Don’t Sleep on Your Company’s Back-to-Office Plan

Remember when sheltering-in-place meant a two-week experiment in remote work, sourdough starters and endless Carole Baskin references? Remember how quickly that changed?

As the pandemic evolved, so too did office mandates and many companies were quick to adopt clear and persistent remote schedules. Those who could, transitioned relatively seamlessly to Slack, Zoom or Microsoft Teams. After all most of the work for professional service provider can – and regularly is – performed outside of the office.

Job well done, management! Across industries, 83 percent of office workers by June 2020 indicated that work-from-home plans were successful. Nearly half of all workers who can work from home said they prefer a hybrid of remote and office work, and just 1 in 4 said they prefer to be in the office 100 percent of the time. Lawyers, in particular, are loving the flexibility.

But the return-to-office conversation was inevitable, and now, 18 months after the onset of the pandemic, companies now face the important task of establishing back-to-office protocols that protect their work product, their employees and their bottom lines.

These new protocols are more complex than those that came before them, and so is communicating them to your workforce. So where do you start?

Ask for feedback

The best decisions are always guided by data and right now a critical data point are the opinions of your talent–your internal clients. Millions of workers are quitting their jobs this year in what some are calling the Great Resignation. If you haven’t polled your lawyers and staff about your back-to-office plans, especially in light of all the recent changes and equivocations around safety precautions and risks, that should be your first priority. Make sure the surveys are anonymous, that the results are transparent and, above all, that you honor what you hear.

Get your leaders on board

Global policies are notoriously difficult to institute at law firms, where more junior lawyers and staff are subject to the working styles and preferences of equity partners and practice group leaders. Meet with your firm’s top influencers early and be sure to ask if you have their buy-in. Address any concerns you hear head-on. If you make your leaders a part of your communications process from the beginning, you can set more consistent expectations across the firm.

Provide context

In the early days of the pandemic, company policies were vague because they had to be. “Stay home and stay safe,” signaled an employer’s commitment to protecting its workforce. Employees didn’t expect their leaders to have all the answers. Today, people want to know what lies ahead. When communicating your policy, provide details about how you came to your decision, what factors you considered in setting your policy and what people can expect in the future. If possible, share how and when you plan to reevaluate any policies.

Keep talking about it

Let people know your policy right away and remind them of it often. Include reminders about the policy in regular leadership communications and encourage open discussion among partners, associates and staff about how your policy is affecting their work. Keep a close pulse on the conversation to make sure there is no confusion or misinformation circulating and that you are addressing concerns about your policy quickly. Firms are often victims of poor internal communications. If that sounds familiar, now is a good time to firm up an internal communications strategy. And make sure to build in your ongoing response to the pandemic.

Stand behind your decision

Don’t bow to the pressure of the law firm herd mentality. Just because other leading firms have decided to take a different approach than you does not mean they are right and you are wrong. Law firms who make a first move on important issues often revel in the glory of positive media attention, and those who stay quiet or follow the pack often risk negative publicity. Be mindful as well to communicate your external policy to clients with confidence. Some might second-guess your decision. But ultimately, your policy is in service to their needs, too. That’s the message they should be hearing loud and clear.

No matter what your back-to-office policy is, a good communications plan can make or break it. As the COVID landscape changes, so too do the expectations of your workforce. More than ever they will look to you for clear, consistent guidance. If you aren’t providing it, you could be losing credibility and trust with key members of your firm, prospective talent and outside observers.