By Legal Futures Associate inCase 
The Government set out a step-by-step plan in February to ease restrictions in England during the Covid-19 pandemic. Step 4 of this roadmap plan began on 19th July, by highlighting the need to continue being cautious as we managed the ongoing risks of the virus. It was later stated on the Government’s website, updated on 27th August, that everything hadn’t returned to normal and further guidance for offices and businesses would follow in Step 5. Scotland; Wales, and Northern Ireland were expected to create their own strategies on how they dealt with the pandemic.
As part of Step 4, the Government no longer asked people in England to work from home, if they could return to the office, and legal businesses began to plan how this could happen in practice. Including holding consultations with employees, and trade unions. The Government also provided some guidance in relation to risk assessments; ventilation in the workplace; regular cleaning, and so on.
Finding the best option for your legal business
On the face of it, all this sounds fairly straightforward. However a lot has changed in the past 18 months, since we began dealing with the effects of the pandemic. Not least the expectations and attitude of some employees towards working from home, having seen the advantages of no longer suffering a lengthy, or difficult commute. Possibly too being able to juggle their work-life balance more easily. Whilst a number of legal partners and business owners have become more amenable to the idea of a permanent remote working culture. Following the changes to policies and procedures they were obliged to make, which may have involved purchasing additional software or technology – to ensure that the speed and efficiency of their solicitors and other legal staff were maintained while working from home. Along with a high level of customer service, and profitability.
The updated Law Society Guide of 13th May, 2021: “Practical Framework for Law Firms and Sole Practitioners on Return to the Office ,” gives an overview of what led to the current situation we are now in at Step 4. It also acts as a reminder that employment law practices, including equality and discrimination provisions; health and safety requirements, and the General Data Protection Regulations need to be borne in mind when creating any new policies. As many of us are now doing for a full return to the office, or a new hybrid arrangement involving some remote work.
Nevertheless, the best option for the majority of businesses in creating this “new normal” remains unclear. Especially since the safety of employees and clients must be the paramount consideration throughout. Scientific experts have already warned that we may be facing a difficult winter ahead. As the United Kingdom continues to suffer the effects of the coronavirus and cases are still increasing. Does this mean there may be a possibility that offices will be asked to close again? Obviously, this remains to be seen but it may be useful, as part of the current decision-making process, to look at how others followed the earlier steps in the Government’s roadmap.
Learning from experience
As the pandemic progressed, a lot of firms reached the point where the majority of their employees could work from home. Even though this came with its challenges. Not least meeting clients’ expectations. Although talking with others on Zoom or other similar platforms did become a regular occurrence, personally and professionally. The delivery drivers; dogs, and children starring in online meetings are countless. But which I suspect was considered acceptable by most, given the difficult circumstances all of us were in.
Conversely, employees were able to work the hours which suited them best and may have found it easier to fit this into their personal lives. Helping to make the job seem less stressful. Not surprisingly a large number wish now to carry on doing so. From a manager’s point of view, it’s generally accepted that the more difficult we make an employee’s life, the less commitment we can expect from him or her. So this is certainly something which needs to be borne in mind. It is also of necessity a trust issue. The paralegal or solicitor who might have stayed at home because of illness will often do some work that day if there is a set-up to allow this, and he or she feels valued.
Technology played an important part in legal businesses being ready for remote working. Accounting processes and data had to be easily accessible by staff at home, and stored in case management systems designed for remote access. A central scanning procedure for mail was also needed. The inCase mobile app , for example, allowed solicitors and clients to send; receive, and manage documents remotely and securely. Forms could easily be uploaded to the system and documents electronically signed. Again this made the process less stressful, and helped to speed up legal procedures throughout the pandemic. Many practices had already made these changes to facilitate home working before experiencing the effects of Covid, and they are still available in moving forward to Step 5.
A transition period
As you may have already found, a transition phase for getting people back to their desks in a brick and mortar office can prove helpful. Whilst implementing a specially designed procedure to facilitate this. Earlier this year top City firms were cautiously preparing to fully reopen their offices with desk-booking apps; flexible working pilots, and weekly team meetings. Some decided to allow a more gradual return to full-time desk work, and others a permanent remote working option. Or to use the summer as a trial period, to see how well flexible start and finish times might be, and enable employees to reschedule their working hours to early morning or late evening. Including the option to book a desk or meeting room within the office.
Also having an online schedule of how the return to the office will take place can help employees become fully aware of the effect of any changes, and what your expectations are regarding their role in the future. Whilst maintaining regular contact with them from the start of any new policy or procedure, and encouraging regular meetings online. Whether these are for the whole team, or separate individual calls. Checking in with employees once a week at least. Holding an event that will persuade them to come into the office might be a good idea. Similarly asking for feedback during this transition period, and adjusting your working policy if required. Making employees feel that they are involved so far as possible in the decision-making process can be empowering, and increase their loyalty to the business and you.
The value of flexibility
In an earlier survey by inCase , law professionals were asked how they felt about returning to the office. 62% of those who responded indicated that they wished to keep some flexibility in their role. In a recent poll, again conducted by inCase on LinkedIn , legal professionals were asked what they would do if there was no longer a work from home or hybrid option available.
24% said that they would go back to the office; a further 24% said they would try to change HR’s opinion on this, and 51% intended to look for a new flexible role.
There is little doubt that flexibility will play an important part in the success of return to work policies adopted by legal businesses, and which take into account not only the rights but needs of employees. Optimising the means by which they can communicate regularly with partners; managers, and HR departments regarding safe working practices. All of which need to be fully documented and discussed, with any feedback duly considered. Listening to an employee’s views on going back to the office is an important part of a Covid-19 risk assessment.
If a solicitor; paralegal, or case handler is achieving the same standard of work as before; profitability, and good customer service; then the risk of alienating him or her by being inflexible may be worth bearing in mind. If he or she prefers to work from home, or use a hybrid system. Some firms have changed their approach from a compulsory return for this particular reason. Whilst also offering a desk in an office to those finding it difficult at home can prove to be beneficial for individual career progression, or another employee’s mental wellbeing.
What the future holds
A time of change offers opportunity, and in this case, for legal businesses to look at what they need and would prefer in the short and long term. So whatever the next crisis might be, managers will be well equipped to deal with the fallout from it. The possibility of permanent flexible working options being only one of their tools. What is clear is that more changes will be on the horizon, and if Covid-19 has shown us anything it has to be that the unexpected can happen at any time. However, that’s not to say we can’t have our own contingency plan or strategy in place to deal with whatever “it” might be.
Finally, Step 5 in the road map remains on the horizon, and Boris Johnson’s intention to assess how prepared we are for the approaching autumn and winter. Whether the Government will need to continue with or strengthen business guidance, and review the remaining regulations. Clearly, we are not yet done in our attempts to create, and return to a new normal. The question now is how do you perceive yours? With employees being given more control of their work environment, or as little choice as possible. Either way it’s a difficult decision to make, and one that may take time to get right. Since the success of either strategy ultimately depends on the managers, and employees of a legal business.