The Legal Intelligencer - Lemons Can Always Make Lemonade: Lessons Learned From COVID-19

What a year it was: 2020 brought us a monumental election season and a global pandemic that put the entire world on pause. Just a month past the one year mark of the initial bang felt from the COVID-19 global pandemic, law firms are still faced with some of the same challenges as last year along with a slew of new ones. COVID-19 completely changed the world, millions of people lost their jobs, economies tanked and our industry was forced to face a long overdue reality check. Never one for change, much less a so-abrupt-forced change, the legal industry came face to face with many challenges such as managing remote workers, technology and communication infrastructure issues, employee engagement, mental health and wellbeing, and recruiting and retention, among many others. While a year can sometimes seem like a lifetime ago, it is important that we do not forget what happened when the world came to an immediate halt and shutdown orders around the country forced law firms to close their doors (and unfortunately, some of those doors closed permanently). As a follow-up to the article "Then & Now: Law Firm Management Challenges Pre and Post Quarantine," here are a few more areas law firms need to keep at the forefront so we can at least attempt to not allow history to repeat itself the next time a global pandemic is at our front door.

Acceptance of the Remote Workforce: Although some industries have made the decision to continue to offer remote work in a post-COVID workforce, the legal industry has been eager to return to in-person operations. We would have hoped that many in law firm management would have realized that "face time" is not always required to run successfully, but many firms have been chomping at the bit to get back to "the way things used to be." For an industry that already struggled with retention of younger generations of workers who always had a preference to find that elusive work/life balance, the legal industry must accept that workers of today and tomorrow are now more than ever ready to jump ship and go work for a competitor that offers the benefit of remote working. Pre-pandemic studies have shown the plethora of benefits both employers and employees receive when there is the ability to work remotely. While pretty much everyone has experienced "Zoom fatigue" over the last 13 months, a majority of workers do prefer to continue to work remotely in 2021 and beyond. Additionally, recent surveys have revealed that a good portion of employees are still downtrodden with fear from the coronavirus and may simply refuse to return to work in the office if forced to do so especially if the employee uses public transportation to commute to the office. While some firms may use that as an excuse for mass layoffs they should be wary of doing so as they may find it hard to hire new employees if they do not offer remote-working capabilities. Lastly, a remote workforce is likely to help improve your bottom line as it can equate to a reduced real estate footprint saving the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars that could go toward employee benefits and bonuses or even revamping the firm infrastructure.

Coupled with the demands from employees, the abrupt shift to an entire remote workforce was, and continues to be, a major transition for law firms as many did not previously have a work-from-home policy or the right infrastructure in place. Many firms were simply not equipped to provide their entire workforce with all the resources they would need to function efficiently from home. Our firm from its inception was modeled around the ability to allow for every employee to work from home which allowed us to adapt more easily than other firms. We stopped purchasing desktops a few years ago and only purchase laptops which came in handy when the doors were abruptly closing last year. Technology and communication infrastructure going forward should be adapted to accommodate an almost complete remote workforce€”even if your firm intends to resume in-person working. Additionally, when firms shifted to remote working, many have encountered a range of security issues. Employees accessing firm data from offsite locations raised security risks and concerns. Remote work often poses a higher threat to firm data as there is almost an expectation that there will always be some employees breaking security policies while working from home. Data encryption, phishing emails, wireless connections and the potential loss or theft of devices and data all raise serious concerns. Implementing a written and thorough remote work policy helps to prevent security threats. An employee working remotely may have a bit more of a relaxed attitude toward passwords, keeping data secure or working in a location that is free from prying eyes. Even for firms who already conduct annual security awareness training, it is good practice to consistently remind employees of firm IT policies as those who plan cyberattacks and send suspicious emails containing malware have gotten more sophisticated in their tactics making it easier to dupe someone into opening an email or clicking on an attachment.

Employee Engagement Is More Important Than Ever: Keeping employees engaged and productive has always been a challenge for every employer. Although some individuals are capable and may even thrive in a remote and solitary working environment, others may find it quite difficult or impossible to remain focused on day-to-day operations when the general demands of home life are constantly distracting them. Parents of school age children faced homeschooling responsibilities, while others had to care for aging parents or sick relatives, which increased the amount of distractions from work obligations. Then you have the single working parents, who were forced to juggle work responsibilities while simultaneously acting as a teacher, caregiver, cook and the many other routine tasks parents find themselves responsible. But this past year has been especially bleak for those who live alone, which most likely was amplified to overwhelming levels when you add the stressors of quarantine and prolonged solitude.

As a result of the many changes and the demands faced as result of the pandemic, it was inevitable that employers would need to address mental health issues and discover new ways to assist their employees through a very trying year. Due to social distancing restrictions, it was difficult to provide one-on-one counseling in person. Consequently, some of the solutions that were offered to address the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic included opportunities for remote counseling and the provision of written materials regarding mental health. While overall suicide rates were down in 2020 compared to 2019, certain minority groups saw an increase in suicide but also outreach requests for mental health assistance. In "One Year Into the Pandemic, COVID-19 Fatigue Takes Hold," the article covers a wide range of employee-facing issues from burnout to increased stress and anxiety to depression and how employers can attempt to tackle each. Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association Foundation says employers are trying multiple strategies to help employees cope. Some of those approaches from Gruttadaro include:

  • Providing free access to mindfulness and mediation training.
  • Checking in regularly with employees to ask about their well-being.
  • Teaching managers to spot troubled employees and initiate conversations to offer help.
  • Devising communication strategies to remind staff of benefits of benefits such as employee assistance programs and encouraging people to use them.
  • Bolstering childcare and elder care benefits.

The COVID Vaccine: The will you or won€™t you debate is brewing in almost every closed-door firm management meeting lately. Whether your firm is on the will require or will not require COVID vaccines camp is for your own internal debate. When making the decision that is best suited for your firm and employees, keep in mind that there are pros and cons to either approach. A straddle-the-line approach could be encouraging employees to get vaccinated by offering incentives like paid time off or health rebates. Firms must be mindful and accepting however that there will be employees who cannot or will not get the vaccination due to certain medical conditions or religious exemptions. For those firms who want to go the required route, keep in mind future implications like the impact it could have on hiring new employees.

Even as the country plows full steam ahead and vaccine supplies are now plentiful for those who choose to get one, this crisis isn€™t over and honestly we may never return to normalcy as we knew it. It is always a good idea for employers to hold brainstorming sessions to better address (and plan for) any future occurrences€”unexpected health crisis or not. This global pandemic has taught us so much and we must learn from it so future instances do not again leave many left in the wind. At our firm, to put some type of brightness on an otherwise bleak spot, we "celebrated" the one year COVID-19 shutdown anniversary with gift baskets for the entire firm. Ironically when shopping for the right gift to commemorate this milestone, we came across a basket full of lemon-flavored treats. So like we told our team, 2020 gave us lemons but we were lucky enough to make lemonade. So make lemonade€”take the forceful change that was thrust upon us by the coronavirus and make the best of it€”everyone will come out on top when you do.

Reprinted with permission from the April 27, 2021 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.