In our latest 60-second interview, Willis Towers Watson GB general counsel Shirley Girling talks to The Lawyer about how remote working at scale fostered greater open-mindedness and innovative thinking in her company, while testing personal and corporate resilience.

Shirley Girling
Shirley Girling

What impact has working remotely had on company culture?

Impact of remote working has evolved over time.  Most colleagues were used to working away from the office for part of the week as we had already moved to an agile working environment over the last few years.  As we have gone to full remote working during lockdown I have seen two key impacts – though there have been others.  The first is elevated team spirit as people have supported each other in adjusting to the new way of working and coping with life in lockdown.  The second is an accelerated shift in mindset around the future of work in financial services – remote working at scale has fostered greater open-mindedness and innovative thinking about what the future of work and service delivery in our sector could and should look like.

What has been your biggest learning from these past few months?

Continuing the theme in the last question, I think perhaps the biggest revelation for me has been that overall, a challenge tends to bring out the best in people – whether that’s kindness to neighbours, a willingness to be more flexible or to ‘pitch in’, an opportunity to acquire new skills or demonstrate existing ones.  It’s also been an opportunity to test our own personal and corporate resilience and to gain deeper insight into our strengths and perhaps also where we can focus on making ourselves even stronger for the next challenge.   That and the fact that I have learnt that it is possible to survive without a massive decaf soy latte and a chocolate muffin on an all-too-frequent basis.

How are you balancing the BAU (business as usual) work with the crisis related fire-fighting?

Thoughtfully.  To some extent, workload pressures generated in the team by COVID-19 are similar to those that come with change management projects which the legal team is handling on an almost constant basis.  We’ve tried to keep the core team focused on maintaining service delivery levels to the customer-facing businesses and other corporate functions.  The extra work in dealing with COVID-19 issues – which have peaks and troughs – has been split between a small number of lawyers in the team according to the issue at hand and skill-set though they have been able to call on colleagues for help where needed.  We have also been using outside counsel for targeted advice and support where that makes sense.

Would you say lawyers have the necessary resilience to successfully operate in a prolonged crisis situation?

With the right corporate support, undoubtedly.  There are those who would say, tongue in cheek, that operating in a prolonged crisis situation is ‘situation normal’ for many in-house teams given they are rarely over-staffed and are used to troubleshooting a wide variety of urgent and/or business-critical issues.  For that reason, my experience of most in-house (and private practice) lawyers – is that they are calm in a crisis and adept at bringing ordered thought to chaos.  Most thrive on the intellectual challenge and variety that crisis can bring and this is very much evident in what I see.  That said, we all need to pace ourselves to ensure we don’t burn out and this is where having the right support mechanisms in place at company level and within teams is essential.

How do you keep yourself motivated in the current climate? 

In terms of work, it’s not difficult.  I absolutely love what I do and I couldn’t ask for better colleagues.  Perhaps my greater challenge is in knowing when to switch off and take a break particularly when my home is now also my workplace.  I need to remind myself to do that sometimes even if just to allow my brain to recharge.  Where I am much less motivated, to my shame, is in getting the right amount of daily exercise but with the persistent cajoling of members of my team and my husband, I have started to make the most of the time I am not commuting by taking up running again.  I use the term running in its loosest sense – more akin to an enthusiastic shuffle – but it’s a start.  It’s also been a real opportunity to read the stack of books I have been accumulating but never got round to starting…