Following several months of stay-at-home orders, law firms in many areas are being allowed to reopen their physical offices to staff and clients. But what does that actually mean for operations?
Each bar association and law society will have its own criteria or guidelines for law firms considering reopening. It’s advisable that practice managers and partners deeply think about the needs of their practice and how they line up with public health guidelines. But assuming that your firm is moving forward with some degree of reopening, make sure you look at the following issues to minimize the risks of returning to the office.
Know your local and state rules
This goes beyond what your bar association recommends. The US and Canadian federal governments have provided some guidance for employers in handling the return to the workplace. In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) developed instructions on implementing employee testing and maintaining a safe workspace, while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has presented guidelines for employee privacy surrounding COVID-19.
State, provincial, and local public health departments also are providing guidelines that are informed by regional conditions. Given the wide range of responses on the state level, these institutions may be more instructive.
Review the WFH experience
Review the work from home experience for everyone. While your team started the stay-at-home period with certain expectations, the past several months will have given them an entirely new perspective. One challenge universal to working parents? Managing childcare, homeschooling, and caseloads.
This challenge won’t have disappeared just because restrictions are being lifted – many childcare options still aren’t available. A frank conversation with your team about how your firm can be supportive moving forward will be valuable for assessing how work-from-home setups could be improved, but also how at-the-office conditions can be optimized.
Consider staffing options
Remote work is the safest option for public health. But if you need to return to your physical offices, these options for reducing risk can be a big asset:
- Staggered or rotating staffing
- Flextime for staff
- Reduced days or hours at the office
Another option is to delay opening for an additional week or two. That extra time can allow your local coronavirus caseload to continue to decrease, which decreases your staff’s risks.
Plans for keeping everyone safe
Speaking of staff. Lots of people are jittery about going back to work. Understandably! The pandemic is ongoing and some communities are still seeing a high level of transmission.
Before requiring your staff to return to work, open the lines of communication with staff. Even an email that asks staff for input on their concerns and needs moving forward can help employers support workers in a meaningful way.
Preventing COVID-19 in your workplace
You absolutely need a written protocol in place for operational purposes. Your protocol should address the following points to ensure that you’re doing your part to keep staff healthy.
- Mask and personal protective equipment requirements
- Social distancing measures that include:
- Use of common spaces like the cafeteria, break rooms, and meeting rooms
- Desk and office arrangements
- Maximum number of staff allowed on a floor or in the building at a time
- Sanitization and hygiene practices
Some large firms or those in areas with high coronavirus caseloads should consider the feasibility of temperature scans or a self-reporting program for employees to reduce overall risk.
Both communication and operation departments should work closely on a plan to communicate this information to staff in a clear, consistent manner.
Managing client experience
COVID-19 has had a very real impact on how clients interact with their law office. If it is feasible, consider surveying your clients on your performance and their needs during this time. A survey helps your firm keep a client-centered approach to your services and position yourself better to help them.
While this survey can give you a broad perspective on client services, it can also inform decisions on how you approach in-person offerings.
Plan for future stay-at-home orders
While many people have adjusted to the “new normal” of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to bear in mind that situations can change at any time. If outbreaks occur or worsen in your community, it may be necessary to transition back to fully remote staff.
If this does occur, law firms have the benefit of already having run the gauntlet. If your firm takes the time to review the staff and client experience and make necessary adjustments, it will be far easier to make the transition on a second round. This should go beyond work from home setups and address larger issues of external communications, staffing, service areas, and other key operational points.
Returning to the office will be another big change for your staff and clients. To make sure it goes smoothly, good communication and a thorough plan that prioritizes safety can go a long way to building confidence among all parties. It’s just as important to take the time to examine this experience to make improvements for staff both now and in the future. As recent months have shown, you never know what may happen.
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