Lawyers should take a practical approach to coronavirus
By Nicola Laver
Law firms across the country are taking a view as to where they fall on the scale of ‘business as usual with a bit of extra soap’ through to ‘total lockdown’ by way of response to the spread of COVID-19.
Like most business decisions, it requires evaluation of a number of factors.
What are your obligations?
As lawyers, we know that we must ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of your staff and anyone else affected by the business, such as clients and suppliers.
You are also required to undertake risk assessments, giving special consideration to anyone who may be more vulnerable than others, for example, pregnant employees and elderly wills clients.
So, what steps should you take?
Foreign travel – Work out who in your firm has been abroad or intends/needs to go, whether for work or pleasure.
Make sure that both you and that staff member comply with the precautionary measures advised by Public Health England (PHE).
Government guidance is being updated daily about which countries and/or areas should be avoided.
Some firms may decide that asking all staff returning from holiday to work from home for a short period is a sensible measure if it is practical to do so.
This would cover the risk of a fellow traveller having been infectious even if the holiday destination is not deemed to be in a risky area.
Where it is not practical for people to work from home, the view may be that self-isolation is only required in accordance with the official guidelines.
In either case, the most sensible practical step may be to ask people to self-report to the firm’s HR team when they return from a trip, and before returning to the office, so that the business rather than the individual, can make a decision about what they need to do.
The majority of firms will probably already have taken the view that international meetings are better held electronically rather than face-to-face, if this is feasible.
Movement between offices – If you have a multi-site business, you may consider restricting movement between offices.
This could help minimise the impact on your business or the need to close more than one office for deep cleaning at any one time in the event of a member of staff testing positive.
Clients and other business contacts – Protecting and monitoring your in-house teams is only part of the picture.
You should also be asking clients whether they, or anyone they have been in close contact with, has been abroad in the past few weeks.
If so, then you need to identify where they have been; whether they might have been in close contact with someone who has coronavirus; and whether they have a cough, fever and/or difficulty in breathing.
If you think there is a possible danger, then either schedule their meeting for a date more than two weeks ahead or consider holding the meeting electronically.
Business continuity and technology – Have you identified key roles in your firm that would be necessary for continuity purposes; and considered how a temporary office closure would be managed?
You should also review your insurance policies.
Fortunately, many of us are able to keep our businesses running while a high proportion of staff work remotely.
Your chosen approach to technology will dictate the precise way in which you approach this. If you need to close one or more offices, how many people will be able to work effectively from home?
Is now a good moment to maximise laptop use and/or enable additional remote logins?
If you are not already a mobiles-only office, ensure that everyone knows what your system is capable of in terms of diverting calls to mobiles.
Are you geared up to have multi-person meetings electronically via Microsoft teams or similar?
Communicate – Keeping people informed as to what is happening, initially internally but also potentially externally, is key.
Make sure all your staff know what is expected and who to contact to ask any questions they may have.
Pre-prepare statements that could be issued internally, sent via email to clients and contacts, and also used externally on your website and via social media if you need to close an office.
What to avoid – Avoid discrimination and panic.
Remember that any health information is a ‘special category’ of personal data and no one should be singled out for different treatment based on their nationality or ethnicity.
Make sure you’re applying policies around flexible working and sickness absence fairly at all times.
Above all, take sensible, pragmatic business decisions; and don’t join the rush to buy more loo rolls than anyone could conceivably need in the near future.
Antony Sloan is the HR director at Ashtons Legal