2020 and beyond: Abby Ewen, IT director, Browne Jacobson

If you didn’t catch our CIO series interviews in the Orange Rag at the end of 2020 we’re posting them here, and we’re grateful to Browne Jacobson’s IT director Abby Ewen for sharing her thoughts on the biggest challenges and highlights of 2020 and her plans for 2021.
​What were your challenges and highlights of 2020?
One of the challenges that I have had is that in February, I took on the operations role as well, after the previous director of change left the firm. It happened just before lockdown and I took on responsibility for printing, post, facilities, catering and secretaries: all of which were significantly affected, and we had to worry about things like who is going to open the post – that was harder than the tech side.
On the tech front, we have a thousand people and a thousand laptops, and we haven’t had desk phones for many years. We use all Dell laptops and Skype for telephony. We implemented Microsoft Teams during lockdown and are transitioning away from Skype, which we’ll get rid of in a couple of months. I think that one of the hardest things for a lot of firms to achieve during lockdown was getting the telephony right but we didn’t have desktop phones so that has made things much easier.
Much like everyone else we have effected 15 years of digital transformation within months. People who couldn’t cope with eSignatures have been using them regularly and it’s been fine.
There have been some interesting times: there has been a massive run on wills, which you can’t use eSignatures for, and we have had people from the private client team in the car park arranging socially distanced signing of wills.
From a tech perspective it’s been fine and the hardest point was July and August when we were planning to get people back to the office, creating one way systems and hand sanitising. It was a massive learning curve but because the firm has a supportive and inclusive culture, they are very good at keeping people informed. We implemented the Fliplet app for bringing people back – it’s really easy.
What continues to be one of the biggest challenges in a senior leadership role is the pastoral care side: making sure that everyone is ok and noticing just as much the people that don’t turn up to the social things as those that do. My sense is that everyone is over 2020 and that people are exhausted. It’s important to make sure that everyone is ok while making sure you are ok as well and can look after other people. That’s the sort of thing I would do anyway but it’s much more intense than ever before.
What new tech have you brought in during the year?
At the beginning of lockdown we had to finish a Windows 10 and Office 365 rollout, bring Exchange online and move to Teams. The power of Teams is that everything integrates with it and if you create a Team, that creates a group in Outlook. But we have a very strict process to get a Team approved – we will work out whether it’s a valid request and also have a matrix of what goes where so that we don’t start to fragment or lose control of our data.
Perhaps not surprisingly my product of the year is Teams.
What are your plans for 2021?
We’ve started to have conversations with people about what happens next year. We’re still in pandemic mode, so people’s attitudes around traveling are mixed and our standpoint is that we will give people the freedom to work where they are most productive: some might be five days in the office and some five days at home. People are not in any position to make decisions right now but beyond Easter, we will have a better idea of what it looks like. The struggle is how to line up business support when you don’t know what that looks like. We will need to apply better understanding of how people work: if you have half the people in the meeting and half on Teams it’s often a bad experience. The future is hybrid, and we are all going to have to re-jig our tech to make it work better.
There are plus sides of this new way of working. I was speaking to a client a few weeks ago who completed a deal recently and said if it hadn’t been for lockdown, they wouldn’t have got here this quickly. There was none of the usual ‘I can’t make this week’ or someone’s train got cancelled. It happened seamlessly because it was virtual. It’s really important that we don’t assume we have to go back to the office because the clients want it.
You can read the whole article here: https://theorangerag.qwilr.com/The-Orange-Rag-Issue-337-November-December-2020-teDbKh71T36a