Back to the office… or not quite that simple?

Graeme Johnston
13 min readJul 31, 2020


This article summarises an online conversation between people from three prominent organisations in Dundee Scotland on July 21st, 2020 on the above topic.

The event was organised by FoLD (‘Future of Law : Dundee’) an informal group established by people in Dundee interested in legal and tech issues but open to anyone in Scotland and indeed the wider world.

I facilitated the conversation and the participants were

  • Ian Treleaven, head of operations of Waracle (mobile applications and digital products)
  • Helen Archibald and Sarah Blair who are respectively COO and IT Director at Thorntons Law, a leading Scottish law firm (500 people, 14 offices).
  • Dr Sarah Hendry, the current head of the Law School at the University of Dundee together with Professor Stuart Cross, the immediate past head.

Most people attending the live event are working in or have a close interest in law and technology. We used an online feedback tool to gather thoughts on various points and also invited other participants in the call to share experiences and thoughts — summarised below.

We covered the following three main topics.

  1. What was your organisation’s approach to office / remote working back in January 2020, pre-lockdown? This question was designed to contextualise the subsequent responses.
  2. How has your approach to this developed over the last few months?
  3. What do you envisage happening in the near future and what sort of things will be important to think about longer term, acknowledging the uncertainties?

It was a great conversation. All images are taken from the call to give a bit of the atmosphere :-)

Graeme Johnston over-lit. And yes that’s a virtual background but a real photo with Dundee across the water

1. Where was your organisation on this topic back in January 2020?

Helen Archibald / Thorntons Law

Helen Archibald of Thorntons Law
  • We’ve worked hard over several years to enable our people to work flexibly between our offices across Scotland and from home. We’ve also done a lot of work on common processes and digitisation which served us well.
  • We called it agile working rather than remote or flexible as we wanted to emphasise people could work wherever they could best serve their external and internal clients. But it was still quite a slow process getting it fully understood and embraced.
  • But there was still a lot of practical work to arrange for everyone to work fully from home during March.

Ian Treleaven / Waracle

Ian Treleaven of Waracle
  • We’ve always been a very flexible company, it’s been part of our culture. We made a big effort to enable remote working and it’s effectively a requirement in the tech industry these days to be competitive.
  • At the start of this year, around 80% of our people had the ability to work remotely but about 20% did not as clients required them to work on-site.
  • In fact, prior to lockdown, only a small % of the company primarily worked remotely, but the systems were all in place and it all operated very smoothly when lockdown was required.

Dr Sarah Hendry / UoD Law

Dr Sarah Hendry of UoD Law
  • The University’s a large institution. There have always been academics and students who chose to work at home perhaps a couple of days a week or even more, but others preferred to be on site. Overall, we were very much a campus-based community within Law and most of the rest of the University. Our distance-learning programmes were only a modest part of what we did.
  • So for many people the changes came as quite a shock.

First participant survey

Where was your organisation in January 2020?

2. What’s happened over the last few months?

Dr Sarah Hendry and Prof. Stuart Cross / UoD Law

Prof Stuart Cross of UoD Law
  • It’s been quite dramatic. Massive change and still ongoing.
  • Fortunately we were towards the end of the academic teaching period. Many people were trying new tools for the first time — technology that had been in place for a while but which not everyone had actually used.
  • We had a very busy few weeks setting up all of our exams to be held online and ensuring that our exam boards and regulators were comfortable. People were having to do all this from home with all sorts of constraints arising from home environment, internet bandwidth, laptops, monitors and so forth.
  • That part of it has now to some extent settled down and we are now addressing the tension between the University’s desire to welcome students and offer them a face to face experience, and the realities that we have to accept.
  • Practically, the difference between a 2 metre or 1 metre social distancing rule is massive in terms of ability to hold events in lecture halls and seminar rooms, with timetabling consequences flowing from this.
  • People have different levels of enthusiasm or reservations about the technology, training and the balance between remote / in face.
  • Quite a lot of the pivot to blended and online activity could only take place because the University had invested in a virtual learning environment. Two years ago we moved to cloud hosting which enabled us to move very quickly this year. That would not have been possible with the older infrastructure.
  • The major challenge is now in training and ongoing support for staff as such tools are used much more extensively than before.
  • The move to online marking was started a couple of years ago and the experience gained since then has been really beneficial.

Helen Archibald and Sarah Blair / Thorntons Law

Sarah Blair of Thorntons Law
  • In the March / April period, we very much wanted to reassure our clients that service would continue as usual while transitioning most staff to working from home. But also there were some roles which had to be done in the office e.g. paper mail being scanned and distributed digitally. We also had to sort out centralised handling of phone calls by receptionists working from home — and that’s worked brilliantly.
  • The human aspect has been crucial — we’re a people and knowledge business so collaboration, serving clients and social activities are key. We’ve developed various ways to stay in touch though it’s hard to replace serendipitous meetings. Some people find working from home makes them more productive and improves their well-being, others aren’t so keen.
  • The future may not look the same but some sort of blend would be really good. We also plan to look at our office environment and see how we can make it better for collaboration and social interaction.
  • We’ve been through the responding and recovering phases quickly as the firm had already invested in infrastructure, though there was still a busy period ensuring people were in fact able to work from home effectively (e.g. some people didn’t have broadband).
  • We are now moving into the rebuilding phase and making it more sustainable e.g. providing further monitors, office chairs and other equipment, and help in working effectively. We’re not printing things at home so we’ve had to ensure everyone can work without printing things.
  • On top of that, it’s been a great time to look at building up our technology solutions. We’ve tried to show people what’s possible. We run a weekly sprint of improvements and publish them every Friday so that people can see progress. For example, we’ve paid a lot of attention to our approach to handling inbound and outbound mail, and to resolving any local differences between process.
  • It’s been a real learning experience about how to adopt things in a more accelerated way — we would never have expected this without the necessity. It’s also been good to see how resilient everyone has been in learning new things without the sort of floor walking and in person training that would traditionally have been expected. We’ve pushed out lots of video guides, for example, which people have engaged with really well. It’s been a delight to see this.

Second participant survey

How are you feeling about the working from home experience?

There was also an ‘OK either way’ option but nobody chose that

Ian Treleaven / Waracle

  • These audience survey results don’t surprise me — we ran a similar poll in the company with very similar results.
  • Our experience so far hasn’t involved much change in tools — we were already using cloud technology. Some processes needed minor adaptation. Where we had to adapt more was in our communication with our teams — we had to step up our contacts, ensure everyone was OK in health and otherwise. As well as checking in personally with people, we created some bots to help with this.
  • We did change how we onboard staff. In fact, we’ve been expanding recruitment which has required some work in the absence of an ability to meet face to face. We’ve introduced some social activities and put more emphasis on asynchronous working practices to help cope with the unique challenges that everyone faces in working from home under circumstances which may not be ideal.

In addition to staff, how about clients, students and other external stakeholders?

  • Dr Sarah Hendry / UoD Law: Most students have coped remarkably well with online exams and it’ s been positive experience — I hope never to see a handwritten exam answer ever again! For some international students there have been some real challenges in not being able to travel home. Also, some students did not have the equipment or other facilities to work online effectively. There has been some understandable anxiety and some distressing cases in which we’ve sought to support students, for example when they are carers. I’ve been impressed with the resilience shown by students.
  • Helen Archibald / Thorntons Law: We’ve just received a survey of the experience of new clients who instructed us during the lockdown. The feedback is positive. What made the difference was timely and good quality communication by phone, Zoom or other means. Clients are the same as us and coming on the same journey. We’re all seeing the world through a new lens together, and are all probably going to be looking for different things. Led by Sarah Blair, we’re adopting service design methodology to look at new ways of doing things.
  • Ian Treleaven / Waracle. The clients who had previously required on site working moved rather quickly to accommodating working from home. It took a few days to put additional security measures in place in those cases, but it was a smooth transition. Clients who required on site now tend to see the benefit — one of them had just told us they are unlikely to require on site attendance in future. Clients generally are more open to participating in some of our Agile ceremonies (sprint reviews, retrospectives, planning) and using the relevant tools.

3. What does the more-or-less definite near future hold (so far as anything is definite these days), and what sorts of things are you thinking about for the longer term?

Third participant survey

Assuming we see more remote working in future, what are the top issues employers need to tackle?

Ian Treleaven / Waracle

  • A big theme for us is office space. In the past we’ve had quite a few large offices. We have less need for this, we’ll probably reduce to about 25% or 30% of our previous floor space and use more cost-effective out of town locations. We’ll make more use of bookable desks.
  • Another big issue is recruitment practices and looking further afield for talent, a key challenge in the tech industry and a big issue for us as we grow. We’re not limiting ourselves in time zone either.
  • Our HR team have been putting a lot of effort into imaginative social events which we constantly refresh — for example, brownbag sessions to distribute knowledge, twice weekly company hangouts with business updates from our CEO plus playing a game, having a laugh. Story time with our team’s children reading to each other. Water cooler sessions to chat. Company yoga sessions. Lots of things.

Dr Sarah Hendry and Prof Stuart Cross / UoD Law

  • In the very short term, the University is moving to a blended approach but the details are not yet finalised, partly because of the uncertainty about the 2 metre or 1 metre rule.
  • There will have to be online provision for vulnerable staff and students, local lockdowns, second wave and so forth. But the approach will be blended, not purely online.We are also very focused on finding better ways to assess. The short term priority is to find a blended approach that works for students, staff, regulators and others.
  • For the longer term, things we’re concerned about are job prospects, why students go to university, what will jobs be like for students leaving now or coming in now. Those are topics of great importance.
  • No doubt practical questions about office space will arise, but in the teaching context our current focus is very heavily on how do we provide a better and more valuable experience for students in this environment, and with a rapidly changing world of work in mind.
  • There are some real questions, challenges and opportunities. For many students, their physical campus experience is hugely important and we need to deliver that while the overall blend evolves.
  • To some extent, working from home in recent months has relied on banked goodwill, but we need to make a real effort to make it work well in the longer term.

Sarah Blair and Helen Archibald / Thorntons Law

  • It’s clear that the future will look very different for the firm and our clients. As we were approaching lockdown we were in the middle of our strategic plan for the next five years. It’s been a great opportunity to focus on that.
  • We ran a service design session facilitated by Barclays Ventures and involving the leadership team of the firm. It was a really great session. We started with the future and worked back.

The three main themes are —

  • (1) Consultation — talking to our staff and clients, understanding their unique experiences — conversations not just surveys, and determining what the future should look like. The balance between digital and in person experiences, client journeys.
  • (2) Collaboration — the practices of Registers of Scotland and the court service were real constraints on what we could do for clients, but they’ve now started to accelerate change and this has been very positive. We’re also collaborating with universities, the Law Society of Scotland and others.
  • (3) Collateral — what are our offices going to look like? Do we have a digital toolkit that’s fit for purpose? What common processes and improved working practices do we need to adopt, building on what we’ve done in the last few months.
  • Something we’d like to be talking about more is business’s place in society and the world, going beyond the corporate social responsibility conversation of recent years. Topics such as wellbeing and the environment — in the large and smaller senses — and equality are things which need further work. Most businesses still operate on a Monday-Friday 9-to-5 approach and that can get in the way in terms of equality for different groups. We don’t know what the future will look like exactly but we want to be a really progressive employer, increasingly focused on things like this.
  • Some of the things we used to do seem hard to imagine now e.g. travelling for short meetings, large in person conferences. These seem likely to change unless there’s a more special reason to travel.
  • Also been listening to podcasts by Automattic, which runs a fully distributed organisation. The legal sector can look at other sectors to see what works there that law firms can learn from.

Further discussion

We took a survey of participants in the event (see below) and wrapped up with a discussion. Some notable contributions were from leaders of three law-related tech businesses —

  • Amritpal Gill of Hayachi — Slack’s been really great for informal chats, questions and learning things.
  • Rachel Jones of SnapDragon Monitoring —We have walk and talks all the time, now using headsets even if walking the dog. We have a very international team. Not being able to travel or see people has been a strain and we’ve done things like food parcels, just little things but it all helped.
  • Callum Murray of Amiqus — We’ve a distributed team across the EU. We’ve been putting a lot of emphasis on ‘over’ communicating to help make sure things are clear across the team. Other activities we’ve given a remote slant to include mindfulness, cocktail events and sharing a team radio playlist.We ran our quarterly all-hands meeting virtually via Zoom during lockdown by switching things to an online whiteboarding tool called Miro. Day to day we’ve used a random pairing app on Slack called ‘donut’ to set up short chats and check-ins across the team. Quite a range of different things overall to help us adapt to fully remote. We’ve learned a lot and continue to learn from others by joining calls like this.

We wrapped up with a final participant survey asking where people thought their organisation would be in 2023. All responses envisaged either a fully distributed team or a mix with substantial elements of both on-site and remote working. Nobody expected to go back to the traditional office Monday-to-Friday 9 to 5.

See you at the next event — expected to be in September 2020, details to be announced soon at



Graeme Johnston

CEO of Juralio, a lawtech company. Before that a lawyer for many years.