In what seemed to be overnight, having a work from home policy has become the new norm for a majority of the US workforce. And while most of the legal industry finds this to be an adjustment, working from home is a trend that both solos and Big Law firms alike had already started to embrace. For example, employing more than 800 attorneys nationwide, Jackson Lewis offers “as needed” remote work options, formalizing an existing policy that had been in place for some time.
So, whether you want to move to remote work in the short term due to a global pandemic, or in the long term driven by the fact that 34% of U.S. workers that would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work remotely, as reported by OwlLabs, now is a good time to make sure that you and your team are on the same page about your work from home policy.
Creating a written policy on remote working, or a flexible work policy, sets out clear expectations will set your team up for success. It will also allow you to take advantage of some of the benefits that remote working has to offer, such as access to a wider pool of qualified candidates from which to hire, lower overhead, and loyal team members that are less stressed. In a study performed by Owl Labs, workers who had the option to work from home (part or full time) reported a 91% better work-life balance.
Be clear about when It’s OK for lawyers and staff to work from home
Is this for now or is this forever? When drafting a “Work From Home Policy” we need to be very clear about who the policy applies to as well as when the policy applies.
- Will the whole team be eligible to work from home, or only certain positions?
- Is the ability to work from home a temporary situation or a permanent arrangement?
Knowing the answers to these questions and putting them in writing will help you formulate a plan and set expectations for how your team will be able to work together, whether in the office or remote. Before deciding on your answers, talk to your employees about what they need to succeed. Your instinct may be to have a short-term work from home policy, but if staff and lawyers are less stressed and more productive at home, you may want to consider extending it to a longer-term flexible work policy.
Set expectations for availability
First, consider the question of hours. Must everyone keep normal business hours, or will you have a flexible work policy?
While setting the expectation that team members must work the same hours as on-site workers can facilitate communication between your team, allowing for off-set hours may benefit not only your team member but the firm as a whole. Off-set hours may allow the team member to attend to family or other obligations during more traditional hours, while at the same time providing the firm with the ability to service clients during non-traditional hours that may work better for your clients.
And, during COVID-19 when many families are at home with family and without childcare, allowing offset hours while working from home may allow some staff to be their most productive.
Then, be clear about how team members should communicate their availability.
Whether working remotely during traditional or non-traditional hours, it is imperative that your team members communicate their availability very clearly, because there is no option to walk over to their desk to see if they are in the office today.
Consistent working hours should be established for each team member and recorded somewhere that everyone can access. Calendars located within your practice management software are a great tool for this. Ideally, the calendar will indicate each team member’s working hours as well as any scheduled meetings or calls to allow others access to their availability.
For further detail on each team member’s availability when working from home, tools such as Slack or Google Hangouts can be used not only to keep team members in touch with your internal team but also allow those working from home to set a status to keep others informed when they take a break or step away from their workspace. This helps set expectations for response times and avoid confusion and delay.
Whatever you choose, include your preferred method of communicating availability in your law firm’s work from home policy.
Clearly outline preferred communication methods and tools
With team members at your law firm working from home in different locations, communication becomes even more critical. As a result, you’ll want to very quickly determine what type of communication will work best for your team, and clarify your preferred tools for communication in your work from home policy.
For example, you might want to state that chat is preferred for getting short questions answered, but that staff should jump on a quick video call if the issue is complex and if there’s room for miscommunication in written messages.
Important: Make sure all lawyers and staff are trained on your chosen communication tools since they will be the lifeline of your firm.
To avoid getting bogged down in email for less complex interoffice back and forth, check out an instant messaging type application like Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Google Hangouts, saving email and phone calls for lengthier communications. Whichever tool you choose for internal (and external) communications, remember that security needs to be addressed; Make sure team members know best practices (strong passwords, the need to keep video meetings private), and speak to any vendors to make sure your communications are encrypted.
Editor’s note: You can learn about tools, security best practices, and more in Melanie’s webinar, Take Your Law Firm Virtual in 5 Days or Less.
Give your team the tools they need to work remotely
In an ideal world, each team member at your law firm would have a dedicated home office set aside from the rest of their home. However, particularly when a work-from-home arrangement is temporary, this is not always practical or realistic.
Encourage your team to survey their intended work area and address the following concerns:
- Is there a door or other barrier that can be used to block out the activity of the other home occupants?
- Can team members access the files and other tools that they need to be productive?
- If team members are expected to host video conferences with vendors and /or clients, is their space set up to accommodate a professional appearance? (No dirty laundry in the background, for example.)
Depending on the situation you may want to purchase new computers for your staff while they work from home, or allow them to take the computers from the office home with them. If you take the latter route be sure to document your plan and specifically record the computers and other equipment that your staff is taking so that it can be tracked and returned.
Either way, clearly document in your work from home policy the circumstances under which it’s OK to take equipment home (can everyone do it, or can they only do so if there’s a need?) or under which you’ll purchase equipment for employee home offices, and what the process will be (can they purchase anything they like, or is there a set list of equipment to choose from? Will you provide funds up-front, or reimburse expenses?).
Include security in your firm’s flexible work policy
One rule comes before all others for team members working from home: Keep it secure.Once your team leaves the office, they also leave the digital security your law office provides. Data security best practices for working remotely need to be addressed in your Work From Home Policy.
Make sure your policy answers these questions:
- Will team members be allowed to work on their personally owned devices? If so, make sure your firm has a clear device policy in place.
- Are team members required to use certain encryption methods or tools with particular data?
- Will team members be allowed to conduct firm business on public Wi-Fi?
Team members working from home may also be working in close proximity to other family members and need to be very clear about how to protect the confidentiality of client communication. Help your team recognize and determine what risks exist for each team member, and help them put solutions in place that will contribute to a secure work environment.
Be deliberate about creating connection for remote teams
One of the most challenging parts of working with a remote team or team members is maintaining that sense of “team.” When you’re not walking past someone in the hallway each day or hearing them talk about their kids, the old adage of “out of sight, out of mind” can come in to play. It’s easy to become siloed, especially if only a small portion of the team is working from home, working remotely, or working on a flexible schedule. And, if your entire team is working remotely for the first time in the wake of COVID-19, it’s likely even easier for invisible, digital walls to arise.
To combat this tendency and promote a sense of teamwork, we highly recommend that the following tools be documented in your flexible work policy and put to use as soon as possible.
- Hold regularly scheduled “stand up” meetings. These can be conducted via video conference, where everyone has a chance to interact with each other and hear about what other members of the team are doing.
- Give team members a “virtual watercooler.” This should be a space where they can interact about subjects that are not work related (put that in the work from home policy!). This can be a separate Slack channel or virtual break room on a video conference line where team members can go to crack jokes, share victories and ask for help. The team culture it helps to build will be worth the expense.
- Check in with team members regularly. For those teams going remote in response to wildfires, floods, pandemics or other acts of nature, be sure to check in with team members regularly one on one to ascertain the amount of support they are able to provide, as well as the support they need. At times of external stress, you want to make sure that your team is taking care of themselves as well their responsibility to the firm. Encouragement to do so in the form of a Calm App subscription (a meditation app) can go a long way.
A work from home policy example
Work from home policy tips aside, it can be difficult to write your own work from policy from scratch: Examples certainly help. I’ve put together a sample work from home policy here that your firm can start with and build off of. You can request an easy-to-adapt Word version of this sample policy from streamlined.legal.
Working from home doesn’t have to be scary, whether your whole law firm is suddenly doing it for the first time, or whether this is a long-term flexible work policy you’d like to consider offering. Be clear about when it’s OK to work from home, how to work securely, and how to stay connected, and document everything in a clear work from home policy. From there, be ready to adapt your remote working style as you and your team adjust. At the end of the day, you know what’s best for your firm.