Thursday 18 July 2024

The new AI reality: what's happening now and what's next?

 (This was re-posted from a blog post I recently wrote on Orbital Witness's Tech Blog)


Annual keynote to law firm real estate partners


A year ago Orbital Witness held our annual event where I spoke about “Generative AI: Opportunities and risks for property transactions”. Earlier this month, we continued this tradition by hosting ‘The AI Edge: Real-world Lessons for Real Estate Lawyers’. Taking place at Google HQ, we brought together real estate partners from some of the leading law firms in the UK to share the latest developments in Generative AI and how it is currently revolutionising real estate legal.

I gave the keynote presentation which started by setting the scene for where we are on the innovation S-Curve. I then delved into a range of important aspects of Generative AI for real estate lawyers such as model intelligence, context window size, model cost & speed, proprietary vs open-weight models, AI Agents, multi-modality and use cases in real estate legal. During the discussion, I was also able to contextualise for the audience the trajectory of Orbital Copilot, our own AI legal assistant, as we continue to innovate the product and as Generative AI advances.

This visual sums up the incredible achievement of what’s now possible at the bleeding edge of Generative AI when combining large language models (LLMs) within an AI Agent framework and focusing on a specific practice area, real estate legal, in order to provide turnkey solutions to customers:


Here is the full 40 minute video of the keynote:

Slide Deck

Here is the complete slide deck I presented for my keynote with references below:

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Saturday 1 June 2024

Teaching my eleven year old’s class about AI

(This was re-posted from a blog post I recently wrote on Orbital Witness's Tech Blog)


What happens when you’re asked to teach 30 eleven year olds about AI? I did just that at my son’s school last month. Here’s what I learnt.


My son came home a few months ago and said “Daddy, you need to come to my class at school very, very soon and teach us everything about AI.”

That’s clearly no small feat trying to unpack the complexity of artificial intelligence (AI) for an audience of eleven year olds but I was up for the challenge. I wanted to strike the right balance between being informative about what powers AI and how it works but also show them the creative ways AI is being applied in the world right now (because that’s the really fun stuff). I set out to create a visual presentation that would achieve that along with providing ample time for the myriad of questions they would inevitably pop up throughout the lesson.


Here’s the 37 slide deck that I used for around 30 children. I was allotted an hour but due to all the questions, from both students and teachers, we ended up spending an hour and half in total getting into some of the nitty gritty of AI:

Some observations

From the ethics around AI, to what it means for the future of work and creativity, here’s some of the themes that came out of our time together:

  1. The kids I taught had a real thirst for a deeper understanding of AI. They really wanted to know how it worked, what it could help them accomplish, what the risks and ethical considerations were with using it. They even wanted to know why exactly AI doesn’t always say naughty things they sometimes ask it to say.
  2. I was pleasantly surprised how philosophical some kids were evidenced by questions such as “given that you’ve been coding for years and you’re now coding AI, did you ever think that maybe someone is actually coding you…?”
  3. There was a bit of an undercurrent of what they do career-wise if AI is going to end up being able to do anything. If they’re interested in music making or art or coding and AI ends up being good at those, is it worth still pursuing those interests…?

Overall it was a fascinating lesson not only for them to learn about AI but also for me to see how they perceive the latest developments in this technology. This tidal wave of innovation is underway and it’s already impacting a future generation of creators and builders who will enter the workforce in a decade from now. And – if you end up using this deck to educate your own children, let me know. I’d love to hear what you learn from the experience.

Wednesday 31 January 2024

We built an AI Assistant, Orbital Copilot, that thinks like a real estate lawyer!

 It uses the latest agentic GenAI concepts and is accelerating lawyers' work by 70%

(This was re-posted from a blog post I recently wrote on Orbital Witness's Tech Blog just after we launched Orbital Copilot)

Executive Summary

  • Innovative Partnership: Orbital Witness and Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP) collaborate to bring Orbital Copilot to the forefront of real estate legal practice
  • Evolution of AI in LegalTech: The transition from classical machine learning (ML) to Large Language Models (LLMs) and now the rise of AI Agents transforms what is possible with Generative AI
  • Orbital Copilot’s Capabilities: Offers unparalleled analysis, review, and reporting for real estate legal documents, giving lawyers up to 70% in time savings for lease reporting and other tasks
  • Global Expansion: Following the UK success, Orbital Copilot will expand to the U.S. and other sophisticated real estate markets
  • Customer Cohort: Prestigious law firms are among the first adopters, demonstrating trust and confidence in Orbital Copilot


Two months ago we announced our partnership with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP). It was one of many significant steps that has enabled us to bring our AI Assistant, Orbital Copilot, to the forefront of real estate legal practice and deliver a significant impact for our customers.

The genesis of Orbital Copilot dates to mid-2022, born out of our data scientists’ exploratory work with Generative AI, harnessing the power of Google’s BERT and T5 language models. The landscape suddenly shifted with OpenAI’s introduction of ChatGPT in November 2022 and the subsequent release of GPT-4. These advancements fueled our research and development (R&D) of cutting-edge internal tools, quickly proving indispensable to our legal engineers. Our presentation in June 2023, “Generative AI: Opportunities and Risks for Property Transactions,” was a turning point. Our law firms immediately recognised the potential of the GenAI tools we had developed, eagerly requesting access as soon as they were available. Responding to this demand, our team rapidly advanced from a Closed Alpha of Orbital Copilot, meticulously refined with invaluable feedback from a select group of early adopters.

This rapid evolution from an R&D concept to a practical tool for real estate lawyers epitomises our agility, innovation and relentless commitment to delivering genuinely valuable products to our customers. Orbital Copilot today stands as the first product of its kind in the industry: a real estate, domain-specific AI Agent that offers unparalleled analysis, review, and reporting capabilities across multiple real estate legal documents.

In this blog post, we will uncover the unique aspects that make Orbital Copilot a groundbreaking product. We’ll clarify why it’s more than a rebranded ChatGPT and delve into its potential to revolutionise real estate legal practice.

The evolution of AI in LegalTech

  • Classical Machine Learning (ML): In the early versions of LegalTech, NLP-based solutions primarily relied on classical supervised ML techniques. This involved collecting extensive labelled datasets and training various supervised ML models for text classification and question answering. At Orbital Witness, this was our initial approach, leading to the creation of some of the industry’s most accurate ML models for classifying real estate legal text.
  • Large Language Models (LLMs): The advent of LLMs in 2023 marked a paradigm shift. The traditional dependency on vast collections of labelled data for tasks like classification and question answering began to fade. Systems could be built with LLM APIs (such as OpenAI’s GPT-3.5 or Anthropic’s Claude or Google’s Gemini Pro) where they are given a portion of legal text, the “context”, along with specific instructions, the “prompt”, and the underlying LLM generates relevant responses. These systems can be advanced further by incorporating techniques such as retrieval-augmented generation (RAG) which enhances their ability to manage and interpret extensive context from multiple, lengthy documents. This is the most common type of system that many companies are currently building. Such a system is good for simplistic tasks but has several limitations when applied to the type of work lawyers typically do when performing due diligence. As the LegalTech AI landscape evolves, we will continue to see many more products built that summarise documents or answer specific one-off questions. The technology to perform these types of simplistic tasks is becoming well understood. The real long-term value is a dynamic AI assistant built on the AI Agent architectural pattern.

  • AI Agents: Highlighted by OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman, at OpenAI’s DevDay in November 2023 (referenced in this Financial Times article), the future of AI Agents was brought into the spotlight. Altman’s announcement of customisable “GPTs” and the prospective “GPT Store” (a marketplace for ChatGPT-based chatbots) signaled a new era. While current “GPTs” are relatively basic AI Agents, they hint at a transformative trend: AI-powered ‘agents’ capable of autonomously performing tasks and radically improving what is now possible with LLM-based applications. In LegalTech, imagine an AI Agent that, from a single query like “What is the rent for this property?”, could pinpoint relevant details across multiple documents, such as leases and deeds of variation, and then logically deduce the answer, mimicking a lawyer’s analytical process.

What defines an AI Agent?

In exploring the concept of AI Agents, Lilian Weng’s insightful blog post stands out, where she defines them as “LLM Powered Autonomous Agents”. Weng emphasises that the core of an AI Agent is the LLM, functioning as its ‘brain’, complemented by three critical components: Planning, Memory, and Tool Use.

This architecture, when expertly constructed, harbours the potential to transform the legal field. It transcends the more simplistic notion of being merely a thin wrapper around GPT-4 or a “ChatGPT for lawyers”. An AI Agent can be equipped with specialised tools designed for intricate real estate legal tasks such as looking up specific data in a land registry or determining how rent provisions might be varied by another document. The “LLM brain” skillfully determines the optimal use of these tools to execute tasks with precision and depth, as directed by a legal professional. Moreover, the AI Agent possesses the ability to reason about its generated outputs. This ability enables a real estate legal AI Agent to decide between several potential outcomes:

  • Continue to delve deeper into the legal documents at it’s disposal to find a more fitting answer
  • Request additional real estate documents or data, it feels are missing, to more comprehensively answer the question
  • Decide it has a complete answer and present a valid response back to the lawyer who initiated the instruction

The Significance of AI Agents

The concept of AI Agents has been gaining substantial attention, particularly highlighted by OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman (see this Financial Times article). Altman underscores the significance of these AI agents in the overall AI landscape, with OpenAI’s upcoming GPT Store being a testament to their commitment to this platform shift. Ethan Mollick further explores this idea in his post Almost an Agent: What GPTs can do, where he states:

“In their reveal of GPTs, OpenAI clearly indicated that this was just the start… GPTs can be easily integrated into with other systems, such as your email, a travel site, or corporate payment software. You can start to see the birth of true agents as a result. It is easy to design GPTs that can, for example, handle expense reports. It would have permission to look through all your credit card data and emails for likely expenses, write up a report in the right format, submit it to the appropriate authorities, and monitor your bank account to ensure payment. And you can imagine even more ambitious autonomous agents that are given a goal … and carry that out in whatever way they see fit.”

Olivia Moore, a Consumer Partner at venture capital firm a16z, further echoed the potential of AI Agents in a recent tweet at the end of 2023:

The Impact of a Real Estate Legal AI Agent: Orbital Copilot

Orbital Copilot, our innovative AI Agent at Orbital Witness, is revolutionising the way real estate legal work is conducted. It closely emulates the tasks of real estate lawyers, who often wade through extensive legal documents to perform due diligence for their clients. Here’s how Orbital Copilot is transforming the field:

  • Comprehensive Document Analysis: It can digest hundreds of pages of intricate legal text across numerous PDF documents whether typed, written manuscript or both
  • Diverse Question Resolution: From straightforward questions like “What is the date of the lease?” to more complex queries such as “How has the service charge varied?”, Orbital Copilot handles them all
  • Contextual Understanding: It tracks down definitions within documents to enhance understanding and reasoning
  • Thorough Information Gathering: Whether it’s following the breadcrumb trail across one or several documents, it ensures all necessary information is collated
  • Supplementary Research: It seeks out additional legal information to refine its understanding of the lawyer’s initial instructions. This could be a proprietary legal knowledge base or data from HM Land Registry
  • Targeted Summarisation: Orbital Copilot can summarise entire documents or specific sections across multiple documents
  • Language Simplification: It adeptly rephrases complex legal jargon into layman’s terms for client comprehensibility
  • Trusted Referencing: Orbital Copilot indicates the parts of the PDF documents it consulted, facilitating direct navigation to the primary evidence supporting its answers so lawyers can immediately see and trust where an answer came from
  • Transparent Reasoning: Like consulting a junior lawyer to ask how they came to their conclusion, it transparently reveals its thought process and how it arrived at specific conclusions so a lawyer can focus on the legal nature of the problem and not some “black box” technology

Specifically tailored for real estate legal tasks, Orbital Copilot’s combination of features yields remarkable time savings for lawyers. Considering the busy schedules of legal professionals, often billing in six-minute increments, Orbital Copilot’s efficiency is a game-changer. Our thorough testing with top-tier UK law firms, involving real client work, revealed that Orbital Copilot can reduce the time for a comprehensive lease report by up to 70%. Given that a single property’s lease report can take 2-10+ hours depending on complexity, this translates to substantial financial savings per property for law firms and their clients. Given the regularity of lease reports in real estate law, the cumulative efficiency and cost savings are substantial.

A Glimpse into Orbital Copilot’s Functionality

Let’s take a closer look at how Orbital Copilot operates in practice. Consider this scenario where two key PDF documents are uploaded:

  • Lease dated 06-06-2008
  • Deed of variation dated 31-03-2016

In this instance, the deed modifies several aspects of the lease, including the rent. When prompted with the query “What is the rent and how has it been varied?”, Orbital Copilot leaps into action. It begins by understanding the question’s context and the documents at hand. Then, it meticulously searches and reads the pertinent sections in both documents. Finally, Orbital Copilot analyses its findings, formulates a response, and presents it for review.

Another illustration of Orbital Copilot’s capabilities is shown in the processing of a short form lease report, which includes 10 targeted questions. It’s important to note that Orbital Copilot is equipped with a variety of pre-configured lease reports, ranging from basic to highly detailed enquiries about the legal documents. The next video demonstrates the types of questions posed in the short form lease report. It also showcases how users can easily reference specific parts of the underlying documents for additional context or to validate Orbital Copilot’s responses:

Engineering challenges

At Orbital Witness, leveraging the most advanced LLMs like GPT-4 is essential to meet the high standards required for legal document analysis. However, this approach presents several engineering challenges:

  • Cost Management: Utilising state-of-the-art LLMs for thorough analysis of extensive legal documents, often running into hundreds of pages, is crucial for achieving the accuracy our lawyer clients depend on. However, the use of such advanced technology incurs significant costs. Although we anticipate a decrease in expenses as Nvidia ramps up GPU production and AI labs enhance LLM efficiency, the current challenge lies in optimising our LLM usage to maintain a balance between cost-effectiveness and high-quality output.
  • Resource Availability: The global shortage of Nvidia GPUs, coupled with the soaring demand for LLM functionalities, has compelled LLM providers to impose caps on the number of tokens (akin to words) processed per minute through their APIs. This limitation affects our capacity to onboard new customers and influences the execution speed of tasks within Orbital Copilot. While we expect this issue to diminish as GPU availability increases and LLMs become more efficient, it remains a significant short-term constraint that requires careful management.
  • Ensuring Reliability: Many LLM providers, despite their technological prowess, are relatively new to managing complex, fault-tolerant services on a global scale. This inexperience can lead to occasional service fragility, manifesting as uptime issues and performance degradation. Such challenges directly impact our operations, necessitating continuous vigilance and adaptability to maintain uninterrupted service quality.

The Future of Orbital Copilot

The trajectory of Orbital Copilot is set to reach remarkable milestones. Our recent collaboration with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP) is a testament to this. Through our “global design partnership,” we’re extending our lease reporting capabilities, initially honed in the UK, to BCLP’s real estate practices in both the U.K. and the U.S. This marks Orbital Witness’ ambitious leap from a UK-centric operation to a transatlantic presence in 2024. Our existing clients are already expressing eagerness to harness Orbital Copilot’s benefits on a global scale.

At our core, we are a product-centric company, deeply invested in understanding and addressing our customers’ needs. This customer-first approach drives our product development, guiding us in crafting a roadmap that tackles their most pressing challenges. Currently, we are channelling our energies into developing some groundbreaking features, slated for release in the first and second quarters of 2024. These upcoming enhancements are poised to further revolutionise the landscape of real estate legal technology, strengthening Orbital Copilot’s position as a trailblazer in the field.

Launching with an Esteemed Customer Cohort

Emerging from a highly successful private closed beta in the final quarter of 2023, we at Orbital Witness have quickly transitioned to welcoming our first batch of paying customers. This group, having been on our eagerly anticipated waitlist, represents a diverse array of prestigious companies. Their readiness to adopt Orbital Copilot’s AI Agent speaks volumes about their commitment to embracing the cutting-edge of Generative AI in real estate legal work. We are immensely proud and excited to collaborate closely with these industry leaders, each a prominent name in their respective fields:

  • BCLP: Global law firm with 31 offices worldwide and clients who represent 35% of the Fortune 500
  • Clifford Chance: One of the world’s largest law firms, with significant depth and range of resources across five continents
  • Charles Russell Speechlys: International law firm headquartered in London with offices across the UK, Europe, Asia and the Middle East
  • Macfarlanes: A distinctive London-based law firm with a unique combination of services built and shaped around their clients’ needs
  • Ropes and Gray: Global team with 13 offices on three continents and named “Law Firm of the Year” by The American Lawyer in 2022 and ranked number one on The American Lawyer’s A-List of elite firms
  • Walker Morris: Independent law firm with a first-class international reputation
  • Thomson Snell and Passmore: The oldest law firm in operation tracing back to the late 16th century
  • Thompson, Smith and Puxon: Established in 1879, TSP has grown to be one of the leading law firms in Essex
  • Able UK: Market leader in wind energy & marine decommissioning along with being a significant land developer and port & vehicle storage operator

Customer Testimonials

“Orbital Copilot is next generation legal technology and is helping us continue to focus our Real Estate lawyers’ time on the areas that are most valuable to clients. Our IT strategy has always been to seek out the best technology tools for our needs and our collaboration with Orbital Witness is a key plank of our Real Estate AI plan.”

        – Matt Taylor, Partner @ Clifford Chance

“BCLP was an early adopter of Orbital Witness’ products, and we are thrilled to collaborate with the company on an AI solution that will provide marked benefits to our clients by accelerating lease reporting and enhancing real estate due diligence. We’re also excited to see so many of our lawyers deeply engaged in the development of leading-edge technology and experiencing the potential of generative AI firsthand.”

        – Samant Narula, BCLP’s U.K. Head of Real Estate

“The potential of Orbital Copilot is stunning. A time saving AI tool which will increase our efficiency. Icing on the cake of Orbital Witness’ services.”

        – Clive Gotley, Head of Legal @ Gridserve

“Copilot is the kind of tool that every lawyer wishes they had. It enables you to review documents quickly and efficiently, whilst also allowing you to check and verify the information, ensuring that the end result is the one that you want.”

        – Amy Shuttleworth, Associate @ Charles Russell Speechlys

Conclusion: The Future is Here with AI Agents

  • AI Agents - A LegalTech Revolution: The future of LegalTech is being reshaped by AI Agents. Their advanced capabilities and adaptability make them indispensable tools to begin integrating into modern legal practices
  • Orbital Copilot - Leading the Charge: Orbital Witness has pioneered the development of the world’s premier AI Agent tailored for real estate legal work. Orbital Copilot is not just an innovation; it’s a game-changer, already enhancing due diligence and reporting processes by an impressive 70%
  • Customer Acclaim: The response from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive. The efficiency and precision Orbital Copilot brings to their client work have made it an essential component of their legal toolkit
  • Join the Early Adopters: For those eager to be part of this transformative journey, we have a limited number of spots in our early adopters cohort. Interest has been high, so we encourage you to sign up quickly to secure your place as more slots become available

As we move forward, Orbital Copilot continues to set new benchmarks in the realm of real estate legal technology. Stay tuned for more updates and innovations as we navigate this exciting frontier.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

My team has officially shipped something very exciting today!

Back in June 2023 I gave a presentation titled "Generative AI: Opportunities and risks for property transactions" in which I demoed an internal AI Assistant project that my team and I had been building ever since ChatGPT launched to the world in November 2022 and it became abundantly obvious this new Generative AI technology had the potential to transform the legal industry. We received a tremendous amount of engagement off the back of my presentation and much of it was from customers wanting to get their hands on this AI Assistant that we built so they could try it out for themselves. Because our initial AI Assistant was only an internal tool, we need to pull it out of our backend application and productionise it for law firms and other companies so they could begin trialing it and giving us feedback. 

Fast forward a few months once we had ironed out a number of challenging technical problems with building a bleeding edge AI system built on top of the latest large language models (LLMs), our own customised prompt engineering, a retrieval-augmented generation (RAG) system and our own proprietary legal specific document OCR and structuring technology all the while controlling for the eye-watering costs of some of the more powerful LLMs like OpenAI's GPT-4. 

Today BCLP and Orbital Witness have publicly released the details of our "global design partnership to test, optimize and deploy Orbital Witness’ lease reporting capabilities in its latest generative artificial intelligence (AI) solution, Orbital Copilot, across BCLP’s U.K. and U.S. real estate practices." I'm proud to say that the AI Assistant I showcased at my presentation back in June 2023 has now taken on a life of it's own as Orbital Copilot and has a ton more functionality, improved accuracy, ability to work with any legal documents and is initially focused on lease reporting for lawyers and legal professionals as we build this out for BCLP and others. The press release goes on to say: "Orbital Copilot is the first real estate-sector-specific AI assistant created for real estate lawyers that is capable of analyzing and reporting on any real estate document. By leveraging Orbital Witness’ market-leading capabilities in real estate-specific AI and the deep sector knowledge and experience of BCLP’s global real estate practice, this first-in-market collaboration seeks to use this cutting-edge technology to enhance BLCP’s reporting on complex commercial leases, providing accelerated insights to their clients."

I'm also quoted in the press release alongside Samant Narula, BCLP’s U.K. head of real estate: 

Andrew Thompson, chief technology officer at Orbital Witness, says, “A key part of our strategy with Orbital Copilot is to develop real estate-domain-specific AI that enables us to deliver solutions for property professionals that are incomparable in terms of capability, quality and reliability. This collaboration and pilot program with BCLP allows us to demonstrate and test that value at a firm that shares our ambitions and vision for this technology.”

BCLP has one of the largest legal real estate practises in the country, so they're a brilliant law firm to partner with for the ground breaking Generative AI product called Orbital Copilot that we've just built and launched to the world.

Wednesday 21 June 2023

Generative AI: Opportunities and risks for property transactions

On June 14, 2023, Orbital Witness held an event for #LondonTechWeek to explore how Generative AI will revolutionise property due diligence. I gave the keynote presentation to a room of partners and innovation specialists from commercial law firms, residential conveyancing firms and LegalTech companies. 

Here is the full 38min video of that presentation along a product demo at the 32min mark. The product I demoed is an internal tool my team of data scientists and legal engineers built using a GPT-4 based agent and vector search on top of legal documents from HMLR such as title registers and scanned PDFs of leases and deeds of variation:

Here is the complete slide deck I presented for my keynote with all transitions intact (PDF version at the end of this blog post):

Here are all the references associated with various slides:

Thursday 9 March 2023

A collection of curated learning materials about Generative AI and Large Language Models (LLMs) such as GPT-4

Since ChatGPT came onto the scene on 30th November, 2022, I've been doing a deep dive finding out what exactly LLMs and specifically ChatGPT are capable of, what their limitations are and how we can use them at Orbital Witness (the company I'm CTO at). This was obviously important since we're currently building software that 'thinks' like a lawyer using the latest natural language processing (NLP). 

Given my current ongoing research on the topic, I'm going to use this blog post as a curated collection of the best content I've read across a variety of themes related to LLMs / ChatGPT / Dall-E 2 / etc. I'll update it regularly with links to new blog posts, podcasts, videos and anything else I find particularly compelling. The date in parentheses is when I added the link to this blog post and over time it will provide a change-log for easier reading. 


Prompt Engineering

Managing Context



    User Experience (UX)

    Traction of LLMs

    Long-term Costs

    Wednesday 27 April 2022

    Links To Previous Posts



    Product Growth

    Monday 25 April 2022

    Flexible working at Orbital Witness

    What does 'flexible working' actually look like at our company?

    This is a repost from Orbital Witness's Tech Blog that I recently setup with the engineering and data science teams to both recognise the work colleagues were doing internally as well as promote their work externally to attract potential candidates when hiring. 

    Clarifying the ambiguity

    Remote working, working from home (WFH), hybrid working, flexible working, cross-border working, mandatory days, offsites, in-person, distributed… on and on the list goes ๐Ÿค”. There’s a plethora of ways companies and employees are defining how they want to work and what’s expected of everyone while at work. Depending on your previous work environment or what you’ve read about how other people are “working flexibly”, it can mean many different things to different people at different times.

    Having a blanket policy that works in all situations for all people is difficult to say the least. Instead of having such a policy that covers all possible scenarios, we instead took the approach to gather feedback from employees and combine that with what we value and want to foster as a company long-term. From this more organic approach, a set of day-to-day flexible working practices have emerged which employees find works well for them both personally and professionally. This blog post aims to highlight many of those flexible working practices; both to codify them for our own internal use but also to share them with potential future employees who want a sneak peek into how we work.

    Asking employees for their feedback

    In May 2021, while the UK was still under a partial lockdown, we surveyed employees about what they’d like to see in the next 6 months in terms of flexible working. We wanted to use the responses to create a consistent company policy that worked for everyone. We wanted to learn more about what we had been hearing from some employees: that they were missing elements of a working environment when forced to work from home for long periods of time during the pandemic. Here are the survey results off the back of asking everyone in the company this question: Over the first 6 months from lockdown lifting (21 June, 2021), how many days a week, on average, would you ideally want to be in the office?:

    Along with collecting the quantitative data above ๐Ÿ“Š, we asked a few follow-up questions about what people value most about working from home and working in the office to help us understand how we could foster the right working environment for both settings. We created the word clouds seen below from everyone’s responses which showed us the different aspects of each environment that are valued by our current employees (the bigger the word, the more often it was mentioned by everyone):

    Reasons for working from homeReasons for working in the office
    Reasons for working from home
    Reasons for working in the office

    What we value and what we’re trying to foster

    At the heart of our culture and values - most notably, Power to Our People - is the trust we place in our employees. We enjoy giving everyone both the autonomy to decide which work environment is the most conducive for them to do their best work, and the flexibility ๐Ÿง˜‍♀️๐Ÿ™†‍♂️ to put this into practice today, tomorrow or in the future.

    At the same time, we also want to foster a thriving, collaborative, and pleasant working environment for those employees that have a specific need or desire for home or office working. Each team and each person works differently depending on their needs. Sometimes, the number of days worked from home or in the office may be a consistent trend, but it may also become sporadic and less predictable due to personal circumstances or the nature of the specific project they’re working on. The guiding principle we follow when allowing for flexibility is Customers => Colleagues => Self. This means that if we are ever in doubt about what to prioritise then whatever is best for the customer comes first, followed by what’s best for our colleagues as a team, followed by what’s best according to one’s personal preferences. This principle irons out most issues and allows everyone to work as flexibly as they need according to their task(s) while aligning everyone to what’s most important for the business to continue thriving.

    The desire for flexibility was not only evident in much of the survey data shown previously, but also in one-on-one meetings with colleagues and in interviews where we listened ๐Ÿ‘‚ to what potential candidates wanted in their future work setup and/or thought were missing from their current work environment. Pretty much everyone loves the comfort, convenience and solitude that home working provides but they also miss the structure/routine, contact with colleagues, and dynamism that multiple colleagues in an office can provide. At Orbital Witness we wanted to have our cake and eat it too ๐Ÿฐ and therefore we actively foster the ability for any employee to choose either working option - on any given day. Sometimes people choose both options on the same day such as working from home in the morning and from the office in the afternoon!

    Everyone is different and therefore requires a different setup to be productive and happy at their job. A 25 year old living in a cramped London flatshare ๐Ÿข may need the respite and space provided by a quiet office environment with meeting rooms. However, a parent of two little ones ๐Ÿ‘ถ๐Ÿง’ needing to conduct the school drop-off may find working from home or simply some more flexible time in the mornings really helpful to start the day off on the right foot. Then there’s also those times where someone just needs to find the time and space to get into the zone and spend hours of uninterrupted time solving a hard technical problem.

    An added little bonus of working at Orbital Witness is that we currently have an office in a building operated by The Office Group (TOG) which is similar to a WeWork concept. Because of this affiliation with TOG, every Orbital Witness employee not only has their own home and our usual permanent office environment in Clerkenwell to work from but also 40+ TOG buildings throughout London (and even more offices in other cities in the UK and Europe) which they have access to with their TOG key card.

    What’s actually happening day-to-day

    Flexible days of the week

    There isn’t a set number of days we ask everyone to be in the office and instead allow for more of an organic approach. So what’s actually going on in a given week? Here is data taken from our Officely Slack App which collects self-reported data from employees about when they’re coming into the office. Colleagues use Officely each week to inform everyone else about when they might be coming into the office on a specific day. Officely helps us all to more effectively coordinate meetings and have impromptu meetups between colleagues in the same team or across teams. Officely has been really helpful to make sure more of our one-on-one meetings happen in person over a coffee ☕️, while our communal lunches spill over many tables and after-work pub get-togethers with colleagues are a staple. Clearly, Wednesdays and Thursdays are good days to coordinate those things, with Friday being a little less busy:

    Flexible location

    The vast majority of employees at Orbital Witness are based in and around London with a few people as far flung as the seaside ๐ŸŒŠ in Kent and the countryside ๐Ÿ• near Bristol and Cardiff ๐Ÿด๓ ง๓ ข๓ ท๓ ฌ๓ ณ๓ ฟ. As such, most employees come into the office on a weekly/fortnightly basis for a few or more days. Those who are more far flung come into the office monthly/bi-monthly for a few days at a time, often for our company all-hands once a month. We even have some colleagues who come into the office most of the week because they like the routine and structure of it. To summarise, there’s a complete mix of what people currently do and hence this is why we value continuing to have that flexibility. Our feedback and surveys show that it’s working well both in terms of productivity and employee happiness; therefore, we’d like that to continue ๐Ÿ˜Š.

    Given that we’re trying to foster both flexibility and an in-office culture, we’ve deliberately decided not to seek out fully remote colleagues who are not able to come into the office at all. We’re not dogmatic about this and will make the odd exception to the rule, but in the long-term we want to have a company with a healthy segment of employees who work and socialise in-person on a regular basis, especially while our teams grow and our culture evolves.

    Flexible working hours

    Our core working hours are 9:00am to 5:30pm but we’re not overly pernickety about following this and we certainly don’t monitor it. Many of the teams have stand-ups that begin at 9:30am and so long as people communicate effectively about when they might not be available during core hours, everyone is free to hop off to a doctor’s appointment or gym session throughout the day. Again, the reason for this is to give everyone flexibility; we fully trust our colleagues to balance both their personal and professional lives and everyone does just that. The reason we’re comfortable with this approach is that, from a management perspective, we follow what Andy Grove famously wrote about in his book, High Output Management, where he said measure output not activity. At Orbital Witness, we are also far more concerned with what output is being generated by a team/individual rather than tracking the activity or amount of time that produced it. As a result, we care less about the hours worked and more about the value we’re continuously shipping to our customers.

    Company get-togethers

    Once a month, we have our company All Hands meeting where we go over key performance metrics of the company, discuss one important topic that matters most and often have a fireside chat with a customer, investor, or industry leader. We’re always set up virtually for these meetings so that those who are working from home can participate. However, for the day of the All Hands, we encourage everyone across the company to be in the office where we have lunch together, schedule collaborative meetings within teams and have the company-wide All Hands meeting. Afterwards, we often have a planned social in the evening which has ranged from canoeing ๐Ÿ›ถ Hackney Wick canal (and sometimes falling in) to competing in epic two-on-two ping pong ๐Ÿ“ battles at Bounce to baking and decorating a Great British Bake Off style cake ๐Ÿฐ in teams of two (and then devouring the cake before we’ve even got home for the night).

    Other small niceties

    Dogs in the office

    Many colleagues decided to get a new family member during the pandemic ๐Ÿ• ๐Ÿฉ ๐Ÿฆฎ and we applauded them for it. We know how important dogs can be for many people and how much love and attention they need during the day. Because of this, people have the option to bring their dog into the office on select days so long as their furry friend is well trained and doesn’t disturb others who are hard at work. We created a little system so dog owners and some colleagues (who for various reasons may not want to be around dogs in the office) can easily coordinate which day(s) dogs may be in the office and everyone can work around this with little hassle.

    Video-first meetings

    The entire company has weekly stand-ups (Monday mornings) and stand-downs (Friday afternoons) where we briefly talk about the week ahead and/or what was accomplished, the tracking of our OKRs, and any big events/happenings that week. It’s a good touchstone for everyone to see the entire company each week and get a sense for what’s going on. Each team usually has a separate stand-up each day (focused on the specific details of their work) as well as other ad hoc product, design, engineering and/or one-on-one meetings. All of our meetings are set up so that colleagues can either video conference in ๐Ÿง‘‍๐Ÿ’ป or be in the office around a single screen ๐Ÿ“บ with good audio quality. As such, most people keep their cameras on as it’s nice to see everyone’s face during these meetings (unless of course people happen to be eating ๐Ÿ” or are having a bad hair day ๐Ÿ‘ฑ‍♀️).

    Working remotely for a period of time

    We have a very international team and that means people’s families and loved ones are spread far and wide across the globe. Coming out of the pandemic, when travel was allowed again, it was vital that everyone was given the opportunity to see their family if they wanted or needed to. We had several colleagues fly off to their home countries such as Croatia ๐Ÿ‡ญ๐Ÿ‡ท, Brazil ๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡ท, Malaysia ๐Ÿ‡ฒ๐Ÿ‡พ and Hungary ๐Ÿ‡ญ๐Ÿ‡บ for extended periods of time where they both took holidays and worked remotely for a number of weeks. This allowed them to spend much needed time with family and friends who they hadn’t seen for some time, while also enabling them to continue working on their projects without using up all their holiday allowance in one single shot. We have to be a bit careful to make sure everyone abides by UK tax laws (which dictate how much time someone can work outside the UK while being on a UK payroll), but so long as that’s satisfied, employees wanting to work abroad for up to 8 weeks a year is something that we support. We just ask that employees continue to overlap with the core working hours of their team. If you’re from France that’s a pretty easy trade-off but it can be more difficult the farther afield you travel (depending of course on your tolerance for changing when your work day starts and ends). Having said that, even one of our tech leads, who recently went to visit family and friends in Malaysia ๐Ÿ‡ฒ๐Ÿ‡พ, and one of our senior engineers, who recently went to Brazil ๐Ÿ‡ง๐Ÿ‡ท, didn’t mind too much about starting work in the late afternoon or early morning (respectively) to accommodate this.

    The future is adaptable

    Each team that works closely together is frequently fine-tuning their meetings and work practices to make sure they’re a good fit for everyone in the team. A team environment needs structure but also adaptability and we try to promote both. Our style of working, as mentioned above, highlights our core values around flexibility. In the future, things may change and our working practices may require further adjusting both as employee headcount grows but also as people’s expectations and wants/needs change. As a bold, ambitious and inclusive company, Orbital Witness aims to keep ahead of this curve by continuously speaking with current and future employees and adapting how we work best, while always putting first how we can maximise the value we deliver to our customers.