As if 2020 didn’t bring enough change… more is coming. The number of Americans getting vaccinated is rising daily, as mask mandates fall, prompting law firm decision-makers to ask, “What will the post-Covid workspace look like?” Will employees report back at full capacity, or partial? Will attendance protocols adopted over the past year remain for workers to clock-in off-site? And what about technology-use in relation to employee performance and firm security? Last spring, law firms scrambled for employees to work remotely from home, but for many, it was a short-term solution lacking long-term planning. As the possibility to return to the office appears, now is the time for owners, practice managers, and partners, to explore new standards as they consider what is best for employees, clients, the firm, and the bottom line.
The teeter-totter of opinion on work location has abruptly flipped from one side to the other since early 2020. For decades the “office” side of the children’s ride sat anchored to earth with the weight of tradition – everyone had a desk at the office. You worked there. It’s just what you did. Working from home was scorned, as “inferior.” It was a sub-par arrangement that took place when a child was sick, leaving others to wonder if their co-worker was camouflaging productivity, while really doing laundry and binging Netflix. But once Coronavirus bullied its way onto the playground, the teeter-totter ricocheted to the other side harder than those red, rubber balls that squished the skin during dodgeball. And much like those red rubber balls, it has left a mark. The question is: is the mark permanent?
Working from home is no longer viewed with skepticism. It became savior in 2020, in an effort to preserve life over possible death. The outcome of that sudden shift in opinion has been surprising. Many employers have found employees to be more productive, and even happier, as they embrace a healthier work/life balance. Employees are actually more productive when commutes run 60 seconds, rather than 60 minutes, as they accomplish additional tasks. Partners and business owners have discovered they’re able to monitor attendance and productivity from afar. (Such monitoring has also exposed those who are underperforming and flying under the radar.) Technology and apps are allowing owners and managers to blow out the four office walls for a world-wide expansion.
The tech industry continues to excel at supplying collaboration tools that have built the remote work environment. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and GoToMeeting have unified the workforce to brainstorm simultaneously from locations far and wide. Client meetings take place with members situated in living rooms, kitchens, make-shift cubicles and highly styled home offices.
Meanwhile, documents, data, and videos can now be securely shared at warp speed through Cloud technology. Cloud-based systems with document management allow for secure, instant access to firm data from any location and any device that has internet capability, 24/7, which has led to improved communication and collaboration. Cloud-based billing features ways for attorneys and staff to track time quickly, and accurately, from mobile devices. Managers can access up-to-the-minute performance metrics that can help improve the bottom line.
Administrative data, such as calendars, deadlines, matter lists, and contact information, has become a fingertip away, even when not on-site. Collectively, the Cloud is no longer the scary, luminous storm it once seemed.
Even with all of the new technology, programs, and protocol, the pull to return to a traditional M-F, 9-5, is strong for many, especially those longing for the team morale that comes with face-to-face interaction. While Zoom zoomed to the forefront in 2020, rapport and relationships molded under fire are unsurpassed in depth and trust. The immediacy of collective brainstorming, and synergy of ideas is heightened in person, often leading to more successful collaboration. When compared to the confidentiality of a closed-room, one-on-one with attorney and client, the Cloud can still fall short. The attorney/client privilege is so unique, it’s protected by law. Legal firms are among the businesses that actually rate much of their successes and failures with the ability to provide that “personal touch” to their clients.
The ABA Journal zeroed in on the complexity and importance the legal profession has traditionally placed on that face-to-face interaction in an recent article. Using data from the International Workplace Group, the ABA writes that prior to Covid, “more than half of professionals worked remotely at least half of the week.” Yet a 2019 ABA TechReport, found that roughly 70% to 90% of law firms primarily utilized traditional office spaces. (And that’s across all sizes, excluding solo firms, where approximately one-third were home-based.) It also cites Andrew Shaw, managing attorney of Shaw Divorce & Family Law in New Jersey, who believes that firms courting wealthy corporate clients will quickly return to “their downtown high-rises,” as well as firms with leaders, “who are uncomfortable with new technologies.”
No doubt, bulldozers of office-place opinion are carving a new playground prototype, as companies consider the cost of equipment and space (especially as leases renew). Do they really want to carry all of that overhead; is it necessary? Why maintain 20 desks and 20 computers, when 10 would suffice in a flexible workspace using a hybrid, work-schedule for staff? Now that employees have adapted so well working from home and seem happier, will bad attitudes erupt when forced to commute five days a week? Clock-in, clock-out. Clock-in, clock-out. Flexibility and consideration to personal workflow is evaporating like a spring shower mist on the four-square black-top. So, in weighing the pros and cons, what is a how does a law firm determine the right course of action?
The American Bar Association tackled the topic early-on, after the state-wide office shut-downs where panelists predicted a return won’t be “business as usual.” Summing up the event, the ABA cited panelist Janelle Edwards-Stewart, a lawyer with Porzio Bromberg & Newman PC in Morriston, New Jersey, writing, “Many law firms did not have remote-work policies in place when they had to abandon their offices as the pandemic hit. As a result, employers found themselves ‘making it up as they went along.’ But even those who did have plans will need to update them to reflect the changes ahead.”
In exploring the landscape for re-entry, another panelist, Anthony Kuchulis of Littler Mendelson PC in Portland, Oregon, advised firms to summarize and publicize all new policies and procedures with employees to prevent possible litigation. “Get things in writing and apply them systematically,” he said. “If it is written down and you have a coherent policy and you are taking reasonable steps to try to keep people safe, that’s going to go a long way.”
Right now, the playground has come alive with possibilities. The technology to sustain a secure and virtual law office not only exists but has become a necessity. The teeter-totter is perched perfectly upon its fulcrum and the wind is picking up. Which way the board tilts, is up to you.
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