Return to the office. This year, next year, never?
A guest blog from Symphony Legal.
Working during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging, especially for those law firms that have long resisted remote working. They had to move quickly to find ways to support a fully remote workforce while still delivering a great service to their clients. This has meant looking at what tools were already at their disposal and the technology they needed to invest in.
The results of this shift to remote working have been mixed. For some individuals, the experience has been a revelation, allowing them to achieve a better work-life balance amongst other benefits. But there are those who have struggled with it and who would welcome a return to the office.
Now, following months of millions of people in the UK working remotely, the government is encouraging people to return to the office. This presents businesses with a new challenge – whether to re-open their offices and, if so, how to go about it.
Whilst most law firms are set up in broadly the same way, each office will be different in terms of the space that is available to allow for social distancing and ensuring staff are kept safe. It is therefore essential for management teams to think carefully about the best approach to take for their team and their clients, to ensure that can provide a safe, effective working environment.
The following are five key things law firms need to think about when planning a return to their office:
- Adopting a hybrid work model
Many larger firms have announced new policies that are designed to give employees the option to return to the office or continue remote working for the foreseeable future. This gives employees the flexibility to return to the office only if they are comfortable and ready. Additionally, having a smaller number of staff return to the office can help with follow social distancing regulations and, ultimately, reduce the spread of COVID-19.
- A rota system
Implementing a rota for who is in the office and when can give every member of staff the opportunity to work from home and from the office every week. This helps with face-to-face interactions between colleagues, which is important for teams to work effectively together, while also limiting the total number of in-office staff at any given time. But you do run the risk of having one whole section of your team becoming infected and thus needing to quarantine at the same time.
Maintaining communication with remote workers is essential. It is unfortunately too easy to allow communication to reduce on an ongoing basis and there is no easy way to replace the ‘social’ interaction that occurs in the office. Your firm will have established its identity through the daily interaction between colleagues and this is a big factor in any firm’s culture. This level of interaction is simply not easy to replace, and whilst staff have settled into video calls, it does not replace the day-to-day office-based interaction e.g. the so called ‘water cooler’ moments.
Firms really need to focus on:
- Virtual team building events such as PlymouthPoint or Play At Home
- Social events (even if it’s just a Zoom call)
- Supervisors travelling to see staff (particularly junior lawyers), socially distanced of course!
- Ad hoc daily catch ups
- Maximising use of your firm’s intranet or instant messaging tools to communicate with staff
- Formal and informal supervision
Being involved in live and real-time conversations and being able to overhear them, enables staff to pick up important points and learn in a way that is very hard to replicate in a firm which has remote workers. A phone can be picked up or an email sent, but it is simply not the same. It is very difficult, if not impossible to recreate this positive aspect of office life, but firms will need to try by encouraging their staff to ask questions, set aside regular times in the day for questions and team meetings.
With that in mind, firms need to consider adopting a more rigorous formal approach and, for compliance purposes, be able to evidence that supervision is being carried out and managed effectively.
A few ideas to help with this include:
- Regular peer-to-peer audit
- Establishing alerts for supervisory touch points on files
- Case planners (tailored to each area of practice) provides a firm with a clear and visible document that sets out the path of a case which can be so useful for supervisors particularly when it comes to remote supervision
- Full use of the case management system – this is important as it provides visibility and control and supervisors must ensure staff use the system as directed
If you are considering remote working as part of your long-term strategy (and why wouldn’t you after the last few months?), your insurer and the SRA will expect to see robust controls in place and that lawyers at all levels are able to comply in the same way as they would in the office.
- Client relationships
The need to maintain and grow clients is more important than ever. Law firms need to re-evaluate how they approach client relationships and look at the individual priorities of their clients. Focus on building long-term trust through actions consistent with your customer’s needs, clear messages about the firm’s intentions and purposes and going the extra distance for your most valuable customers. Those firms who demonstrate empathy are able to understand their client’s needs and go beyond just offering legal advice but also become a go to trusted advisor.
With face to face meetings now a thing of the past it’s important to accelerate investment in digital channels and tools while at the same time maximise current digital resources. Keeping your clients informed about existing and future digital innovations will help you support them better, and as a firm you are prepared to adapt to ensure their needs are serviced faster and better. Monitoring how clients are using these tools and this data will help you to continually develop a positive client experience. And of course, ask clients and employees for their feedback, using surveys, follow up calls and online portals.
Providing a better service may retain clients but to attract new business consider revising terms and conditions, offering flexible pricing that reflects market dynamics, and perhaps consider whether your brand and product offering need to be revisited.
Companies that take the time to invest both digitally and strategically in clients will no doubt find themselves in position of strength in time to come.
Overall, we live in complex times and there is no one-size fits all way of doing things. We have seen at least one firm go fully ‘virtual’ already. And doubtless there will be more as firms realise, they just do not need the same amount of office space over the next few years as they have today.
The crucial thing is to spend some time thinking about what will work best for your team and your clients. To achieve this, it is important to have open, honest conversations with people internally and externally to be clear about their expectations. You can then work together to develop a back-to-the-office strategy that fits your firm.
And remember, in these uncertain times, with the situation changing on a regular basis, it is understandable to find this difficult and to need some help. Our team are working with law firms all over the country, so have a keen insight into what different firms are trying, the challenges they are facing and the solutions that are working. We’d be happy to share this with you and your firm to help you through this difficult transition.
So, if you need any help please contact Vidisha Joshi, Strategy and Operations Consultant at Symphony Legal.