With apologies to the Talking Heads for altering a song lyric, this is the question going forward for law firms. When we can go back to the office, how do we do that? What does it look like?
To be honest, I don’t know. Yes, there’s been chatter like this:
Policies are also being developed which would discourage or forbid non-essential travel. However, travel deemed essential would be required.
Most of the policies are consistent with the advice of the CDC and OSHA.
Plans are being made for employees (or outside cleaning people) to disinfect the office daily, wiping down all surfaces.
Office reconfigurations are being developed to facilitate social distancing.
Law firms are beginning to look at new requirements imposed by insurance companies, landlords and clients related to COVID-19.
Realistically, I don’t know how you plan for that, when the requirements and recommendations seem to be in flux, to say the least. But, I have even more basic questions around much of what happens inside the walls of a firm, and whether it needs to. In thinking about firms, I find myself thinking in circles, because so much of who works there, and their roles are, in fact, circular. Larger firms require staff to be in the office, during office hours, to accommodate certain activities. Your receptionist is there to greet visitors and answer phones, someone else walks important guests into a conference room, serviced by more staff to have coffee/water available, who then also cleans up afterwards. Lawyers have the big corner office with the view to show off to clients who are in to meet, they have administrative staff on hand to print documents or grab items for those meetings, to maybe even take notes, and your IT support staff is there to assist anyone in the office who has difficulties with technology, and all of it circles back to things happening in the office.
But the question I have to ask,, and firms should be asking, is who’s coming in to the office now? I saw a survey the other day that said most people in the US weren’t planning on going to a concert, sporting event, or anything like that until there’s at least a proven vaccine on the market. How many people are looking forward to meeting in a conference room with a bunch of lawyers? Especially now that we know we have other options. No thanks, I’ll web conference in.
That changes the dynamic of our office space, but wait, there’s more, and more compelling questions being asked. For example, Joe Andrews of Dentons offers this:
If going into the office involves social distancing, with only having half of a team in at any one time, and wearing masks, you will not be having many meetings in person — and those interactions will be awkward and unusual while everyone has just gotten used to the new normal of a video conference.
So, exactly why are you taking the risk and making others take even more risk to be back in the office?
Which is, really, the big question. I understand that many of us are used to working in our offices, but until there is a safe way to go back to the way things have been, exactly what purpose does the office serve? No one is going out of their way to come to a meeting. Phones can be rerouted. We’ve all gotten pretty used to working remotely, and using video conference and other collaboration tools, and frankly, anyone still sending physical mail probably should be looking at other options anyway.
So, again, why are we asking people to come to the office? As Joe also points out, why are we asking people with kids and no daycare options, or people who take public transit, to come to the office, or to even ask them to make a choice on coming to the office or not?
It’s ironic, isn’t it? Law firms, for years, have been criticized for not innovating, for being too risk-averse. If ever there was a time to expect them to act in a risk-averse way when it comes to employee safety, and potential liability due to decisions about how they open up offices, and yet, I don’t think many firms are looking at it that way.
So, if you work in a firm, or in any large office, my question to you is, what would have to happen for you to feel safe going back? And if those policies are put in place, do you really need to be there to get your job done?
I don’t have answers. Only questions. But I know those questions open up the possibility that things can look very, very different in the future.
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