Staying one step ahead - how will legal firms work from the office in the future?

Ryan Sparrow

Marketing Programmes Manager

Working from home. It’s all anyone ever talks about now. You can’t visit a website without seeing remote working advice - and with good reason.

But what about those that don’t want to work at home and miss the office? The buzz, the camaraderie, the motivation. Where’s the advice for those that want to get back to the office?

Some thoughts and observations:

Currently, law firms are allowed to remain open if necessary and clients can visit your office - provided you follow the Government’s COVID guidelines.

So how do you make your office COVID-secure?

The Government have given eight steps to protect your staff and clients and make your law firm ‘COVID-secure’.

Firstly, you’ll need to complete a risk assessment. The Health and Safety Executive give some guidance on this. When completing the assessment, you must identify any places or situations where transmission of the virus might be increased - think about which staff members could be at risk, decide how likely it is that somebody could be exposed, and work to remove situations with increased risk.

Secondly, cleaning - which goes without saying. You should do everything you can to prevent the spread of germs in your office. So you should have hand sanitiser available throughout the office and ensure visitors and staff regularly clean their hands. Cleaning equipment should be available in all rooms so staff can clean down equipment after use - especially shared equipment, such as printers /MFDs.

Next, ensure visitors wear a face covering. The Government notes that a face visor may only be worn in addition to a face covering, not instead of one as they don’t provide adequate protection.  Staff should wear a mask when meeting clients but are not required to wear one when going about their work - provided they are socially distanced.

Which brings us to step four, ensure everyone is social distancing. Again, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) gives detailed guidance on how to maintain social distancing in the workplace. The suggested measures include using floor tape or paint to mark work areas; putting signs up around the office to remind people to keep a 2m distance; have staff work side-by-side, rather than face-to-face; and limit the movement of people within the office.

You should also look at common areas within the office such as restrooms, kitchens and lifts and small spaces where it might be difficult to social distance. To combat the risk of staff breaking social distancing rules in these areas, implement a one-way system and stagger staff breaks, whilst looking at office ventilation to ensure you have plenty of fresh air, particularly in the more enclosed areas.

Also, look at where staff workstations are situated and whether you can rearrange these to give them more room and make it easier to social distance. The HSE also discourage hot-desking and the sharing of office equipment, so make sure only one person uses each workstation.

The next step to consider on the Government’s list is ventilation. It’s important to keep your office well ventilated as it keeps the concentration of the virus in the air down, reducing the risk of airborne transmission.

As we’re currently in the middle of winter with snow in many parts of the UK, you might not want to open all your windows fully. So just make sure you have your heating on and leave the windows ajar to let fresh air in. Alternatively, if you have air conditioning office, make sure it’s set to maximise fresh air and minimize recirculation.

The sixth step from the Government is to take part in NHS Test and Trace by keeping a record of all staff, clients and contractors who visit the office for 21 days. This way, should you have an outbreak in your office, you can notify any visitors and let them know that they may have been exposed.

The penultimate step, obviously, is to turn away people with coronavirus symptoms. If any member of staff (o one of their household), or visitor shows any of the following symptoms, do not let them in the office as they should be isolating:

  • Persistent cough;
  • High temperature;
  • Loss of taste or smell.

If any of your employees show any of these symptoms, you can’t ask them to come into the office as to do so would be committing an offence.

The Government’s final step to consider is the mental health and wellbeing aspects of COVID-19. Obviously, working from home, particularly for those who live alone, can have a significant impact on mental wellbeing. The lack of social contact and fresh air and even just a change of scenery can be damaging for many. So it is important to check on your employee’s wellbeing and prioritise those that are struggling in terms of who should be working in the office.

So how do you get staff back in your firm’s office?

First, at present, you can’t force your staff to come back like some firms have been doing. You must allow staff to work at home if they can do so effectively and staff have a right to ask about what measures have been put in place to make the workplace Covid-secure before they do come back.

Unless you have a significant amount of free space, given social distancing rules, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to be able to have a full office for the time being. So you'll need to be selective over who you allow to work in the office and may have to adopt a more flexible approach.

You can put in place a rota, detailing which staff and when they can work in the office – whilst making sure staff don’t mix too much and increase the chance of the virus spreading through your team.

When staff do come into the office, you’ll need to follow the guidance on having hand sanitisers and cleaning products available, ensuring the cleanliness of equipment, minimising contact with a one-way system if possible, spacing staff out and maximising ventilation.

Is this the future of working for legal firms?

Whilst firms have undergone significant changes over the last year many have done so successfully and are benefiting from the freedom it’s provided to staff and opportunities for their firm.

It has enabled many to reduce office overheads, improve productivity and grow – hiring from a wider talent pool across the country.

Will firms return to pre-Covid ways of working?

It is most likely firms will strike a balance of remote and in-office working and offer staff flexibility to decide what works best for them.

When the pandemic ends using technology, your firm will have the freedom to decide what works best. In the meantime, you can ensure you have the right infrastructure in place to make your firm as profitable and productive as possible, whatever the situation.

For a simple step by step guide on what you need to do to make your law firm COVID-secure, download our checklist.