The past few months have greatly tested everyone’s patience, and as the coronavirus outbreak shows significant signs of slowing down, many lawyers are eager to re-open their offices as soon as possible. But, the decision of when to open your office doors again for staff and clients should not be made hastily. It must be done safely, and lawyers must first make sure state officials are allowing law offices in their area to re-open, and from there do proper research on what degree they’re allowed to re-open and what rules and restrictions they must adhere to if they do.
Once the decision to re-open is placed fully in your hands, you’ll still want to take some time to consider whether opening your office now is the right decision for your practice. Is it worth navigating potential health risks? Could your firm be successful in the coming months operating in a virtual manner? For some these questions may sound silly, but it’s worth mentioning that some of America’s biggest companies, such as Google, Amazon, and Twitter are allowing employees to work from home for the foreseeable future.
There’s no universal correct answer for when law firms should be getting back to their office, as every practice is dealing with different staffs of people, different environmental circumstances and different financial situations. The decision must ultimately be made by the leaders of each individual firm, and in this law practice management blog post, we’ll lay out some things to consider when determining whether or not now is the right time to begin your reopening process.
Has my firm’s ability to serve clients suffered while working remotely?
By now all lawyers should be at least somewhat familiar with using video chat software. Over the past few months it’s been the main way most of the working world has gotten together for staff and client meetings. Managing attorneys should also have a pretty good idea by now if communicating via video chat is working well for their practice. If the lawyers at your firm seem to be embracing video communication, and your clients actually prefer meeting from the comfort of their home, there may be less urgency to re-open your office right away. If the opposite is true, you may not be able to afford to stay closed much longer. Take the time to talk with your staff to see what they’ve thought about their work experience these past few months, and use their feedback to make a more educated decision. If possible, ask some recent clients for their thoughts as well.
Do we have the space and resources to create a work environment people will feel safe in?
If your staff is used to working in close quarters, you will likely have a lot of maneuvering to do with your office layout before workers are able to return. While quarantine rules are gradually becoming more relaxed, social distancing in public settings is still a high priority. Workers still must be six feet apart at all times, so you’ll need to head to your office ahead of time to measure out new seating arrangements. You may find a need for certain employees to change offices, or for conference room meetings to only include a certain number of people at a time. If you’re hoping to have clients back at the office, you’ll need to make space for them too, and have spacious areas in place for meeting with them at a safe distance. You’ll also need to have things ready like protective masks, hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies and tools for daily temperature checks, in order to ensure employees are entering a truly safe and regulated work environment.
Who will help me conduct and oversee a safe re-opening?
Lawyers will have their hands full with cases over the next few months, and likely won’t have enough time to monitor all of their staff closely during the reopening process, especially if their firm employs a large number of people. The New York State Bar Association recently released a guide for law firms re-opening their offices, and in it they suggest offices assemble a re-opening transition team. Some of the basic duties of this proposed team would be to monitor oversight of the firm’s re-opening plan and implementation, establish internal policies and procedures for those transitioning from remote work back to the workplace, and field basic questions and concerns. All reopening law firms would be wise to make their own transition teams, featuring some of the leading figures at their practice, and make it clear to staff who they can turn to for COVID-19 related queries. Your transition team should meet frequently under the supervision of those in charge of the firm to make sure everything is going to plan, and discuss what can be improved upon.
Should all of my staff come back at once?
In order to ensure the re-opening process goes smoothly, law firms may want to consider bringing their employees back in waves. For example, the first week of a law office re-opening could include only 40 percent of the staff, while the other 60 percent continues to work remotely. Firms may want to take a gradual reopening approach to see how their social distancing and safety preparations play out amongst a smaller group in an easier to control setting. Think of it almost as a test run. This may be a useful strategy for firms that want to start the re-opening process, but need more time to create space for certain staff members. As the weeks go on, firms can gradually increase the number of workers who return to the office, and reach full capacity when they feel fully confident they can handle it.
How will the decision to re-open now impact staff morale?
While the answers to a lot of these questions may vary from firm-to-firm, the answers to this question will likely vary from employee-to-employee. You may find a lot of your staff members are going crazy working in their house, and will be thrilled to come back to the office. Others might be hesitant to move forward with re-opening so soon, and will have serious concerns about returning to the office with no vaccine for the coronavirus available. Chances are your staff will be divided on whether now is the right time for them to get back to the office, and the best thing you can do is give your employees options. Encourage people to come back to work when they feel they’re ready, but don’t make it mandatory right away. Be respectful of people’s concerns, especially those who are at high risk of COVID-19 infection or have family members at high risk. Being understanding will go a long way during this time.
Should certain staff members continue working remotely permanently?
The answer to this question may ultimately end up being no, but it’s definitely worth thinking about. Perhaps you’ve found out during this pandemic that certain employees at your firm are a lot less stressed and more productive working from home than they are at the office. Maybe some staff members who are high performers but tend to create friction in group environments, could be better off working from a remote location moving forward. Maybe you save a ton of money by having certain departments operate from home. Often necessity is the mother of invention, and you may find that your practice runs a lot more efficiently with certain people not returning to the office. The term “new normal” gets overused a lot these days, but you’ll want to take the time to carefully consider what your practice’s new normal will be moving forward, and explore all available options.
We hope the law practice management advice in this post will be useful to all law firms considering re-opening. If interested in investing in a virtual receptionist service to assist with your reopening process, you can learn more here.