Build COVID-era Office Policies that Work for Everyone

Your law firm’s COVID-19 office policies should reflect this important reality: unpredictability is now the norm. Whether your firm is functioning remotely, bringing employees back to the office or employing a hybrid model, you’ll want to establish a clear set of guidelines to help your team thrive in the office ecosystem of the future.

In 2022, the conversation around hybrid work moved from firms planning their big “return to office” to “more days in-office than out” to “we’re still figuring it out.” Employees’ desire to work from the office continues to plummet; just 27% of respondents in one January 2022 survey want to be in the office three or four days a week, down from 46% 10 months prior.

Data suggests dramatic change at the modern office will only continue. Many companies are making a permanent switch to remote work or reopening partially. A recent report on future workforce trends revealed fully remote workers will make up 28% of the workforce in the foreseeable future, while 20% will work remotely for part of the week.

Participants in Smokeball’s upcoming Law + The Great Resignation survey were most likely to say employees expect to work from home 1-2 days a week (38%), followed by 2-3 days a week (31%). But they recognize the value of hybrid as both an employee-retention benefit and a way to boost firm culture. Just 11% of firms are anti-hybrid model, and 5% say employees expect to work from home five days a week.

This widespread overhaul of work as we know it will alter not only the physical spaces where we work but also the logistical and social framework of the office. It’s a chance for law firm owners to create a structure and schedule that better serves their teams.

As you draft your firm’s COVID-era office policies, remember individual employees will likely have different needs and concerns when it comes to in-person work. First, send out a return-to-work survey to gauge your team’s comfort level with in-person work. Then, formulate a plan and create a formal written document outlining expectations, safety measures and hybrid work arrangements.

Bringing employees back to the office? Make COVID safety protocols a matter of policy

The last two years have forever disrupted our work routines, bringing unforeseen professional, personal and medical challenges into our day-day-lives. If you plan to reopen, clarity and communication are key to your office policies.

Color’s Small and Mid-sized Business Return to Workplace Survey shows 70% of business owners and human resources managers who planned to welcome employees back to the office had a return-to-work plan or were working on one. Nearly 60% of these managers had committed to sanitizing work areas on a regular basis; nearly 50% planned to increase the distance between work stations; and more than 35% said they would go a step further and place physical barriers between desks.

However, only 28% of these managers said they would require employees to be vaccinated prior to returning to the office and only 22% planned to test employees regularly, opting to mitigate the risk of infection with other measures. (Depending on your jurisdiction, this also can be legally dictated.) Around 54% percent of respondents said they planned to ask employees to stay home if they feel unwell, while 47% would require employees to maintain social distancing and 42% planned to require masks indoors.

Streamline workflows in a hybrid office

By now, most employees are accustomed to functioning in a hybrid work environment. Managing office dynamics is another question. If your team includes both in-office and remote workers, you’ll want to make sure in-person staff do not receive preferential treatment when it comes to assignments, evaluation, compensation and promotion decisions.

With Smokeball’s legal tasks and workflow software, you can assign tasks firm-wide, ensuring all employees are treated equally regardless of location. And Smokeball Communicate, a messaging portal that streamlines file sharing and conversation, helps you track communication with clients as well as staff.

For managers supervising remote or hybrid teams, Smokeball’s automatic time-tracking software makes scheduling a breeze while Smokeball’s Law Firm Insights feature helps you assess how team members spend their time — allowing you to track productivity and develop a management strategy.

Establish purpose-driven goals and expectations for the hybrid office

A recent Gallup study of more than 12,000 workers found that four in 10 employees are either working remotely or in a hybrid office. Data suggests the overwhelming majority prefer the added flexibility of offsite work.

But employee engagement — which varies widely depending on the individual’s work situation — remains one of the biggest predictors of productivity and employee retention for both remote and on-site workers. A separate study found employees who don’t find meaning in their work — and do not feel they are contributing to the company’s mission — are six times more likely to leave their jobs than peers who feel engaged at work.

  • Develop policies, goals and expectations that target your team’s specific needs. Schedule regular meetings with each team member, being mindful of individual caregiver or childcare responsibilities.
  • Create a formal technology policy to prevent unauthorized access of sensitive client information.
  • Offer a stipend to employees who need to purchase specific office equipment for their home office.
  • Finally, be sure to keep your firm’s overarching mission front-and-center. If your employees understand the reason behind a specific policy, they are more likely to follow it!

Make wellbeing a part of your firm’s culture

Helping your employees achieve work-life balance and manage stress prevents burnout and improves performance at work. In addition to regular work-related meetings, schedule periodic training sessions, networking lunches and other teambuilding activities — virtual or in-person — to help employees stay engaged and connected.

Offer support — and time off. To help your employees navigate the modern workplace, experts suggest formal training seminars explaining how to deal with the technological and social challenges of being back in the office after two years. And be prepared to reevaluate your vacation and PTO policy.

Social interaction is key. As some employees return to the office and others remain at home, consider making happy hours, company picnics and other teambuilding activities a part of your firm’s tradition. Not only will your employees appreciate it, but you’ll see productivity improve as well.

Always champion employees who pursue tough goals, raise their own performance levels and make the firm more effective as a result. This will go a long way to creating a culture of consistent outperformance. 

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