As we move into a post-pandemic world, businesses must balance the benefits of remote work with the need for social interaction, as they strive to create a work culture that supports both productivity and employee well-being. In his role as Chief Operating Officer at Freeths, Mark Blakemore has been leading the way in navigating this new status quo.
Mark sat down with Chris Mansfield, GoodCourse’s Co-Founder, to talk about the challenges of expanding a business, the impact of the pandemic on work culture, and how to foster a culture of continuous growth.
I’m the Chief Operating Officer at Freeths. I’ve been with the firm for about two years after joining at the start of the UK’s 3rd national lockdown. My background is as a chartered accountant, and I’ve spent most of my career in professional services firms. Prior to joining Freeths, I was the Finance Director at BLM, which was a law business with a £100 million turnover. For most of my career, I was with Baker Tilly, now called RSM, where I sat on the board. At Freeths, I am responsible for all operations of the firm. We’re a full-service legal practice: we operate from twelve offices across England, and we’re one of the fastest-growing legal businesses in the UK.
I was attracted to Freeths by its consistent growth rate over many years. Two decades ago, the firm had less than £5 million in turnover, but this year we’re expected to generate fees of £125 million. It’s a vibrant, dynamic place to work, and it’s exciting to help it grow. My role has always been broad in terms of operational responsibility — I’ve been involved in marketing, HR, risk and compliance and IT. I like working with teams, helping them develop, and expanding the business. The Freeths opportunity was particularly enticing to me: the firm had grown rapidly, and I wanted to help it make the transition from being a “big small company” to becoming a “small big company”.
Throughout my career, I’ve always held a number of external appointments. It helps to bring new perspectives and adds value to your everyday work. I’d recommend anyone to do it if they have the opportunity. I’ve worked with Man Met for about eight years in different capacities, most recently as chair of the Advisory Board for the Faculty of Business and Law, the largest faculty at the university. The Advisory Board’s members are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds, including financial and professional services, the SME Community, health care, global entities and the public sector My role is largely to coordinate activities and support the management team at the faculty. I’m not giving lectures, so my direct contact with students is limited: however, I’m trying to give them a closer insight into the commercial side of a law firm. Man Met is fantastic at bringing in first-generation students — giving them the encouragement and confidence to go out and succeed in the business world.
I joined on 4th January 2021. The very next day, I sent out a message to everyone telling them to stay at home as the government announced its 3rd national lockdown. I didn’t see anyone in person for several months. It was challenging to get under the skin of the business without meeting anyone or visiting their offices. But I was still able to get a sense of Freeth’s culture: I learned right away that it was incredibly inclusive and supportive. So when I finally started meeting people in person, it felt like I already knew them.
For some people, remote working was a significant challenge. I think some younger workers who were trying to develop their careers found it difficult without regular interaction with their supervisors. We’ve worked very hard to accommodate everyone: we’ve redesigned our offices to promote more collaboration and encourage employees to come back to the office whilst embracing agile working.
We’ve increased our levels of training and support. We need to make sure all our people are being looked after. We’ve gotten rid of formal appraisals and moved towards a system of continuous conversations — this allows employees to discuss their development in a semi-formal setting. We’re also working to develop our networks: to bring people together and help them feel like part of a community. We’ve introduced reverse mentoring — this allows our board members to learn from our junior employees, and we’ve widened Board representation to ensure a broader and more diverse set of views are expressed at the board.
We might not get everything right, but we try to do our best for our employees, the firm, and our clients. “Doing the Right Thing” is a core value for Freeths.
We’re always looking for feedback, whether formal or informal, and we make sure that it can be given anonymously. We didn’t use a top-down approach to development either: we went out into the business and brought ideas back. We might not get everything right, but we try to do our best for our employees, the firm, and our clients. “Doing the Right Thing” is a core value for Freeths.
We’re trying to bring different cohorts together for training — whether that’s diversity awareness or continuous conversations. We have twelve offices, but we have departments that work across all of them. That lets us join up our approach and have eyes and ears on the ground. In terms of diversity and inclusion, we’ve introduced a National pledge to encourage everyone to get involved. We’ve held “lunch and learn” sessions, mentoring groups, and events for Disability History and Black History Month. We strive to celebrate success wherever we find it.
Encourage curiosity among your people. As a firm, we’ve always been about doing the right thing. We’re free thinking, with an entrepreneurial spirit. If you encourage people to think beyond their role, they will ask challenging questions. That helps people to improve themselves — and helps the firm and community too.