With Covid-19 restrictions taking hold in New Zealand and elsewhere around the world, we face the issue of how to keep providing awesome service to our clients and earn an income while being unable to ‘head into the office’.
Putting aside having time off for illness, what can we do to maintain “business as usual” in usual times where we may be in self-isolation, decide not to risk having people coming into the office and/or we and our staff have to attend to caring for children because schools and day care centres close?
The good news for lawyers is that, with some forethought and a few good tools, it is eminently possible to work remotely!
I have long been working a large portion of my week from home, largely to avoid the commute to the office. As such, I am feeling pretty well equipped to run my firm this way for a while. Even so, I have taken the time to do a readiness stocktake. Here are some of the top things on my readiness list:
Is your remote office set up? Ensure everyone has a space they can work from at home and the equipment they need to do this.
At the very least you’ll need a computer, strong internet connection and mobile phone. You don’t really need a scanner/printer as with email and scanning apps on phones, you can scan most things using your phone and send them electronically.
Take it from one who went on a blutack searching rampage one day while working from home, it is often the basic things that get overlooked and then become an annoyance. Has everyone got a good stationery supply in their work-from-home kit (aside from what’s in their kids’ art cupboard!)?
I also love the idea of getting a little care package of some morning tea supplies and treats delivered to anyone on the team who is having to work from home.
Are you set up to meet remotely? There is actually very little you need to do face to face!
Our office already uses Zoom audio-visual conferencing to have meetings with each other when we are in different locations and to meet with clients and colleagues who are far flung around the world. There are plenty of other options out there for audio-visual conferencing. It’s incredibly simple to use, efficient (no commutes or parking hassles!), cost effective and once you start, trust me, you will never look back.
Have you got a way to readily assign and share work with one another? We have long used ActionStep because of its great workflow functionality where tasks can be assigned to other team members within a client’s file. It collates all of each person’s tasks across the different files into one handy, transparent list for him or her. Besides being a great tool for managing your own tasks, this is a great feature if a team member is off ill and you need to check what they needed to be attending to. There are also lots of other cost effective, readily accessible options for sharing workflows and communications about a project such as Monday.com, Trello and Slack.
Of course, there is always good, old-fashioned email but this can get unwieldy and doesn’t have the same ease of transparency for multiple team members to know what each is doing on a client file.
Can you step away from the paper? I must admit that, despite my best endeavours, I haven’t yet gone completely paperless. I still have files for paper copies of any Court proceedings and my Collaborative Process meeting documents. However, with ActionStep, I am getting pretty close to being paperless. All my file notes, billing, reporting, tasks, contact information and documents for clients are all there in the cloud for myself and my team to access from anywhere. There are other cloud based options too.
If you’re not already with such a system, you likely don’t have the time to suddenly move your practice over to it. If that’s you, I suggest putting a strategy in place about where each client’s file should sit, having a central record of physically where all files are located and storing critical, in progress documents so others on your team can view and edit them remotely (eg a business Dropbox account).
What about people calling in to the office?
What are your plans for if everyone is working from home but a client or courier turns up to the office?
Communicate with the court and colleagues that you are working on cases with about alternate addresses to send mail to. Is it possible to have all mail redirected to one staff member’s address for them to sort, scan and email to the relevant team member who needs it?
Are you still on landline phones that clients may call you on? We use 2Talk but there are loads of other options for phone lines over the internet that can be accessed from anywhere. If all else fails, can you forward calls to your landline numbers to your mobile phones?
How will the day to day tasks not become annoyances? Should this go on for a while, how will people re-stock needed home office supplies? How will phone messages be distributed? How will you get mail out without the inefficiency of everyone having to go to the Post office? My office emails most things but ensuring everyone has a supply of courier bags and the ability to order online a courier pick up from their door will help with those one-off originals that need to be delivered.
Set expectations with staff. Covid-19 or no Covid 19, influenza season is also about to hit the Southern hemisphere so having clear expectations that staff will not come into work if they feel unwell is a practice that has served us well. I have yet to see staff take liberties with this policy (nor with an unlimited sick leave policy) – most will try to work from home if they are well enough to.
Set expectations with clients. Get the word out to your clients that they may be asked to meet with you via phone or AV conference. Let them know who they should contact to make alternate arrangements if they are due to meet in person but are feeling unwell or have come into contact with someone with Covid-19. Irrespective of the current Covid-19 issues, I always tell clients we prefer they do not come in if someone in their household has recently been sick.
Repeat the expectations again and again and again. One email to clients isn’t enough. I don’t know about you but my inbox has been swamped with emails from different businesses, all with subject line “Covid-19”. I pretty quickly stopped opening them. Some of the multiple communication channels my office will be using include:
sending emails with updates;
using our social media channels;
sending SMS messages to clients prior to appointments with reminders not to come in if they are unwell;
having a staff member call clients who are due to come in the next day to check they are OK and to discuss the protocol if they are not.
What about your upcoming mediations or Collaborative Process meetings? Do these need to be shifted or held via AV conferencing? Many AV conferencing platforms allow virtual break out rooms so some participants can meet privately away from the main meeting.
If I do have to meet with others in person, I will be making sure advance checks are made that everyone is feeling well, handshakes aren’t expected, hand sanitiser is available and the room is well ventilated and spacious.
As for Court, we’ll largely be in the hands of the Ministry but for routine lists and conferences, my sense is the Court will accommodate requests for appearances by telephone in cases of isolation. Filing proactive, joint Memorandum by Counsel setting out agreed directions and requesting these be made in chambers will no doubt continue to be appreciated by the Judiciary and help avoid appearances being required.
How will you go about signing and witnessing documents?: This is a fraught issue. If you are going to have to sign and witness documents in the near future, explore whether witnessing via AV conferencing is permissible. Check the legislation, case law and with your local Law Society as to whether there has been guidance on this.
If you can witness documents being signed via AV conference, now is the time to pull out and review those special clauses about signing and witnessing via AV link, signing in counterparts and the acceptance of faxed or scanned copies of the document. Of course, file note well when this happens and provide advice to your client in writing as to the risks if they wish to go down this road.
Anticipate the change haters. Where do I start?
Some, more than others, cope better with change and disruption.
You probably have a pretty clear idea which camp each of the people in your workplace are in, based on their reactions the last time a new system was implemented in the office or that time a different brand of toilet paper used in the bathrooms was accidentally ordered!
When my team was much larger, this was demonstrated clearly to me when the office had a major power cut. My personality profile is such that, no matter what, I find ways to get on with what I need to get on with. I quickly found some work-arounds and carried on. A few of my colleagues were the same while others did a lot of hand wringing and staring out the window (for Superman?) while some completely hated the change in how they were working, couldn’t settle and were quite vocal about it.
Identify early who the change-challenged in your workplace are and how you can best support them to remain positive and productive. We all are in this together and facing the changes and issues as they arise with positivity and a this-is-doable attitude will help others to get on board. Start early with introducing any changes and preparation plans and keep communicating positively and regularly.
If you identify as change challenged yourself, think ahead as to what you need to get through this transition, go gentle with yourself and allow yourself to be vulnerable – as you set about problem solving your way through this time, acknowledge to your team how you feel and that you understand others may feel this way. Remember the bigger picture as to why this is necessary. It could be a lot worse!
Don’t leave it to chance. If you are not used to having everyone working remotely all at once, do a trial run. On Tuesday, my brother’s company are trialing having everyone work from home. This allows them to identify any cracks and iron them out before they may have to implement this way of operating (which they clearly anticipate won't be far away given my brother was told to take his desk chair home!). Trial runs are also great for helping everyone get on board with the changes that remote working may require.
Expect to Get Stuff Wrong. It will happen. Acknowledge it. Own it. Laugh about it. Find a work around. Move on.
Check in regularly. One of the challenges of working remotely in any context is social isolation. Couple that with being in self-isolation or quarantine and pretty soon, you could find your team members going a little stir crazy.
Social distancing may mean geographic distance between us but it shouldn't mean feeling distant from one another. Now, more than ever, is the time for community.
I will be consciously amping up the communication levels. Check in regularly with one another. A Facebook messenger group can be ideal for this but don’t forget that ancient relic – the telephone! Call your local colleagues who are practising alone and check in on them.
Encourage your fellow team members to come together via AV link or through messaging in the ways they ordinarily would in the office (except with the expectation of seeing your colleague’s piles of laundry and children in the background!). Set the example and say hi to one another when you come online, check in on how one another is doing, pick up the phone to shoot the breeze with someone, maybe get some online games going for a bit of healthy team competition, provide some practical assistance to a colleague cooped up in the house, meet up online with your colleagues for a lunch break conversation, and let others know when you are off at the end of your work day. Who are the extroverts in your office who thrive on social connection? Make this their mission within the remotely working team!
I’d love to learn from what plans your workplace has made so do let me know! If you want to come together online with other lawyers in the same boat, jump on into The Law Lighthouse Group and let us know how you are doing.
Next week, I will throw your way my top tips for working from home without being sucked into a vortex of watching Netflix, being distracted by household chores which suddenly seem very important or having your daily to-do list taken over by children!