Hybrid Work Environments
In today’s workplace, 65% of employees are looking for another job. To compete for the best employees, employers must remain current, providing a quality, forward-thinking work environment which includes hybrid work options. Prior to the pandemic, law firms allowed only exempt employees (lawyers and professionals) to work remotely, and then only occasionally. Today, most employee positions are viewed as suitable for a remote work structure. With this shift in the workplace, what are some of the issues regarding a hybrid work environment and how best should they be addressed?
Many workers have experienced a lack of continuity and collaboration while working remotely. In order for a firm to keep its employees engaged and working together, team meetings must become part of the culture.
To manage the workflow in this more free-flowing environment, some firms are now instituting specific days on which certain personnel must be in the office. For instance, litigators may be required to be in the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All support staff working in the litigation department must also be in the office. Team meetings should be scheduled for these in-office days. Partners must make it a priority to mentor less experienced associates and paralegals and to integrate them as much as possible when the group is in the office.
When a team is working remotely, leaders may want to choose specific times to meet on a weekly basis to review what is happening for the week and what occurred the week prior. Firm leaders may want to invest in high-quality webcams and headsets to allow better collaboration among employees and boost morale, regardless of location.
Administrative teams may have to mix up the days of the week in which they report to the office. The team should meet at least twice a month and be available to all areas of practice at all times. Administrative members may also want to participate in other team meetings (remotely or in person) to gain a unique understanding of the challenges and successes of each team.
Employees are the weakest link in any firm’s security measures – a vulnerability which can be further compounded when you have remote employees using different devices and networks to access firm data. Given the risk, it’s absolutely essential that all employees should be required to participate in security awareness training on a regular basis.
In addition to ongoing training, firms need a reliable, and robust cloud-based infrastructure so that employees can securely access matter data and documents at anytime from anywhere and be able to efficiently communicate with clients and business partners.
Equipment should be approved and reviewed by the firm on a regular basis as well. Issuing a company-approved laptop to an employee does not provide sufficient ongoing security. It should be required that the employee participate in quarterly or semi-annual device checkups performed by the IT team (either in the office or virtually). Employees are also using their phones and tablets for work more frequently. The firm will want to ensure that all equipment used to access the firm’s data is secure and uncompromised. Firms are developing and continually updating remote work manuals, which should require employee signatures acknowledging that they have been received and understood.
Security training and equipment review is not “set it and forget it.” Security policies must be constantly reviewed and updated. Hackers are continually finding new ways to compromise a firm’s data, so your firm should continually find ways to prevent this from happening.
If a firm’s data is compromised, that firm can easily go out of business. Client data is confidential, and a firm can be sued for malpractice if that information is declassified. Yes, all firms have professional liability insurance and most have cybersecurity insurance, but lawsuits can easily be higher than insurance limits. Lawyers may “jump ship” if the stability of the firm is in jeopardy. Data has to be protected at all costs.
The need for technology proficiency is exacerbated in a remote work environment, so training on all necessary systems and software is essential. Most software applications are used at a fraction of their capacity. If a firm can work with employees to increase the usage, the firm will incur greater efficiency. When people better understand the platforms in which they work, the more efficient and effective they become. As firms become more efficient, they also become more profitable and more attractive to clients.
When appropriate, it would be wise to record certain meetings, discussions, and negotiations and make them available to associates and interns as part of their training. These recordings will allow them to witness negotiations firsthand, as if they were present, and to view them whenever needed.
Business professionals and staff require onboarding and training as well. Managers may need help building the requisite skills to deal with the challenges of overseeing hybrid workers.
Many managers and supervisors are concerned about employees’ productivity. When everyone was in the same environment, it appeared to be easy to make sure people were working and engaged. Managers need to understand that most employees are working and doing what is expected of them. Working remotely may actually increase some people’s productivity. Yes, there may be one or two employees who are taking advantage of the remote work environment for the wrong reasons, but a manager will eventually be able to identify these people. Managers do not need to make rules for the masses because of a few outliers. Supervising remote work may require a period of adjustment, but a good manager will eventually learn to recognize who is being productive. Managers may want to investigate a firm’s productivity software (for example practice management with timekeeping tools) which may help to shorten the learning curve.
Remote work is here to stay, and with remote work, there are challenges. Data has to be protected at all costs with an ever-evolving security policy that includes training and equipment review. In this free-flowing hybrid work environment, collaboration has become a challenge too. Team meetings and high-quality remote equipment will be necessary to keep employees engaged and working like a team. And partner and administrative leadership will be essential. Employee education must be a priority as well. It should include system and software training, mentoring by the attorneys, and management training. The firms that address these challenges will thrive by attracting and maintaining employees and clients.