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Safely Opening Your Law Firm's Office After COVID-19

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Are you wondering about how you can safely reopen your law firm and whether flexible working arrangements will be possible for your staff?

Joe Nicholls from Wards Solicitors and Symphony Legal HR Consultant Jo Kangurs discussed their practical advice on our recent webinar to help law firms re-open their offices after the COVID-19 pandemic, how to deal with objections in complying with covid-secure policies and whether you should embrace a post-pandemic way of working. 

When thinking about asking your employees to return to work, they recommend: 

  • Making sure you have a strategy in place
  • Testing your strategy
  • Stepping back and considering the impact of implementing the strategy
  • Being flexible on the application of the strategy

Communication is key

Talk to your teams about how they are feeling about returning to the office and where possible address any concerns and reassure people that you have taken the necessary steps to provide a covid-secure workplace.  

How do I safely reintegrate people?

Workplace testing and/or vaccinations are not an alternative to other covid-secure measures, for the time being, they are just other measures.  It is therefore important to continue reminding your teams about the importance of things like social distancing, handwashing, masks, ventilation and regular cleaning etc.

Can I make testing and vaccinations mandatory?

Government guidance states that employee testing and vaccination is not required by law. There is some useful government advice on returning to work including implementing a workplace testing policy but it is important to minimise the challenges of testing.

Key considerations include:

  • How will you operate it – onsite or from home?
  • Who will you test?
  • What are the consequences of a positive test? Will employees be paid for self-isolating? 
  • Data protection of such data

The ICO provide some guidance on data protection and testing employees.

With testing and vaccinations, it’s important to consult and introduce a policy. When implementing a policy, you need to let your employees know - what is happening, why, and what is expected of them. ACAS have some guidance on employees getting the coronavirus vaccine.

How do I manage those who are shielding and returning to work?

Those who were shielding may require different conditions. Options include offering continued furlough in the short-term if they cannot return to the office to do their job, redeployment, statutory sick pay, or suspending them on medical grounds. You could also investigate a flexible working arrangement. 

Is a flexible working policy possible for your law firm?

It’s clear that employees now want the flexibility of working from home so they can maintain a good work-life balance but can also come into the office to have a social interaction with team members. Therefore, it is necessary to talk with your employees, so you understand what your staff want to do. 

Jo said, “If businesses don’t look at having a flexible approach, they will struggle to attract and retain the best talent”. 

Remember, when considering the post-pandemic way of working think carefully about how this will look in your firm and have a clear plan before discussing options with your teams:

•    Do your employees have a proper set up at home? 
•    Do you have the right insurance in place? 
•    Who will pay for home working equipment? 
•    How can you supervise people working from home and how will you manage productivity? 
•    How will you manage training new starters and knowledge sharing?
•    How will you ensure all team members feel engaged and included? 
•    Where can employees get assistance and guidance from? 
•    How much time are employees spending online?

DON’T be afraid to say that you need people back in the office if that is what you require to deliver an effective service to your clients. The working from home arrangement we have adopted over the last year was only ever intended to be temporary. 

How do I manage refusal to return to work?

Your responsibility is to overcome challenges, put policies in place that support employees, allow people time off to be vaccinated and tested and encourage them back in. 

Ultimately, if they refuse to come in and you believe it is unreasonable, disciplinary action, withholding pay, giving unauthorised absences, and suspending employees might be lawful 

Providing your approaches are reasonable, proportionate, and objectively justifiable, you cannot go far wrong.

The key to implementing a successful return to work is to regularly consult with your staff and understand their needs.