For all the change, it is consistency that matters - comment

The world as we know it is shifting irrevocably – and harnessing the right values to navigate the next phase is crucial, says Chris Harte, CEO of Morton Fraser LLP.

We need to hold on to the things that matter to us, Harte believes. Picture: contributed.

There is something almost Shakespearean about the change we have seen in recent months. Change pervades all walks of life and all schools of business at the moment. The unique circumstances of today have uprooted many traditional notions of what “normal” is.

And yet, as we adapt to suit our own particular version of lockdown, it is increasingly clear how important it is to hold on to the things that matter to us. It is crucial that our most valued principles do not fall victim to sweeping change.

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Why is this important? For a start, the coronavirus pandemic has made many of us more responsive to what works for our customers – so being able to deliver change has become business-critical.

Second, we will be collaborating with greater urgency than ever before. The recently published Benny Higgins report made it clear that the route to economic recovery will require collaboration from across Scottish industry, the public sector and civic society. It will be easy to lose sight of many things in that endeavour.

Finally change is now expected. From being more flexible in how and when we work, to introducing fully online services, changing the focus of our operations or even just listening to what customers really want, almost every business has reflected on change and responded already.

Setting the tone

This is important because it sets the tone for future change. If we can react so quickly and demonstrate positive outcomes from challenging circumstances, customers will expect that agility more often.

More importantly, in responding to lockdown, most businesses had to reflect on what kind of response they wanted. It led to a widespread injection of humanity into business life and served as a reminder to all of us that our people come first. It also forced us to rethink what matters most.

Looking through the Morton Fraser lens, that meant a commitment to transparency and clarity. We have had to make some difficult choices in the last two months and those values have been reassuringly instructive.

In the wider legal sector, some legal processes have seen positive change at a far more rapid pace than we would have seen without coronavirus. Wills are being witnessed virtually and e-signatures are gathering pace for many legal documents. In other cases, though, progress has been slower – for example in enabling virtual court hearings or in managing electronic property registrations.

And when change has been needed, it is consistency that has helped to cement the positives. This is important because other changes are still to come and aren’t going to be as quick or as immediately disruptive as those occurring recently.

Commercial property is a case in point. The picture of desk-bound professionals slaving away in office booths may already feel anachronistic. But property is a long-term, relatively illiquid asset – it is hard to do anything particularly quickly, whether that’s moving or transforming your workspace.

IT infrastructure is in a similar bracket – we have all experienced the painstaking timeframes involved in upgrading IT infrastructure or even just updating a website.

So while working remotely has created a more flexible, non-traditional working day, there remain longer-term decisions that can still have wide-ranging impacts on business life. These “known unknowns” have still to run their course.

With more change to come, we need to get the next phase right. Getting things right is for all times, not just for good times. Customers have seen how we can respond to challenge, and so the bar has been raised in how we respond in more routine circumstances.

For the legal sector, I think that means accelerating how we can transact in a remote world. Once cracked, it’ll speed up the business of law forever. That will save time, money and resources. It will also, I believe, improve trust in the sector.

For the wider business community, those challenges will vary. No sector will return from this crisis in the same shape as it entered it, and so with change must come consistency of thought.

Corporate values – an oft-maligned strand of business – must surely help us all to chart the right course in future. After all, to paraphrase The Bard’s Ophelia, we know what we are now, but know not what we may be as we adapt to the changes we have all experienced.

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