Ask a GC – Carl Watson, Arcadis Asia

by | Feb 4, 2021

Carl Watson – General Counsel, Arcadis Asia


In what has been a highly unusual 12 months, how have you managed to retain some semblance of normality? What tools or strategies have you found particularly useful?

At Arcadis we’ve been fairly fortunate, we put significant effort into our IT infrastructure and operating systems over the last few years which has given us confidence in the resilience and operations of all our systems. We also align those systems to an agile approachto what workplace means for our people. Like a law firm, we’re selling brain power in the knowledge economy, so the physical location of that brain power is not always the overriding factor. We have an ability to think in a more user-centric way.

At the end of Jan/early Feb last year, there was a degree of nervousness across all Asian businesses- a fear of the unknown as Asia was first to be impacted by the pandemic. However, as we moved through March, April and May time, things calmed quicker than we all expected and commercial pragmatism kicked in. The main factor driving that for us was a rebound in China in Q2. China is a big part of our Asian business and we saw resiliency in the Chinese projects we were working on so that gave us hope that we could navigate our way through the challenges emanating from the pandemic. Our Q3 and Q4 performance was strong due to the efforts of all our teams and our main projects continued rolling. As a Legal functional team, we pivoted quickly as digital enablers, for example, the use of Microsoft 365 suite of apps, including MS Teams, PowerApps, Power BI, etc. We’ve been very fortunate to have that IT infrastructure available, and have strong engagement on contracts with clients, so we’ve not had the same impact as seen in Europe and other global markets.

The Legal team is quite small any way but we’ve always connected weekly as a group to check in on projects and contracts, etc. What we have done consciously as a team is to find space to meet without an agenda. There is usually always an agenda to meetings, but every fortnight we have a no script, non-work meeting just to check in with each other and our well-being. Things in Greater China and Singapore have been comparatively easier, but in the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia restrictions have been tighter, as well as in India. It’s therefore been important to keep checking in and ensure everyone feels supported. During the Q2/Q3 2020 period, it felt as though there was no light at end of the tunnel so it was important to ensure people felt connected. We are hard coded as lawyers to “jump on grenades”, and always be “on”, as such, we acknowledged as a group that it’s alright not to be on, and to say when we’re under pressure, be it work-related or otherwise. I’ve also been flexible when authorising team members to work from home and reallocating work through the digital utilisation system we have developed, in order to help give my people some brain space and a chance to recharge.

“Don’t fall back into the old ways of working. There will always be pressure to drive revenue, but it’s important not to lose the personal connections”

What are the key challenges your business has faced in the last 12 months and how has your Legal team helped to overcome them?


Cash is king in all businesses! We’ve really been supporting our teams navigate pandemic challendes around our collection processes and I’ve been working closely on this with our Asia CFO, Daniel Blitch. It’s about sustainability for our business and thinking about how to get through it but also balance our clients and stakeholders too. As confidence built in Q2 2020, we realised we were weathering a storm so looked at how we as a Legal team could support in more challenged markets, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, etc. We focused on cash (WIP and receivables) and financial performance, but also the business; lots in the market were considering tactics-one being take clients/customers to court for force majeure protections. We took a more pragmatic and commercial pathway. It was about changing our mindset; we at times weren’t being paid, but we also wanted to listen to those clients and understand their pressure points. So we would support on cash collections but balance that with a commercial outlook. We would also work with our supply chain to ensure we were putting in protections, but ensuring they were viable for our clients.

We also took time earlier in 2020- when there was drop off in client facing support- to work on knowledge and talent management. We worked on Arcadis’ inhouse Base Camp, a platform which provides exciting bitesize learning modules for our 30,000 employees around our digital and sustainable future. We introduced a set of modules specifically on our digital transformation (for example, BIM, different operating models (including, SaaS), cybersecurity, data privacy, etc.). This was part of a global initiative to upskill in more digital processes and pathways.


In a time of remote working and endless Zoom calls, what advice would you give to those managing legal teams through this pandemic?


The main thing is trust. In Asia, there is a ‘need face time’ culture and a preference to see teams in the office still pervades. What this past period has allowed line managers and team leaders to see is that you can still maintain productivity and our stated outcomes even if people are not always physically in an office. Trust is the key, and getting comfortable setting goals and having them delivered remotely. The pandemic has given an injection in the arm to remote working. Our client HSBC (and other financial institutions) for example is offering its people three workplace options: remote working, office-based working, or a hybrid of the two. Standard Chartered has also done something similar. It’s about creating a customised work environment to attract and retain top talent – as this is increasingly an expectation. Companies also need to give line managers training and the skills they need to develop talent remotely. The reduction in business travel and office based working is inevitable; it leads to a reduction in footprint and travel expenses so there are significant financial savings to be made, and also sustainability dividends around ESG performance.


What trends do you expect to see in the Design/Engineering industry this year, and what will that mean for Legal?


We’re embarking on an exciting new global strategy for 2021-23. Some of the main themes are:


Digitalisation. This word is bandied around a lot in the market but here at Arcadis we are really market leading in our industry with our agenda in the digital space as we pivot towards delivering our clients’ aspirations in an ever more data driven world. In Legal we’re looking at tool based digitalisation, AI, Natural Language Programming, structures to monetise data, enhance our skillsets, etc. We want to drive that process to maturity over the next couple of years based on analyzing our performance, root causes and market drivers.

Sustainability, both internal and external. External sustainability is about the performance of our business and providing commitments around our own activity, e.g. conscious purchasing decisions and conscious decisions on which clients we work for. We are also working with Sustainalytics to benchmark and analyse our ESG performance- we set aggressive KPIs on things like carbon neutrality. Our clients and shareholders expect it from us, and it’s a win-win for both our top and bottom lines.

Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging– this is an area I am particularly passionate about. We have made clear commitments, for example, around having more representation for women leading in technical roles. At Arcadis, we did an independent D&I analysis and scored highly, but want to go further to be the market leader, particularly with regards to women and girls in STEM careers. We have an opportunity to be a leader here too, having 35% of technical roles being filled by women by 2023. We have signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and we’re also part of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development- and we’re putting KPIs behind this to ensure we’re delivering on those commitments. It’s a bold commitment but it anchors back to our core vision, namely to improve quality of life. Belonging is about allowing our people to bring their authentic self to work and that, regardless of race, gender, age, sexuality, etc. we are all Arcadians. We’ve always believed passionately in our people and we are calling this culture out. I’m the Asia Executive Sponsor for D&I, within my own team we have a strong gender parity mix, but it’s not just about numbers. For example, for Mothers and caregivers, it’s about giving them latitude and being a male ally, eliminating bias systemically. I was separated from my wife and daughter through most of Q3/Q4 2020 and was the primary caregiver for my son, which gives insight to understanding what the spectrum of pressures are seeking to balance (or integrate in a way that works) the personal and professional.

My team has supported on these strategies in a number of ways. In terms of sustainability, we are pivoting what we are doing to enable it. With lots of offices moving to carbon neutrality, Legal is supporting on due diligence for new projects, setting contracts, and adopting an ethical angle when looking at contracts.

With the focus on digitalisation, we’re now creating more licensing, SaaS/platform and subscription agreements, and we’re changing our approach to IP, cybersecurity and data. Legal skillsets are shifting from being commercial counsel to deliver solutions in a digital future. We’re also collaborating globally and specifically working with our colleagues in Manila on platform development, as we look to move to entirely digital contracting. There is a lot of “self-serve” that can be brought into Legal, where the system can auto generate simple licensing or subscription agreements, based on a user-completed questionnaire. So we’re developing some of these future ways of working and contracting, and will grow our team accordingly. We also have developed a system to digitize the engagement with the team to ensure our stakeholders get timely and usable advice on this widening range of needs. Going forward, we would likely look to take on talent who have a working understanding of the law and contracting, but also knowledge of designing platforms and systems to empower our journey as a digital team and translate complex legal issues into processes and platforms our teams can engage with and self-serve more. So legal will have a wider blend of resources and not be exclusively lawyers is a trend to watch for.


What are you priorities and objectives for the year?


Despite the COVID crisis, Arcadis made a bold step to stick to our established strategic cycle. It would have been easy not to have done so and delayed the plan for 12 months, but we have taken the opportunity to, as a group, stay on track with our strategic cycle and learn from the pandemic experience, hence the continued focus on digitalisation, optimising our costs, commitments to our sustainable future, etc. For Legal, there is a degree of certainty –  we need to enter contracts, we need to stay governance and compliance safe and we need to empower our teams with accessible commercial legal solutions. We also need to build on some of the recovery from H2 2020 and not sit on our hands around digitalisation, we can roll out more automated process. In summary, it’s about cracking on, looking after each other and evolving our skills in an exciting new future!


If you had to give one piece of advice to other in-house lawyers as they embark on 2021, what would it be?


The Legal team often operates in a high-pressure environment; I do my best to absorb pressure in order to give the team a buffer, but we recognize there is a huge amount of personal and professional pressure. We also have to recognize that the brain has a finite capacity and if constantly saturated, it’s not sustainable. We need to check in with each other in order to ensure the business and objectives we handle are sustainable.

So in essence, my advice would be, don’t fall back into the old ways of working. There will always be pressure to drive solutions enabling top and bottom line performance, but it’s important not to lose the personal connections – understanding your business, its strategic vision and staying close to your stakeholders is vital. Further,  work is important but it’s equally important to stay mindful on wellbeing, and continue to show concern and care to our teams and colleagues as we all embrace new ways of working and some of the uncertainty that can come with that. That means a huge amount to our people and builds a strong connected culture.


If you’d like to find out more about how Vario could help your in-house legal team or have any questions, please contact Karishma to discuss your needs:

Karishma Nair
Vario Account Director



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