Inclusivity Considerations For Law Firms Reopening Offices

By Manar Morales
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Law360 (July 15, 2020, 6:17 PM EDT) --
Manar Morales
Manar Morales
As states begin to lift restrictions and people emerge from the shutdown, law firms are developing their strategies for reopening offices after weeks of remote working.

Many firms will find that it's not as simple as it sounds, and there are countless intricacies to consider before employees return. While most firms will focus on ensuring physical spaces are as safe as possible, it's equally important to consider the impact reopening decisions will have on your firm's culture of inclusivity moving forward.

Firms will clearly focus on safety measures such as social distancing guidelines, the use of masks and gloves, plexiglass dividers, temperature checks, bathroom and cafeteria limits, and frequent sanitization. Additionally, many offices will choose to bring employees back in phases or have them alternate days in the office. However, even with all the protective measures in place, experts agree that nowhere will be 100% safe from the virus until there is a vaccine or cure.

Consequently, firm leaders are facing extremely difficult decisions regarding how and when to reopen the office and who should return. When contemplating these significant questions, firms should consider the following tips to maintain fairness and support a culture that embraces diversity and inclusion.

Make Sure All Voices Are Heard

When developing your plan for reopening the office, identify a task force that considers safety aspects from all employees' perspectives. This task force should develop temporary guidelines for an interim period (approximately six to 12 months) when the workforce may be a blend of onsite and remote workers. It's critical that this task force represent all levels of employees since individuals will have different challenges.

For example, consider the experiences of a senior partner who may be able to drive directly from his or her home to the company garage versus an associate who uses mass or shared transportation. Or that a partner with a private office may feel more protected than an administrative staff member who sits in a cubicle or shared space. This is why it's critical for the firm's diversity and inclusion professionals to be part of the task force and provide their input on the impact of the crisis from different vantage points.

Be Mindful of Your Words

It will be up to firm leadership to hear the recommendations of the task force and develop the message for reopening. All employees need to know their health and safety are the No. 1 priority throughout the firm's response to the pandemic.

When communicating with employees, chairs and other firm leaders need to choose their words wisely and avoid using phrases that may evoke bias. For example, the term "return to work" insinuates that employees who have been working from home for months have not really been working.

The reality is many have been working even harder. This type of misnomer also serves to increase bias for those professionals who may choose to continue to work remotely in the future.

In addition, avoid saying, "We're all anxious to get back to the office," because many of your colleagues may instead be deeply anxious about returning to the office. Another misleading phrase that should be avoided is "getting back to normal." It's evident that nothing about this interim phase will be "normal."

Allow Requests for Teleworking to Be Reason-Neutral

It's important to recognize that there are myriad personal challenges each of us may be facing. When it comes to determining who will return to the office and who will continue to work remotely, requests should be reason-neutral during this hybrid stage. Since there's no way to compare the countless reasons individuals may prefer or need to continue teleworking, it's better to allow employees to determine their individual level of comfort.

Partners should not be put in the position of determining whether one individual's asthma is more valid than another's diabetes. Who could decide if childcare responsibilities are more important than eldercare responsibilities? Consider the individuals who prefer not to disclose a pregnancy or medical condition that might impact their level of risk.

In fact, based upon my organization's recent COVID-19 and Re-Entry Pulse Poll conducted via social media,[1] a significant share of the 32 law firm participants (a majority of which are Am Law 200 firms) will allow all of their employees to work remotely (37.5%) and a plurality of law firm participants will use a reason-neutral process to determine who can work remotely (43.8%) during the reentry period.

I recommend that all law firms honor anyone's request to remain at home, regardless of his or her level of seniority, and realign positions as necessary during this hybrid stage.

Monitor Inclusivity During This Hybrid Phase

This new hybrid phase of pandemic response, where some employees may be in the office and others may be working remotely, presents new challenges. It will be important to maintain a level playing field for all employees and to be aware of unconscious bias.

You may find that more women need to remain at home for childcare and more men are opting to return to the office. Or senior attorneys may choose to be at home whereas support staff may feel pressure to come in.

Proactively maintain the lines of communication throughout this hybrid stage and monitor these trends. Continue to hold virtual team meetings rather than having some individuals meet in person in a conference room and some dialing in remotely. Those employees who feel uncomfortable or unsafe returning to the office should not be pressured by a supervisor to return prematurely.

Be mindful of work allocation and make sure that all employees are provided equal opportunity to advance and contribute. It will be particularly important to ensure that those continuing to work remotely are given the same opportunities as those returning to the office.

Stay Ahead of Bias and Provide Training

Without training and guidance, even the most well-meaning professionals may be damaging the inclusive culture they once supported. Provide all attorneys and staff with a toolkit of resources to help them prepare for, interrupt and solve the bias challenges ahead. Educate leaders about the dangers of inconsistent practices, work allocation and pressuring team members to return to the office before they are ready.

Encourage partners to ask who's available and when, rather than assuming a parent, for example, is not available. Highlight partners who are role models of maintaining open communication and inclusivity in their teams. Continue to provide all attorneys and staff with mental health and coaching resources throughout all phases of your organization's pandemic response.

Based on the COVID-19 and Re-Entry Pulse Poll mentioned above, nearly half of law firm participants (46.9%) have plans to launch specific training during the reentry period (i.e. training on successfully working remotely, leading remote teams effectively, unconscious bias, reopening safety, wellness and mental health, caregiving, leadership and/or business development). Only a small minority of law firm participants (9.4%) indicated they will have no training to support reentry.

Appoint an Ombudsman to Broker Interactions

Consider appointing an ombudsman to whom all employees can turn to if they have a problem or challenge. This person will be particularly helpful for employees who may have issues with their supervisor or feel pressured to return to the office prematurely. The ombudsman would assist by talking through issues and serving as a resource to resolve conflicts.

Recalibrate and Plan for Your Future Post-Pandemic

While the task force on the interim return to the office is responsible for developing a plan for the next six to 12 months, it's prudent to assign a second task force to collect data and develop the firm's flexible work policy post-pandemic. The immediate guidelines will focus on the hybrid phase as well as the countless caveats associated with the pandemic. Conversely, the task force on the future of flexible work will be recording the lessons learned throughout this phase and ultimately develop a long-term policy for the future.

The members of this task force should record what worked and what didn't in each position and office to determine how the firm can utilize remote work in the future. While COVID-19-mandated telecommuting is very different from everyday telecommuting, many law firms have found their comfort level for remote work has improved through this experience.

At the end of the day, leaders need to focus on the future of their firm as a whole. What will your firm look like a year from now, and have you maintained, supported and advanced a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion? As Maya Angelou said, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Listen to the challenges facing different communities and take real action to make change. Support and invest in all of your attorneys and staff now, and you'll reap the many benefits for years to come.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that the majority of the law firms that participated in the COVID-19 and Re-Entry Pulse Poll are Am Law 200 firms.

Manar Morales is president and CEO of the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.


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