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Janet Cooper: Agile working is essential

08 December 2017 by Henry Ker

Janet Cooper: Agile working is essential - Read more

The founder of the law firm Tapestry talks about angling for the best talent, ditching ‘cookie cutter’ recruitment, and the merit of employee share schemes

You have been working with employee share plans since the 1980s – why is this such a passionate subject for you?

I started working on employee share plans when I was at Linklaters. I had only been there a few weeks when a project came in for Debenhams to set up an employee share plan for them.

I had been a shop girl through most of my teen years as a Saturday job, so I understood why Debenhams wanted to do this; to engage with its staff and give them the opportunity to share in the success of the business.

Throughout the 1980s, lots of companies were coming to Linklaters for executive share plans, but then having come across the Debenhams’ share plan, I talked about what they could do for their workers as well. Most companies went away with both an executive share option plan and an employee plan.

Well-designed employee share ownership was clearly being seen as building better worker relationships and better engagement, while also giving employees the opportunity to be a part of the success they help create. That is why I am passionate about this.

Companies have to benefit in order to do this and through the resulting higher levels of employee engagement they hopefully increase productivity. ‘Sharing Success: the Nuttall review of employee ownership’ in 2012, refers to a lot of research showing that companies increase productivity and engagement with employee share ownership.

What are the key challenges with implementing an employee share plan?

The main challenge is designing the right plan for the company, in particular for the workforce – when considering the age demographic of the employees.

We look at the millennials coming through, they are cash-poor, highly mobile and do not necessarily stay in companies that long. It is about getting them involved in these plans.

I would like to see a discussion on how we evolve our tax advantage plans in the UK to be attractive to millennials, so the companies get the benefit of them being in the plans and the employees get the advantage of participating in their company’s future success.

“We look at the millennials coming through, they are cash-poor, highly mobile and do not necessarily stay in companies that long”

ProShare is just about to launch a great piece of research it has done with YBS, which will look at this specific issue of how the UK tax advantage plans need to evolve in line with our changing workforce.

There is also often a challenge if you are a global company. If the business proposition is to do this because you get better engagement and better productivity, then if you are an international company you should be doing it globally.

Companies usually want to roll out what they have in the UK to other countries. The main challenge is to keep the plan simple and, as far as possible, operate consistently around the world, while taking into account local legal and tax requirements.

The challenge is designing the right plan so it delivers the right results for the company.

Tapestry runs the ‘Certificate in Employee Share Plans’ in conjunction with ICSA – what can you tell us about the qualification?

I developed this course back in 2003 to help companies train the people who run their share plans and also help them recruit – so they know they are hiring people who have the right qualifications to run their plans. This is the only professionally recognised qualification in the UK.

It helps companies reduce the risk of running the plans, because there are a lot of moving parts; from issuing shares, using trusts, global legal and tax compliance, to funding the share plans. It also helps reduce professional costs; we hear from the companies that have put people on our course that they are able to do a lot more without having to seek external advice.

From the share plan manager’s point of view, it helps them become more confident in the role they have in the company.

They are properly trained, which in such a specialist subject can be hard to come by, with a course that provides a really strong foundation of knowledge, covering all the key aspects of both executive and employee share plans, how to operate them globally, looking at the UK tax-advantaged plans, and accounting.

We have now had over 1,000 people on the course.  Keeping up-to-date is also important so we provide events for alumni relating to the latest developments and best practice.

You are a keen advocate for flexible working; how can it benefit companies?

It is about getting really talented people into your company. I have been a huge advocate of it since the early 90s – before the internet, which has now transformed flexible working – because I just wanted the best people working with me and my clients.

“The nine-to-five, five-days-a-week, seems to go back to the Dickensian age of working in daylight”

The nine-to-five, five-days-a-week, seems to go back to the Dickensian age of working in daylight, which is not the world we live in now. People have different lives. They have families and commitments, which may not fit within a regular working week, and so to attract the best talent, offering agile working is essential.

What is the key to making agile working a positive influence for both the company and the workers?

The key, I think, is trust and honesty. Trust on both sides; trust that the employer is going to deliver on its promises, and trust that the employee is going to do their work. And communication between employee and employer is vital.

What works with us in Tapestry is we work as a team: it is not about facilitating one employee to work in an agile way. It is absolutely in our DNA.

Because everybody works in an agile way and we are there to support each other to deliver great client service, we can do that and still not have the rigid hours that some employers require. As a result, we have had no one resign in five years.

We are delighted about that, because it offers continuity for our clients and means we can build our knowledge of our clients and their needs. It is also great from the employer’s point of view; we are not constantly recruiting and having to train people up because people have left.

The proof of the pudding is whether it is working from a business point of view. It is.

We have many global leading companies as clients that would otherwise work with the big city firms; we won many legal sector awards last year, are seen as a ‘challenger’ law firm – doing City-type work, from Yorkshire and working in a different way – culminating in the Queen’s Award for Enterprise this year.

Our success is based on attracting the best people and to do that we offer agile working.

Do you find that it makes for a more collaborative office environment?

It absolutely does, because you can only do agile working if you support each other. It does not work as well when there are only one or two, because they are not fully integrated, and either those people are not delivering the service they need to or the others are not helping them because they cannot see the benefits of those people to the team.

A collaborative team approach, where agile working is open to everybody and you all share in the success of that team or company, works.

Flexible working has allowed people such as aspiring athlete Rebecca Campsall to work for you while they continue their sporting career. Does flexible working allow you to realise the potential of talent that other firms would not employ?

Absolutely. Rebecca was not offered a training contract by any of the other local law firms, because she needed to train every night, so they missed out on her talent.

She puts that same effort she puts into her athletics into working with our clients. She is a very able lady and just because she is the fastest woman in the North of England that does not detract from her ability to do her job.

It is all about diversity and, again, getting the right talent. Companies can be so focused on a ‘cookie cutter’ approach of taking on people who are just like them, because that has worked in the past and anything else is too difficult. You can miss out on all sorts of ability by doing that.

“Companies can be so focused on a ‘cookie cutter’ approach of taking on people who are just like them”

Bringing in people from different backgrounds includes other career paths, such as sports people. They have spent a number of years completely focused on a sport and achieved well at it, they have shown clear commitment and loyalty – I would not rule out looking at a sports person because they are coming to a career later.

We are just taking on somebody who has had a 14-year career in the British army, and again I value the commitment, loyalty and work ethic that they developed in that career.

Rebecca tells me is that she is the only one in her training team who is currently building her future professional career, because the rest have struggled to find an opportunity. Athletes like Rebecca have a very short career in their specialty, and it can be very difficult to find a second professional career afterwards.

Tapestry is based in Yorkshire. Why was setting up the company outside of London so important?

I am from Yorkshire and when I was looking to qualify as a lawyer I had to leave Yorkshire, and all my friends and family, to get a job in London, because it is where all the best legal jobs were.

When I was looking at setting up a new firm, my desire was to set it up in Yorkshire so people did not have to relocate to have a great job in law. We know there is a lot of excellent talent in the area we could recruit and top universities creating a new generation of graduates.

What we had not really thought about is that it is also incredibly good value. It is a low-cost area compared with London, so we can provide a more cost-effective legal service from Yorkshire.

The combination of our agile working structure in a low-cost region means we have got absolutely the best legal talent from the area; working with international, household names from our converted steel works in Sheffield.

As we move into unchartered post-Brexit territories in the near future, where we need to be more productive and cost-efficient, looking at employing people away from London must be a good thing.

You said you are ‘keen to support women to reach their potential’. How are Tapestry and you going about this?

We recognise there are differences between the way men and women think about their careers and how they work, and so we specifically ask all of our colleagues, men and women, about the training opportunities, courses and business development opportunities they want to get involved in.

I think that is one of the issues for women in the pipeline to senior levels in companies; there are assumptions when women start having children that their career must take a different path.

Instead, we are always asking what our employees want from their career and making sure they are involved in the process, so they do not miss out on any opportunities.

Around 75% of Tapestry’s lawyers and 85% of senior management are female. Was it a conscious decision to seek out female potential or did it just naturally gravitate towards the company?

We did not seek it out. We looked at people who were applying for jobs and most of them were women, and they were fantastic. I think in the early days it was because we offered agile working.

“We have not noticed any disadvantages from having 75% women”

We have been going for six years now and while other companies are getting better at agile working, we have been there from the beginning, and that brought people to us who were not getting what they needed in their previous job.

We are not particularly seeking women or men; we are just looking for the best people.

That would be the devil’s advocate question, is there not a danger you have gone too far the other way in terms of diversity?

We have not noticed any disadvantages from having 75% women, because we do have 25% men and actually many of the boards out there in companies are lucky to have 25% of the opposite sex. It was not a target we had, it is just how it evolved to start with.

A 50/50 split is of course the target. That is how the population is, so why would you not want that in your workforce and in your company at all levels? There is no reason why it should be anything other than that.

What are your thoughts on the progress made to improving diversity at the top of companies?

Diversity is moving in the right direction, but progress is still quite slow and there is still a long way to go. This is absolutely a talent issue, making sure people come forward and are given the opportunities to reach their potential.

It is also about making sure that line managers understand this, because it is only at that line manager level that you can really influence the process.

The line manager needs to look at their team and make sure they all have equal opportunities, have conversations with them about their career potential – and not making assumptions or letting unconscious bias creep in.

Interview by Henry Ker, editor of Governance and Compliance

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