Preparing for the new normal - People
Published: Wednesday, 26 August 2020
Your team are now used to working from home, and you may save some overheads by rethinking your office arrangements. What issues should you be considering?
Health & Safety
You will need to implement some new office processes to maintain hygiene, social distancing, use of PPE and use of shared spaces. As staff return to your office, you will need to provide training on the changes.
Some staff may lack confidence, have low morale, and no longer feel part of the team. People are naturally fearful of change. Many businesses have adapted and will need to continuing adapting to a new way of doing business. Your customer base may change, you may be doing more business online including client meetings. Your staff need to be encouraged and motivated to feel part of that change. A return to work appraisal would be useful that reflects both the work already carried out from home and the flexibility in new working practices. If it’s unlikely that the whole firm, or the whole team is in the office on any one day, then you need to do some work to ensure that the culture of your firm, that you have worked so hard to build, remains. Plan communications across the firm about the changes taking place.
If you have had a change in layout and perhaps a reduction in the number of desks, maybe with different teams in on different days, you will need to consider health and safety issues. Can users change the chairs, desks and monitor heights to an optimal working set up for themselves? The workstations will need to be cleaned daily – will you get cleaners to do this or provide materials for staff to clean their desks as they leave?
Legal & Regulatory
Check your employment contracts – do they allow staff to work flexibly in terms of both hours and location? If staff hours alter, will they affect the staff pension scheme?
If your office is relocating out of the city centre for increased parking, will staff be happy to move with you? Should you continue to pay e.g. London salaries if staff opt to work from home and no longer have the commuting expenses? Estate agents are reporting that people are looking to relocate out of cities. If you are happy for staff to work from home, you may attract more qualified staff at lower salaries.
Insurers are asking increasingly testing questions at renewal about your business stability and business continuity plans. Your plans have already been tested during Covid– have you revisited and updated them? Many businesses have only survived this period because of government assistance and the generosity of clients and banks. There is no guarantee this will be repeated. We recommend reviewing all your insurances with your broker once you have established what changes you will be making.
Can you comply with any Service Level Agreements that you have signed up for? If your staff are working flexibly, do you need to stipulate core hours or working in the office on specific days? Are there specific key performance indicators (KPIs) to be met? Do you have back up plans in case a key member of staff was taken ill or left suddenly?
Issues in the office
How do you hold a socially distanced meeting? Do you have enough space in the office?
Many firms have policies about meetings out of the office and in the office to protect staff. For example, all meetings must be in a public place; staff can only meet an individual on their own if they tell another person where they are; staff should not incur expenses above a certain amount without prior approval. With the social distancing requirements, staff will need to consider whether a physical meeting is necessary. Should the meeting take place digitally? What sort of audit trail are you going to have if a physical meeting is needed e.g. if you do wills and probate?
Travel policies also need reviewing - when you can go first class, when you can stay overnight, how much money you can spend, when you can charge the costs to a client, or when you charge them to the firm you're going to now need to be included in those policies. You should also consider when you should travel by car and when you should take public transport. If you are taking public transport, document the reasons why it's appropriate to do so. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, we were all encouraged to use public transport rather than drive our car because it was cheaper and green, but now the emphasis has changed and that could have an impact on costing. You’ll also need to document why you need to travel rather than hold a virtual meeting. Consider and document how you may deal with any breaches of the travel policy as they could put more than just one member of staff at risk.
Are you going to have one team coming in and one day on a different team coming in on another day? Can they work in different parts of the office using different photocopiers?
Are they going to take start staggered lunch breaks? Are you going to have a separate place for them to have lunch, or are they going to have lunch at their desks? Are you going to have one big meeting room that's well ventilated rather than small breakout areas? Is it going to be cleaned after each use? Who is going to do the cleaning? How are you going to have private meetings with staff and clients?
Are you going to have a staggered staff rota showing which days and hours different teams are in the office? Who is going to be responsible for deriving and monitoring that? And if you are going to have one team coming in and one day on a different team coming in on a different day, how are you going to manage and encourage, cross-selling and collaboration across departments?
If you are going to aim for a paperless office, people will still print certain things off to work on them or mark-up comments. You are going to need individual storage areas for each member of staff, which can also be used to break up their spaces between the desks.
How do you supervise and monitor people if they are not in the office as the same time as you? How would you train them if they are not in the offices at the same time as you? Junior staff often learn by hearing senior staff on calls, sitting in client meetings etc. How will they pick up this experience?
Issues at home
Health and safety
We have all seen pictures of people working, sitting at the desk, sitting on their beds with a laptop on their knee, or working from their dining table but is that viable long term? If you are going to allow people to work from home on a regular basis, you owe them a health and safety duty of care to make sure they have a proper and safe working environment. There are some online assessments available and it may be worth taking some advice from a health and safety specialist to cover all angles.
What equipment have you given your staff to enable them to work from home properly and productively? Many staff just have a laptop, but that's not ideal. If they are going to spend substantial time working from home, they would probably need a proper keyboard and monitor. Do they need a printer scanner?
Most people don’t live alone. If they get up to make a cup of tea and don’t lock their laptop, confidential data may be accessible. What if a couple who are both lawyers, work from home, but they work for different firms? If they are both working from different ends of the dining table and need to take a phone call, how can they maintain client confidentiality?
If staff have a printer scanner at home, can they store printed material and handwritten notes securely and privately? Should you provide them with a shredder and a small locked cupboard? This would increase your overhead slightly, but these pieces of kits are not expensive, and it would show that you've given proper consideration to confidentiality. You could require your staff member to keep all your equipment, perhaps in that cabinet.
Your staff are the core of your business. If you can accommodate their wishes to work in a different way, you’ll keep them and, potentially, attract better staff. They may enjoy the flexibility of working from home or they may ask to work from home around other commitments e.g. childcare. Some may ask to work four days a week across five which will reduce your staffing costs. Staff may be as productive in that four days without the commute and your office costs and overheads will reduce. You also need to agree with how you can meet deadlines and client needs if the staff member isn’t working or able to work? Employment contracts will, again, need to be updated.
Sometimes working from home can take longer if home broadband is flaky, if they are working from a laptop or if there are other distractions such as home schooling. So, whilst productivity may be up, recoverable hours may be lower initially. Staff will need to record their time promptly, honestly, and accurately to ensure that you're happy to invoice the client the appropriate fee.
One of the key issues is to ensure that staff remain part of the team and feel included and motivated when they're working from home. It's important to ensure that they're included in online meetings and physical meetings where appropriate both on a client basis, but also on a more social basis. If someone is unable to physically meet you can recreate the closeness of small groups by creating virtual breakout groups to discuss a topic during larger online meetings. People are encouraged to speak up in smaller groups and it's easier to feel engaged.
How do you know if a member of staff is struggling? In the physical world, you can usually tell if somebody isn’t behaving ‘normally’. If your only contact with someone is by email rather than video link, particularly if it’s strictly work related, how would you pick up that they aren't coping? How would you identify that they haven’t started work one day or that they have missed key parts of a particular matter? You need to plan regular supervision and monitoring to ensure that deadlines are met and staff are looked after.
Whilst formal training can be easily undertaken remotely, a lot of informal training is undertaken ‘at the feet of the master’: you learn just by being in the same room, hearing them on the phone, seeing how they act in meetings. How will a junior gain that breadth of experience to enable them to progress in the same way? Karen suggests that the best way of tackling this remotely is to allow informal discussion on a regular basis, discussion of particular cases and allowing that junior to sit in on as many meetings as possible, to give the junior that informal breadth of experience that they will not otherwise get.
It's important to document your thought processes for all these considerations so that, if challenged, you have an audit trail.
To read about the planning considerations for your property click Preparing for the new normal - Property.
To read more about potential changes needed to your processes and to identify which prospects to target, click The new normal? - Processes and Prospects.