Tompkins Wake is a leading New Zealand law firm, with offices in Hamilton, Auckland, Rotorua and Tauranga. Its offices are starting to re-open this week but the company has been fully operational under lockdown with its 128 staff working remotely. Here's how they pulled together to make it work.

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 all worked should the Tompkins Wake team be sent into lockdown.

He didn't get that test day. Instead, he spent it setting up his laptop and his entire desktop. Josh's kitchen table in his open plan living-dining room had just become his office.

The challenges that brought mirror those experienced by people around New Zealand, who found themselves uprooted from their workplaces, creating makeshift offices at home as the nation was forced into isolation to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Josh and his wife were isolating with their 1-year-old son.

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"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 says.

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 a TV interview he was doing with the BBC from his home office.

 Tompkins Wake solicitor Kirsty Dibley busy at home. Photo / Supplied
Tompkins Wake solicitor Kirsty Dibley busy at home. Photo / Supplied

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 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," says professional support advisor Catherine Bryant. And that sentiment was echoed by many of her colleagues.

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"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'."

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 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.

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."

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.

 Tompkins Wake Associate Christine Gavin working from home. Photo / Supplied
Tompkins Wake Associate Christine Gavin working from home. Photo / Supplied

"We have an amazing IT team and no query – from me being completely IT incompetent! – was too minor," associate Christine Gavin says.

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 Calder has championed since he took up his post as chief executive in 2016.

"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."

Calder regularly talks about how proud he is of the work the firm does for its clients, solving complex problems. 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.

"The Zoom and MS Teams meetings are a great way to stay connected, but it's not the same as being in the office," Gavin says.

"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."