This year, many law firms were forced to temporarily shutter their offices and required staff to work from home. Although many professional services businesses are beginning to reopen and are recalling employees back to the office, COVID-19 infection rates could potentially spike to spring levels again this fall. Now is the time to prepare for another possible round of remote working that will be critical for business continuity. Several issues in particular warrant attention.
As many firms learned the hard way during the shelter at home, it is one thing to work from home for a few days with professional colleagues and support staff in the office. The situation gets more complicated when working remotely for a prolonged period of time, when predominantly all professionals and administrative staff are scattered in their own homes.
It is essential that attorneys and support staff have sufficient equipment and technology to work efficiently away from the office. Their workstation set-up at home should be similar to their configuration at the office, including having multiple monitors, an integrated camera and microphone, a scanner and printer, high-speed internet and a separate telephone line, etc. In addition to reliable devices with adequate capacity, they need the appropriate communication tools (for example, Microsoft Teams, Slack and video-conferencing applications like Zoom or WebEx), access to cloud storage and the ability to use digital signatures on vital documents. Of course, you also must ensure that strong cybersecurity and security measures are in place.
Need for flexibility
The right technology allows a firm to operate remotely to be agile. But your firm must be flexible enough to accommodate unusual circumstances. Many remote workers are not alone in their homes or may not even have separate office spaces — they might have spouses, children and pets with them. Management needs to accept that employees face competing pressures and may handle them in different ways. For example, spouses with small children at home may work staggered work schedules throughout the day, from early morning through late at night.
Some experts suggest normalizing these new work environments to help colleagues better understand one another’s circumstances. Participants on a video conference might, for example, give a quick virtual tour of their current working space and warn about potential distractions. It can help to know that someone is silent because he has muted his line to spare everyone the sound of his barking dog or crying child, not because he disagrees with a proposal.
Everyone adapts differently. Do not assume that brilliant legal minds will quickly adapt to new technology or easily acclimate to online meetings and messaging apps that they did not customarily use in the office. Advanced training is important. You do not want to learn about your staff’s struggles with certain applications especially when they need them the most.
Instead, provide easily accessible training materials, such as webinars, online tutorials and user guides, in a centralized location. Contemplate making participation mandatory, with a way to “skip ahead” for those who are already proficient. Consider multiple small group trainings or even one-on-one instruction with screen sharing capabilities.
While significant amounts of legal work can be accomplished remotely, the practice of law still depends, in some ways, on a mentor and apprenticeship approach. Mentoring and face-to-face contact play an important role in nurturing talent at law firms.
Rather than focusing solely on the work to be done, consider ways to foster personal interactions. Do not count on impromptu interactions to accomplish this. Instead, schedule regular video meetings that include the entire team. This should include time for personal updates and social interaction to replace the “water cooler talk.” Many firms schedule virtual lunch meetings and online happy hours to bolster community and camaraderie.
Keep an eye out
Professionals are slowly returning to their offices, but working remotely remains a preference for many. It could, once again, become a requirement. Law firms should continue to regularly review virtual work situations to identify gaps and potential problems that have arisen. By making adjustments, you can improve the experience for attorneys, staff and clients.
For more information, contact Joel Herman at [email protected] or 312.670.7444. Visit ORBA.com to learn more about our Law Firm Group.