Firms need to be prepared with the right safeguards for those on-site and the right technology to bridge physical distance for those who continue to work remotely.
In the new normal since the Coronavirus, it is expected that 80% of lawyers and professionals will do some work via their smartphones. This statistic is indicative of a trend that we expect to continue for many years to come — the legal industry, like so many others, must embrace a remote workforce.
To ensure effective collaboration across hybrid-teams, firms need to be prepared with the right safeguards for those on-site and the right technology to bridge physical distance for those who continue to work remotely.
Preparing for the Return of On-Site Employees
For employees returning to the office in the coming weeks, safety is a top priority and collaboration, even for those together in shared physical spaces, will look very different.
Before having employees return, consider distributing electronic RTO (Return To Office) questionnaires that all employees must complete. The questionnaire should be brief and include questions such as:
- Are you exhibiting any of the following symptoms: fever, cough, shortness of breath?
- Was your temperature above 100.4 degrees within the last 12 hours?
- Have you been in contact with anyone exhibiting these symptoms in the past 14 days?
- To your knowledge, have you been in contact with anyone with a confirmed case of COVID-19?
Collecting these questionnaires electronically should make it easy to protect identities and maintain the documents. It may be necessary to have employees complete these on a regular basis (bimonthly, monthly, or quarterly).
As team members return to the office, it may make sense to provide each employee with a “Return To Office” kit that includes a reusable mask, office procedures (which include ramifications for non-compliance), hand sanitizer, addiction and suicide hotlines, and EAP (Employee Assistance Program) contact information. When appropriate, provide information about local bicycle share providers and other transportation alternatives to public transportation. This will take some of the pressure off the human resources department.
Depending on the size of the firm (number of employees and offices), it may be prudent to employ a wellness director or assign these duties to a member of the firm. RTO policies and questionnaires may change as the environment and health advisories evolve; having a single person or dedicated team that can monitor and make modifications to policies as necessary, can be incredibly helpful.
In the office, shared spaces may need to be reconfigured (or closed entirely) to limit the number of employees in a single area at any given time. We recently explored some of these considerations in our dedicated article on Returning to the Office. With this change, both on-site and remote employees will need to leverage technology for effective collaboration with all employees.
Equipping Teams with the Right Technology
When working remotely, it is critical to have collaboration tools in place, such as Zoom or GoToMeeting, that are trusted and understood by all employees. Additionally, your team will need to adjust mentally and emotionally to a hybrid environment in which they’ll be working both remotely and face-to-face. Expect and prepare for this new environment to be less collaborative and engaging.
In addition to programs that facilitate virtual meetings, firms should consider:
- VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) Phones so clients and business partners need only enter one phone number for calls to be routed to employees’ cell phones, when needed.
- A Robust Cloud-Based Legal Practice Management System that gives authorized personnel the ability to access matter-related data from the office or home.
- Cloud-Based Document Management that provides staff members, business partners and clients with the ability to access select documents remotely.
Unless a firm has a full service IT department, equipment, and robust backup and disaster recovery procedures, it may make sense not only to move data into the cloud but to also use a comprehensive legal practice management software that will integrate documents, calendars, time entries, and client data into/onto one platform. When multiple platforms are used, they must work together seamlessly.
Even if a firm has a full-service IT department, the preferred method will be maintaining documents and data in an organized manner in a secure cloud environment.
With remote employees, you may wish to implement a paperless policy and require strict compliance. This will vary according to the types of business or areas of practice involved. A robust document management system and a reliable cloud provider are essential to properly achieve this.
Making the Case for the Investment
Implementing new systems may result in an initial investment. This investment should be viewed as both strategic and tactical. Firms must recognize that remote work is now essential and has been embraced by much of the workforce.
Up-to-date document management systems and cloud-based legal practice management providers are now necessary tools of the trade. In this environment, these costs come with some added benefits. Working remotely, the workforce has already become more efficient and technically savvy. And by implementing current and reliable applications, a firm can better recruit more qualified employees.
Keep in mind also, that under these new guidelines, it is expected that employment and facilities costs will decrease while marketing and technology-related costs will increase (as a function of revenue).
Working remotely, the workforce has already become more efficient and technically savvy. And by implementing current and reliable applications, a firm can better recruit more qualified employees.
Policies to Keep Your Firm and Data Secure
Remote work policies must be very detailed yet flexible. Due to the uncertain environment, these policies will be subject to change, so design them to be easily updated. All employees and appropriate business partners should receive and approve a copy of these policies; all new employees should receive, read and approve these policies prior to employment.
Policies regarding office operations should be sent to all employees and business partners. Business partners who routinely visit offices must be included in all policies so they are aware of what is required. It is expected that more firms will outsource not only IT departments, but also administrative support so all of these newly established business partners need to be aware of office policies, too. Again, this can be done easily, remotely, and confidentially. Policies should be circulated routinely as situations change. Informing insurance providers of these procedures may be a good idea, as well since it may reduce various insurance premiums.
Many law firm leaders were in management positions during the 2008 great recession. To survive, they learned that in a crisis, procedural changes need to be made. Firms that do not react properly to the new environment caused by the Coronavirus may risk losing business or lessening the longevity of their firm.
Leaders seem to be reacting more diligently now than they did in the crisis of 2008, researching their options prior to making any strategic changes. They should, however, expect to find strategic changes necessary to maintain a productive practice in today’s environment.
Written by CARET Legal partner, Gail Ruopp. Gail Ruopp has acquired more than 25 years of professional experience in senior law firm management, initiating best practices in administrative operations, including: financials, accounting, lateral recruiting, personnel, day-to-day operations, systems management, and firm marketing.