Looking Ahead: Planning on heading back to the office

As we move into the seventh week of stay-at-home orders across the country, many professionals are wondering about what comes next. While no one is forecasting the end to the pandemic quite yet, part of the national conversation has turned to our eventual return to the workplace. 

Without a doubt, this topic carries uncertainty and worries for all workers. How can business owners mitigate fears while providing them with a workplace that is safe and in compliance with laws and regulations? What information do employees and clients need to safely reengage with a public working life?

Does remote work?

The legal industry has relied on face-to-face relationships and interactions in the past, but COVID-19 has given everyone a chance to reevaluate old ways of doing business. That includes, without a doubt, where we do it. 

While remote work has its challenges, it unquestionably provides greater flexibility. For staff (and clients), teleconferencing lets everyone work together without the stress of commutes. It allows staff in the demanding legal field more opportunities for work/life balance. For law firms, it decreases costs and can potentially expand their pool of applicants for future hires. 

Attorney Ian Friedman, a partner at the Friedman & Nemecek in Cleveland and president of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, suggests that his law firm may incorporate more opportunities for remote work.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Friedman said. “It could be something where you go into the office when you need to, and work from home when you don’t.”

There is no one answer but given how little we know about how the pandemic will resolve, it’s worth considering if your long-term strategy could support some level of remote work. The benefits might just be there for your employees, your clients, and your bottom line.

Protective gear and safety guidelines

Even if your firm builds work-from-home options into your plans, you’ll still need to consider your needs for an office environment. Don’t just focus on coworker proximity, washing hands, and other big-ticket concerns. You’ll also want to review things like safety protocols for deliveries, shared spaces like staff rooms, and client interactions. 

To make sure you’re fulfilling your responsibilities to your staff, your first step should be to consult with an employment lawyer about the local, state, and federal requirements for workplace safety during COVID-19. 

Once you’ve determined what you need to do to be in compliance, you need a communication plan for sharing that information with staff, both before reopening and as an ongoing measure to ensure safety. 

While understanding guidelines and communicating them with staff is necessary, don’t neglect sourcing appropriate protective gear and cleaning supplies. Given the national shortage of such items, plan these purchases well in advance so you aren’t scrambling when your office opens up. 

Reevaluate staffing

The spread of COVID-19 and the wide-scale national shutdown has resulted in massive layoffs and furloughs. Law firms haven’t been immune to this by any means. (With the exception, perhaps, of employment attorneys, perhaps.) 

Firms of all sizes have laid off, furloughed, and cut salaries in an attempt to keep their ships above water. Even if your firm hasn’t reduced staffing, the economic landscape isn’t pretty. Regardless, money’s probably a source of concern. 

So before announcing plans to reopen, make decisions about whether you’ll be bringing back laid off or furloughed employees. For those who aren’t coming back, consider how you can make the difficult experience more humane. Can you offer assistance with outplacement providers, career coaches, or an Employee Assistance Program?

Policies

The workplace that the staff is returning to is going to be different than the one they left. That’s not a big surprise to anyone.

But do your law firm’s policies reflect those changes? Your guiding documentation needs to address the wide-scale shift that has just happened. Codes of conduct, operational procedures, employee management, and any other documentation for staff and clients need to be updated in view of the realities of COVID-19.

One helpful resource in these times is a health and wellness policy that specifically covers COVID-19 and how it will impact your firm’s operations after reopening. Even if you’re considering ongoing remote work, this can be a helpful resource for staff, demonstrating your commitment to their wellbeing.

If you’re feeling anxious about reopening, that’s understandable. However, planning for this eventuality can make the move back to a public workplace an intentional and deliberate process. None of us can control everything, but we can help make our workplaces the best they can be for our staff and clients.

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