By Legal Futures’ Associates inCase 
This Spring, law firms across the UK have been preparing for the imminent challenges of a safe return to office life. As more law practices begin to welcome back their hibernating staff, it is becoming clear that finding the middle ground – where practicality and caution can coexist – requires not a compass but a set of scales. There are many opposing forces to balance up; physical logistics, workload demands, equality obligations, legislative workplace compliance, client expectations, all of which will require a collective effort (from a safe distance).
Offices have had more outbreaks of Covid-19 than any other workplace, according to Public Health England. Data obtained by the BBC showed that there were more than 500 confirmed or suspected Covid-19 outbreaks in offices in the second half of 2020 – more than in supermarkets, construction sites, warehouses, restaurants and cafés combined.
The pandemic opened the eyes of legal professionals to the technology that had previously only been floating in peripheral vision. The need to safeguard staff and clients during the Covid-19 outbreak meant evolution was no longer optional; accelerating years of digital adoption into weeks. Initially, there was undeniably a stressful period for firms, their teams, and their clients, while these new methods were absorbed by each stakeholder.
As months passed, the determination of the legal professionals to serve their clients proved more could be done with less. Efficiencies began rising, as previously in-person stages of the process were successfully adapted to online solutions. Working from home seemed to be a success in many cases. But the cost to individual well-being in the legal sector over this erratic period showed there was a delicate balance that would need to be found moving forward.
The Office 2.0
The legal profession is well-known as one of the most stressful and consuming of career choices. With solicitors seemingly conditioned for stress, the last year has tested even the most battle-scarred amongst the ranks. With many working valiantly from home, maintaining client trust and attending meetings via video calls, the temporary measures still felt isolating and unending.
Feeling together but alone is likely to linger even once offices are repopulated. Social distancing will undoubtedly remain a feature for the foreseeable future, and much of the advice centres around the need to retain the 2-meter rule/wear face coverings where appropriate. This will continue to magnify the disconnect in every working environment, disguising body language to make empathy almost indiscernible.
A Balanced Approach
Today there is a unique opportunity to manage the move back to the office much more gradually with key efficiencies in mind. By balancing practical necessity with tailored sensitivity, it will be possible to make this next stage far less traumatic than the culture shock experienced across the board last Spring.
In a recent survey by inCase, law professionals were asked about the prospect of returning to work and what aspects were of most immediate importance. The top response was retaining the option to work from home. 62% of respondents hoped to retain some flexibility within their role post-Covid-19. Proving that while being confined at home has undoubtedly been difficult, the lack of separation between work and life has perhaps caused people to prioritise their work/life balance going forward.
There are practical concerns that must be addressed when creating the roadmap back to the office. With not only physical precautions, but also mental safeguards given serious consideration before staff can be invited back.
Policies and risk assessments will need to be updated to make provisions for occupational health issues such as; fatigue, mental health and depression. These policies will have to mitigate not only these increasingly common risks but also exposure to infectious diseases. More than that, these policies will become the pivotal starting point of each firm’s recovery and form the foundation for future preparedness. The short-term and long-term goals will undeniably intersect as these plans are drawn up. It is essential to build-in measures that will cushion the impact of any future outbreak or unforeseeable disaster.
Even though progress is being made, the legal sector has created its own barriers to addressing and resolving mental health issues within the workplace. Excessive hours are the norm, with complicated cases creating an expectation to deliver, the stress and anxiety levels have an exponential trajectory. Now adding on top of all that a global pandemic, the pressure on lawyers, paralegals and solicitors has potentially reached a tipping point. The cumulative effect of too many video calls, underlying domestic tensions, isolation from colleagues, and previously undisclosed depression has driven a real need for a collective effort to manage not only a smooth return to the office but also for recognition of this communal trauma.
The number of legal professionals contacting the charity LawCare for emotional support continues to rise year on year, with 738 legal professionals seeking help in 2020, a rise of 9% on the previous year.
The charity received 964 calls, webchats, and emails to their support service in 2020. The most common problems cited were stress (23%), anxiety (15%), bullying (10%), depression (10%) and worries about career development (10%). The number of people contacting LawCare experiencing anxiety has seen the biggest increase – from 45 people in 2019 to 111 last year. There were also practical issues related to childcare, relationship strain, redundancy or inability to find a job (including job offers made before COVID being withdrawn) and financial concerns. LawCare also heard from legal professionals being asked to work while furloughed.
By blending government advice with internal advice from HR managers, it is the perfect time to create a talent-centric workplace (if this was not the case before). With flexible working delivering agile working solutions, it could be worth building these options into future employment policies. Demonstrating a forward-thinking approach will also be a crucial factor in talent attraction and retention, inevitably culminating in quantifiable efficiencies in the decades ahead.
Protecting human capital on every level protects spreadsheet projections well into the future. Working with every stakeholder to survey the people and spaces now will be an invisible insurance policy that pays for itself tomorrow.
The UK Government’s basic advice still remains the same:
- Arrange workspaces to keep staff apart – consider using barriers to separate people and introduce back-to-back or side-by-side working.
- Reduce face-to-face meetings – encourage calls or video conferences to avoid in-person meetings with external contacts or colleagues outside someone’s immediate team, wherever possible.
- Reduce crowding – consider how many people can be in each space while remaining socially distant, consider using booking systems for desks or rooms and reduce the maximum occupancy for lifts.
- Communicate and train – make sure all staff and visitors are kept up-to-date with the safety measures.
Translating the guidance into a coherent strategy for each firm to work with, will likely begin with rigorous risk assessments that build on current health and safety standards. The need for technology that could overcome physical distance and/or ease mental stressors drove innovation throughout the pandemic. The uptake of online communication solutions has been a necessary and overdue step for many firms. Technology solutions, such as those offered by inCase have seen a surge in adoption. The inCase mobile app allows solicitors and clients to send, receive and manage documents remotely and securely; and being able to upload forms and electronically sign documents has reduced stress and expedited legal processes successfully for many stakeholders throughout the pandemic.
Issues that will commonly need to be considered in any revised post-Covid-19 risk assessments:
- The maximum number of people who can be safely accommodated on site.
- Plan for a phased return to work, staggering start times / break times.
- One way system, separate entrance / exit.
- Manage hotdesking carefully, consider screens, increase ventilation
- Continuation of video meetings to minimise the risks to the individuals and teams.
- Remove shared kitchenware, encourage staff to bring in own food and beverages.
- In larger firms with canteens, consider zoning for groups, cashless payments, position hand sanitising dispensers at entrance, exit and tables.
- Minimise work related travel – journeys in and off-site, out of area stays.
As new policies are being crafted to resume safe working in an office environment, those who cannot reasonably continue working from home will need to be offered consistent, regular communication. A period of reintroduction can be anticipated to allow staff to become comfortable with the new measures. Processes will need to be documented and discussed, with an expectation of feedback being applied to future decision making. By consulting with staff, decide who can safely come into the office and consider extending flexible working requests on a case-by-case basis.
If you consider that your staff should come into the office, then this will need to be reflected in your COVID-19 risk assessment and actions taken to manage the risks of transmission in line with this guidance. It’s vital that employers engage with their staff to make sure that they feel safe returning to work, and they should not force anyone into an unsafe workplace.
It would be wise to pause and review the firm holistically at this critical moment. Flexible working offered an opportunity to pivot during difficult circumstances, retaining an open mind could significantly boost future productivity. But those that drive these changes forward must be protected from burnout as much as disease. Using digital tools can reduce delays and frustrations without decreasing billable hours. It is the ideal time to review what the practice needs long-term and short-term, from top to bottom. So that whatever the next crisis looks like, your firm will be ready to respond with flexible working options, agile thinking, and a seamless digital gear change.