve kept that structure of collegiality.”
And the support from the IT team and people and performance manager Lindsay Butler was “above and beyond”.
The firm was well-prepared; the IT team had already been working to get the appropriate tools in place for working from home. Jon saw in advance that a shutdown was likely, so the firm had begun preparing early.
“We have an amazing IT team and no query – from me being completely IT incompetent! – was too minor,” Christine said.
“They always gave me their undivided attention, I never felt rushed when asking any questions. And when mentioning in passing that a printer/scanner would be helpful for the type of work I do [while working remotely], I was asked if I want one? An hour later it was delivered to my office.”
It was that unwavering support that was symptomatic of the firm’s commitment to its culture. Something the firm’s partners have always valued above all else and that Jon has championed since he took up his post as chief executive in 2016.
“Our structure with our partnership board and our senior leadership team comprising managers and partners has proven highly effective in managing the challenge of Covid-19,” Jon said.
“But underpinning that has been our culture which puts our people front and centre of the firm. Alongside other values, we are incredibly focused on providing our people with a great working environment and the support they need to succeed not only in their roles, but also to thrive professionally and personally.”
Jon regularly talks about how proud he is of the work the firm does for its clients, solving complex problems. And at the same time, he recognises why that’s possible.
“We can only do this because of the exceptional team of people we have, at every level across the firm. Simply put, in addition to doing great work for our clients who put their trust in us, we want to be a place our people want to work. If we create the right environment for our people to be their best, that delivers the best outcomes for both for our people and for our clients.”
And that’s what shines through in conversations with the team. That there is a “rich culture” and one that is “diverse, adaptable and still works when we’re not together”.
But it’s also been a stark reminder that the Tompkins Wake team is more than that; it is a family.
“The Zoom and MS Teams meetings are a great way to stay connected, but it’s not the same as being in the office,” Christine said.
“We’re used to calling in for a chat and asking a quick question that often turns into a 10-minute conversation, lots of questions and a plan forward. Some of those questions and discussions have been done via email, making things take a bit longer. There’s nothing like physically being present and chatting and laughing in person.
“We can survive and function out of the office but at the end of the day the ‘family’ that we have is more fun when we can be with them.”