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How to Create a ‘Return to Office Plan’ for Law Firms

by Katie Wolf

on 15 May, 2020

21 Steps for a Smart Transition

COVID-19 shut down law offices around the world nearly overnight.

Nobody expects the return to normalcy to happen that quickly.

In many places, it’s still unclear when law offices will be allowed to reopen. Under a patchwork of shifting federal, state, county, and municipal restrictions, it’s difficult to plan the next steps. And for most of us, a return to normal is still far in the future.

Regardless, all law offices should be developing their Return to Office Plan. This plan can help protect lawyers and staff, help workers feel safer returning to the office, and may also reduce your liability for workplace health and safety issues.

Here are 21 steps to consider when creating your Return to Office Plan:

1. Create a ‘Return to Office’ Team

This is a decision-making body, which means it must include someone with the authority to make office-wide decisions. You also need members with expertise in your office’s IT systems and capabilities, your physical facilities, and HR requirements.

2. Find Ways to Continue Remote Work

Even in areas where restrictions are easing, many law firms report a continued commitment to remote work. COVID-19 infection rates remain high in many places, and there are still no treatments or vaccines available. Continuing remote work will help protect lawyers, staff, and clients—and contribute to the well-being of your entire region by helping to ‘flatten the curve.’

Remote work could also keep workers happier. A recent Gallup poll found the majority of those forced to temporarily work remotely would prefer to continue working from home as much as possible, even after the pandemic ends. They claim they are happier and more efficient outside of the office. Clients are also likely to appreciate remote capabilities. Even with the most optimistic government orders, many clients will remain wary of personal contact with others.

For support on enabling legal remote work, check out our posts on 9 Tips for Practicing Law in a Pandemic, and 8 Filevine Features that Make Remote Work a Breeze.

3. Determine Which Government Restrictions Apply

Consider any federal, state, county, and municipal government orders that may apply to your office. They are likely all moving on different timeframes. Make sure you abide by the most restrictive order that pertains to you.

4. Gather Latest Interim Guidance from CDC and OSHA

The CDC has created interim guidance for businesses and employers. OSHA has also released guidance on protecting workplaces. Be on the lookout for more government guidelines, which are expected in the weeks and months ahead. Because transmission rates vary widely by region, also consult materials from your local Health Department.

5. Get a Feel for What Workers Want

Are people itching to get back in the office? Are they hoping to work remotely for as long as possible? They might have caretaker responsibilities or health conditions that would make a return to the office particularly burdensome for them.

Checking in with workers will help you better meet their needs. You might want to consider anonymous surveys to get an overview of how workers feel about returning to the office and what complications might arise when they do.

6. Decide Which Workers Need to Return First

Some lawyers and staff might require office access to do their work. Others can perform just as well remotely. Consider a ‘phased’ return to the office, where some lawyers and staff return first to carry out their work in a less crowded, safer office.

You’ll also want to determine whether you’ll require specific workers to return to the physical office. Considering the danger of COVID-19, some employees may have legal protections if they don’t want to return to work. Try to be flexible with offering remote work, paid time off, or unpaid leave for workers who don’t want to return. Consult with legal counsel before making moves like termination.

7. Determine Which Conditions Prohibit Return

Create a list of conditions and situations where firm members shouldn’t come into the office. In addition to those who have COVID-19, these can include those who:

  1. Are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms
  2. Live with someone who has COVID-19
  3. Have been in close contact with an infected person
  4. Have recently returned from travel to a high-risk area

Whatever guidelines are used, ensure your policies are fair and don’t discriminate against any protected classes.

8. Make Accommodations for High-Risk Legal Workers

The CDC has released a list of conditions that require extra precautions. These conditions make it more likely that someone will develop serious and even life-threatening problems if they contract COVID-19. The ADA requires workplaces to give reasonable accommodations to those who have a higher risk of extreme illness.

Find ways to provide accommodations for workers who are in these higher-risk groups. Ideally, they’d be allowed to work remotely throughout the pandemic. Other accommodations could include creating quieter times or spaces within the office for them to work. Also, keep in mind that this could be a difficult time for workers to obtain a doctor’s note certifying their high-risk conditions—be more flexible in allowing access to accommodations.

Also, be cautious about requiring those at high risk to adhere to special accommodations. This could also run afoul of the ADA.

9. Evaluate Leave Policies

Maintain flexible sick leave policies where you can. Determine if you can allow advances on sick leave or leave sharing programs. Be sure you’re complying with all federal and state leave and disability laws — including the impact of the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act and any other state and local laws that have been passed in response to the pandemic.

10. Create a Communication Plan

Hopefully, you already have established channels to communicate internally with your staff and externally with your clients and the public. Use these trusted channels to update them on changes as they occur. Post public updates on your website, your social media accounts, and anywhere else your law firm has a presence.

Take care to strike an appropriate tone with your messaging. This is a time to develop your voice, taking the stance of a pillar of your community. Provide special care to your community; show your office as honest, well researched, and authentic; and avoid appearing calloused or opportunistic. Consider the cautionary tale of expensive ad campaigns that have been pulled for appearing too obtuse or self-serving.

11. Rearrange Work Space

Before returning to the office, consider ways to maximize the space between workers in the office. If there are areas where people traditionally bunch up, you might need to mark needed spacing on the floor. Direct foot traffic to travel in only one direction. Create partitions in open work areas. You might need to close or modify your use of conference rooms and break rooms. Determine if you can change doors so they can be easily pushed open and closed, rather than requiring someone to turn a handle. Create more ventilation with high-efficiency air filters or open windows allowing a cross-breeze.

12. Evaluate Work Scheduling

Can you stagger shifts for legal workers? Can you take turns in the office with weekly shifts, with cleaning in between? Even staggering your lunch hour can reduce the amount of crowding in the law office.

13. Improve Your Cleaning Process

Work with building managers to ensure a deep clean of your office before workers return. Also, try to ensure an increased frequency of cleaning. You could also get buy-in from staff to routinely wipe down high-touch areas.

14. Ensure Adequate Hygiene Supplies

These include tissues, soap, sanitizer, and touchless trash cans. They might also include facemasks for those who aren’t able to socially distance in the office. Work with vendors to ensure the workplace will have what it needs for workers to feel safe.

15. Create Hygiene Protocols

Determine protocols for hygiene and social distancing in the office. Back them up with signage throughout the office space. Determine who is in charge of enforcing these protocols, and what the consequences will be for anyone who refuses to comply.

When Mike Pence refused to wear a facemask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic, it sent the message that hygiene protocols don’t apply to those at the top. Make sure your firm doesn’t fall into the same trap. Have a unified policy that applies to all, not double standards for staff and managing partners.

16. Don’t Stop Teleconferencing

Even when you’re back in the office, you can still benefit from remote work tools. You can all join a Zoom call from your separate offices rather than sitting in the same conference room together. Or some can meet and others join through video in order to keep the total number down.

Continue to use cloud-based file storage, rather than reverting back to paper. This will allow sharing and collaboration on documents, without requiring any face-to-face hand-offs. Continue to encourage clients to take advantage of remote consultations, e-signatures, and other practices that enable them to stay out of the office.

17. Create New Travel Policies

Your first goal should be finding ways to teleconference and do work remotely rather than traveling. But as restrictions ease, you’ll want to create clear guidelines for what kind of travel is permissible. Consider the CDC’s ongoing guidelines on travel. For those who do travel either for work or personal reasons, consider creating a policy for quarantine periods before returning to work.

18. Create or Update COVID Exposure Response Plan

If a worker at your office tests positive for the virus, you need a plan to respond quickly but carefully. The CDC recommends informing coworkers of their possible exposure while protecting the identity of the infected person. Of course, in many law offices, people will be able to guess who the infected person is—but the leadership team should be careful not to confirm any guesses, and protect the privacy of all workers. Remember that any medical information you have about employees must be completely confidential, and kept in separate files.

Also, create a plan for if someone reports symptoms congruent with COVID while at work. How will you isolate that person until they’re able to leave? When and how will you temporarily shut down the office, and how will you go about decontaminating the office?

19. Create Firm-Wide Training on New Protocols

Everyone at the office should understand the new protocols and why they’re in place. Compliance is better when employees have the chance to understand the science and reasoning behind them. They need to know how they will be informed of updates, as well as whom they can contact with questions or complaints.

As part of training for returning back to work, make sure everyone understands the need to return any hardware of files they took home with them, and how they can be reimbursed for business expenses they’ve made while away from the office.

20. Regularly Reevaluate

Someone should be in charge of monitoring daily for updates on health guidance and government orders. In addition, set up regular meetings for the Return to Office task force to evaluate the latest restrictions and recommendations, as well as the needs of the office, lawyers, staff, and clients. Plans should be flexible—epidemiologists caution there could be a second wave of coronavirus in the fall, which could bring another round of tightened restrictions.

21. Update Business Continuity and Emergency Preparedness Plans

As hard as it has been, we’ve learned a tremendous amount in a few short weeks about responding to an emergency. Make sure to capture that wisdom in your updated business continuity plans. Add what has been useful, and change policies that weren’t. This will be critical for future pandemic emergencies, and will also help you soldier through natural disasters and other disruptions.