By Ben Aslet
Ben Aslet comments on increased remote working in response to the pandemic and how it may impact the profession long-term
With our health and economic situation now at fever pitch, law firms are trying to ensure everyone is equipped to work remotely so that it’s business as usual for the profession. But when this situation calms down, what will happen? Will your staff who are now working at home through necessity have revised their expectations of how they should work in the future – or will they revert to old habits? The time to reflect and plan how best to run your firm in future will come after the Covid-19 crisis abates, though we don’t yet know how long that might be. Remote working is already a reality for many law firms. The current crisis is proving that more job functions can be performed remotely than previously may have been thought possible. Can a practice manager, for example, operate remotely? With today’s technology, such as practice management and accounting software, combined with tech such as smartphones, laptops and using video conferencing, all office-based functions can be performed remotely.
There is good advice on the Law Society’s website regarding emergency planning around identifying a firm’s critical staff; how to keep them safe; and working from a separate part of the office or remotely. The Law Society emphasises the need to ensure that your IT systems are robust – and that you are able to facilitate remote working.
It is especially important to let your clients know that you are there for them and that your clients can depend on you. Your clients will also be feeling unsettled and worried about the impact of the crisis on their legal issues and will need reassurance. Technology can help you communicate better with your clients, with secure document sharing platforms, video conferencing, and so on. Lawyers can communicate with clients by using text messaging or services such as WhatsApp.
When you see the BBC using video conferencing to replace studio guests, as the country locks down, it is clear to see that remote working can become a normality. As far as your team is concerned, motivation is key to effective remote working, and ensuring your team continues to feel ‘as one’ is important. Remote working can bring feelings of isolation so, here, video conferencing comes to the fore once again. Think about setting up team groups on free video conferencing apps such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and Skype. Investing in good quality video conferencing cameras for your team will pay dividends and make things easy. If someone is working in a shared home office, buy them a phone headset. The setup costs for homeworking are minimal and no servers are required if you are using a cloudbased case management system.
Office environments make communication easy. So when you have lawyers and other staff members working remotely, it’s important to adopt agile working practices. Daily huddles (short snap meetings) can work well, enabling teams to come together to ensure their priorities, challenges, and so on are communicated. Set aside regular online chat time for your remote working staff to allow for communication. It is important that this aspect of the working culture is maintained, albeit electronically. It’s vital that remote workers feel engaged, motivated, empowered and an equally important part of your team. Highly functioning disparate teams should use chat software. It’s often quicker to type a quick message to someone using software such as Slack or Microsoft Teams than it is to pick up the phone. There is also the issue of the wellbeing of your staff to consider, so it important that remote workers take regular breaks, take some exercise – and talk to each other.
HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE
The case management software you use must be kept up-to-date with the latest forms and enables remote working. A cloud-based system is essential for remote working. A firm needs the whole team to be able to work on a matter concurrently and to be able to access all matter information remotely, from any connected device. Accounting software should integrate with case management software with no duplication of data entry. That is where mistakes can happen. Your software should enable you to perform all tasks remotely, whether that’s case management reporting, document management/generation, time recording, accounting, management reporting, and so on.
No supporting infrastructure is needed because a case management system in the cloud only requires a connected device. This means a simple setup and no costly servers. With the right system you can work from anywhere, accessing the same data in real time as your colleagues wherever they are. You will need software that has an offline mode that keeps you working even during periods when you may lose your internet connection. An important aspect of remote working is the ability to be mobile, so your software should enable you to work from a smartphone or laptop from anywhere that you choose, at any given time. Clients can now expect you to be in contact outside of office hours for any eventuality.
Many firms still accept cheques for monies on account, or ask clients to come to the office to make a card payment. However, with an accounting system linked to case management, the client is asked for monies on account when a new matter is set up. A bill can be sent to the client via a secure electronic system and paid online. It also means outstanding debts can be progressed electronically with automatic statements and payment reminders.
Remote working could well mean a firm might need less office space, thus saving money – but is this the right way to go for your practice? You might also want to consider hotdesking, which is a slightly different way of remote work for many larger firms (and large parts of the civil service). Combined with remote working, this can negate the need for a practice to provide a fixed desk for all employees. Having flexible working as part of your corporate culture is what the next generation of lawyers will want and expect; and the working conditions you offer will influence future career choices.
In reality, many firms will be likely to keep an element of remote working with someone working at home one or two days a week. Perhaps your practice manager and accounts department will be largely office-bound; but having the facility and to be able to work remotely will be reassuring in the case of future incidents or crises.
The ability for your business to be able to function remotely when required is going to be fundamental to the long-term success of your firm. Now is the time for action – and soon it will be the time for long-term continuity planning