Back from upheaval: Reshaping a post-COVID workforce

April 19, 2021

If there’s one unexpected outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a new perspective on how we work. Now, just as the legal workforce has adjusted to working remotely, we need to start preparing for a safe and gradual return to physical offices.

This transition was the central theme of the recent Sandpiper Partners’ “Working Differently” roundtable. The panelists, including Williams Lea’s CEO Clare Hart, discussed strategies to address this transition, from creating vaccination policies to managing a hybrid workforce. Real-time polls were also conducted to take the pulse of both panelists and attendees around pressing topics.

Here are the key takeaways from the event:

Operational hurdles

“The COVID-19 vaccination policy is a daily discussion. We are trying to figure out what makes the most sense in terms of return-to-work policies,” said one panelist. In fact, when asked during our live polling if their firm has issued vaccination policies, 71% of participants said their firms were still deciding.

The vaccine has become a gateway for people to return to the office, but law firm leaders still must contend with certain struggles: Will you ask for proof of vaccination or rely on the honor system? How do you deal with employees that don’t want to be vaccinated? If you decide to implement workplace-based COVID-19 testing, how often are you going to test employees?

Some law firms are taking more proactive and innovative approaches, including, creating a task force dedicated to looking into vaccinations and testing. Some firms are even partnering with epidemiologists for information and guidance.

Vaccination policies aren’t the only operational hurdles law firms are facing. With remote working becoming a permanent fixture (one panelist described it as “a perk in this war for talent”), transition plans should also include new policies for hybrid work arrangements and take into account tax implications, payroll concerns, and state-specific employment laws. However, when asked via live polling if their firm had issued new working policies, only 13% said their firm had, and 76% said their firm was still working on a formal policy.

The “culture” narrative

More than 60% of real-time poll respondents said that culture was the biggest challenge of remote working. After all, a hybrid workforce, with fewer meetings and face-to-face interactions, makes it more challenging to embrace culture. [READ: Culture vs. clients in law firms: Which is more important?]

Culture is what connects employees – lawyers and support staff alike – with the law firm’s purpose and values. Each workplace culture is unique and dynamic, evolving as it responds to internal and external forces. As firms rebuild their culture in a post-pandemic setting, they are focusing more on wellbeing, engagement and inclusion.

When it comes to supporting employees’ mental and emotional wellbeing, one panelist said, “Hybrid arrangements cause a different kind of stress. You have to be ready to respond to these needs.” This panelist’s firm, for instance, has counseling on demand, allowing their employees to connect with counselors in real time.

Employee engagement, training and inclusion come with their own challenges. Law firms are based on an apprenticeship model, and a hybrid workplace makes it more difficult to organically develop relationships with clients and partners. “Law firms need to be thoughtful about how they give assignments and the way they offer training,” one panelist advised. “We should think about how we help employees engage with each other. If a meeting or training session has in-person, video and dial-in participants we need to make sure all can participate equally.

It’s also important to keep on gathering information, listening to employee feedback, and adjusting approaches and strategies over time. From this experience, law firms will be able to develop their own collaboration strategies and guidance on how to best collaborate in a hybrid setting.

Strong cybersecurity for remote, hybrid work

A remote or hybrid workforce presents a host of cybersecurity risks: Phishing schemes, weak access control, unencrypted file sharing, and more. “We’re talking about two different workplaces, and people tend to be a little lax when they are at home,” one panelist pointed out.

Law firms should have a strong framework for information governance. Documents and tools must comply with InfoSec requirements. Regular training and communication on how to prevent data leakage and cyber breaches are also crucial to stay vigilant.

When it comes to physical documents being printed, remote or hybrid workers might warrant security-level shredders so confidential information can be properly disposed. Employees should also ensure that their insurance covers a home office.

“Pay attention to security,” Clare Hart, Williams Lea’s CEO, warns. “Make sure your team is strong, you’re being rigorous about data security, and you’re partnering with companies that are as equally intense when it comes to cybersecurity.”

Opportunities abound

The pandemic caused massive business disruption and while firms have had to adapt, they can also use it as an opportunity to change long-standing habits.

“Reimagine your business strategy,” said one panelist. “AFA, value-based billing, outsourcing to third-party providers – now is the time!”

“There’s been a significant increase in the number of firms asking about outsourcing, especially since it’s been proven that secretaries and other support staff don’t need to be in the office,” said Hart. “We’ve received a lot of administrative support requests, driven by firms looking at return-to-office plans. They want to use their existing space for client meetings, not for office work.”

More law firms have a bigger appetite for outsourcing, not just because of its cost-effectiveness, but also because of improved service quality. Outsourcers have centers of excellence that continuously train top talent and employ cutting-edge technologies for support services.

As workers return to the office or opt for flexible work arrangements, law firms should expect more changes and must continue to adapt. The more agile the firm, the more benefits they will reap. As one panelist put it, “The law firms and corporate legal teams that embrace change will ultimately be rewarded when all this settles down.”

To find out more about the future of the legal sector, particularly as it relates to workplace evolution, download The Future of Work, an in-depth report conducted by UnWork and commissioned by Williams Lea.

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