Ashleigh Teo Caiying participates in the IR Global Guide – Crisis Management: Surviving and thriving in a post-pandemic world

Foreward by Andrew Chilvers

Businesses across the world are undergoing the biggest remote working experiment since Europeans first sailed from their home ports to set up trading posts in Asia 500 years ago.

This time around, however, companies are moving colleagues out of their plush city centre locations to set up offices at home. What was unthinkable only a few months ago is now the new modus operandi for professional services firms and their clients. Crisis management and business continuity have indeed come of age thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All this may be difficult for businesses that prefer traditional ways of operating, but most are changing their habits of a lifetime out of necessity. The old adage of preparing for the worst while expecting the best has never been more apt. 

Will the professional service business model change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Subject to ongoing contractual obligations for rent, premium rent is not always a must have for the long term. Due to staggered working hours and working on rotation, it depends on how resourceful and flexible professionals are; there are many options out there such as shared co-working spaces to reduce cost, such as WeWork and Common Ground.

The business has to be more adaptable and stay relevant in the future, now that the world has adopted remote working. Some firms may even find that working remotely is more effective and convenient without the need for a physical presence. Firms should adopt standard operating procedures for employees working from home, increase access to relevant ICT services, and purchase remote working equipment which may include software such as antivirus and a VPN, along with secured and safe applications to help with work tasks.

Firms should merge and collaborate to promote sustainability and cover a wider range of sector and services; generating new leads through new ways of marketing online, subject to advertisement rules from the Legal Profession Act 1976, Legal Profession (Publicity) Rules 2001 and Website Rules for Law Firms 2005. Although Malaysia has strict rules on advertisement, law firms may find other avenues for promotions like holding public webinars and featuring special panel speakers/hosts such as retired judges and lawyers.

Firms are to notify clients of any changes to manage their expectations first, especially on ways of communication, and the firm’s own Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) form now that private information and services will be provided online. Firms may offer new personalized services or alternatives to each client to maintain their satisfaction in professional services provided such as holding weekly scheduled meetings online via Zoom/Webex/Skype, advising through e-mail, and having phone calls to update clients on their legal cases.

Remote working is being seen as the new normal, how will this affect the culture of professional services firms?

There is now a pressing need for special measures and adaptations to new systems available, as well as innovation to create new services, programmes, and applications. However, this transition threatens existing traditional businesses models, as technology may be better suited for the modern world to make tasks and jobs more efficient now that remote working may be prevalent. Firms must be aware that artificial intelligence, blockchain and other advanced applications may render their current services obsolete. In the legal sector in Malaysia, an AI judiciary is already in place to recommend likely sentences for criminal cases –perhaps the second of its kind in Asia, after by China. Following this, there is the definite future threat of the ‘AI Lawyers’ replacing actual lawyers to better serve clients’ needs.

Service firms are completely reliant on their customer base and must implement search engine optimization (SEO) to better help new clients find the firm online, along with verified reviews and referrals to boost authenticity. Firms need to understand that with remote working, an online presence would be the growingtrend and they may need to tweak their services to better suit their existing clients and clients that are generated online.

As mentioned, firms need to innovate due to disruption caused by the virus along with disruption caused by other firms that have more advanced technologies. Clients may opt for firms that have better technology that has been already implemented than those that struggle to find a proper avenue to communicate and deliver services. Effective means of communication, consistency and security are key to retaining clients to be reliant on our remote services. Professionals will need to reassure existing clients that their privacy and services will not be affected by any ongoing changes.

With so many people now working from home using unsecure internet networks, should there be updated rules for data protection compliance? If so, should they be more relaxed given the crisis wrought by the pandemic?

With the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) in charge of Personal Data Protection Department (PDPD) in Malaysia, laws and policies for data protection compliance in Malaysia may have to be specially reviewed just for professional services that are currently forced to work remotely. Currently, the concerns and risks utilising unfamiliar digital platforms requires special continuous ongoing updates from the MCMC and the Bar Council. For these reasons, punishment must not be harshly imposed yet.

The MCMC should guide the public of possible risks and, if possible, even come up with a portable secure network and database just for professionals, along with steps to comply with the rules; as best practices, there have been privacy and security flaws, with the latest issue the end-to-end encryption on Zoom.

Professionals should have their own compliance, to be specially reviewed, and authorised as PDPA compliant, as they have a higher standard of duty than the Personal Data Protection Act 2010 (PDPA) provides. This is particularly the case regarding remote database of personal information of clients when using new third party applications for remote working.