Are Your Employees Ready to Come Back? Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Them.

We’ve been hearing from some law leaders who have been surprised to learn that not all the employees of their firms are on the same page about when in-office work can and should safely resume. While many partners are champing at the bit to get back to normal, others continue to face challenges at home that make “normal” impossible. A third cohort reports having found a new rhythm and efficiency in working from home and does not relish going back to normal. And finally, many lawyers are still worried about their safety.

While it may be tempting to govern the necessary return to work by fiat, choosing a date on the calendar when you deem your firm open for business, it may not be a strategy that boosts morale and productivity. That’s because, from a public health perspective, the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over. Most people are still understandably uncertain about how to assess the risks of everyday activities. And because situations vary so widely — for three months, some people have been isolated at home alone, some haven’t been able to escape their children, some have health problems that put them at higher risk — a one-size-fits-all declaration that coming back to work is safe can feel pretty disingenuous.

At the very least, it’s a good idea to survey your employees — lawyers and staff — to get a handle on what they think about coming back to work. Gathering this data will help you create policies and recommendations that can assuage at least some of the concerns and reassure your employees that you are putting their safety, mental health, and the reality of the demands they face above financial considerations.

Here are some of the questions you might ask employees on such a survey:

How safe would you feel returning to work by July 1, August 1, September 1, or beyond?

Phrasing a question about readiness this way allows you to gauge whether employees see themselves becoming more comfortable as time goes on. Be prepared to hear, however, that a significant portion of your workforce (especially if you survey them anonymously) are not comfortable returning to work until the number of new cases starts to decline nationwide. As many experts have noted, we should not be worried about a second wave yet because the first wave has not ended.

What are your greatest concerns about safety in our specific work environment?

While your protocols ultimately should follow recommendations issued by the CDC, OSHA and other research-based organizations, you may be able to get out ahead of problems specific to your office if you know about them now.

If you require childcare in order to work, do you currently have access to it? If not now, when do you expect that you will?

As many smart commentators have observed, the economy really can’t re-open until childcare is widely available. While some daycare centers for babies and small children are now legally allowed to reopen, many did not survive the financial collapse. Older children cannot attend camps this summer, and who knows what will happen in the fall. It is very important for firm leaders to understand how fundamental childcare is to both a full return to work and to the careers of women partners in particular. Forcing a reopen before all partners have access to care will do direct harm to women attorneys. Make a plan for how you will accommodate these valued members of your firm so that you do not backslide on gains in gender equality.

What have you learned about your job in these months working from home?

Some firms may not want to delve into this topic because one thing many attorneys have learned is that they can do most of their work remotely and do not relish the prospect of returning to a commute and dry-clean-only clothes. But if you do not learn about any resentment among your team about having to come back, you can’t make a plan for helping them see the benefits of a return to in-person work, both for the firm and for the client experience. If the ultimate goal is to get everyone back in the office, you need to understand and figure out how to neutralize employees’ objections to a return.

On the flip side, maybe there is a way to preserve some of the new approaches developed during this time. Could a hybrid schedule work? Are certain tasks actually performed more efficiently away from the office? Keep an open mind and be willing to integrate lessons learned into the plan for the firm’s future.