Returning to the Office?

COLUMN > Ask a Legal Administrator

While a return to the workplace may be up in the air for some, this new column asks a group of law firm administrators for a point-in-time snapshot of how their firms are approaching key logistical issues.

Photo © Getty / Onurdongel

NOTE: The information in this column was collected in August and may have changed since then due to evolving guidance regarding COVID-19.

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Q. What COVID-19 policies and procedures are you considering maintaining as part of your “new normal”? How will vaccines play a role?

Susan Williams (Williams Kastner): Williams Kastner will continue to follow any state or local mandates, and we will consider hybrid work arrangements for our staff and attorneys. While we have previously allowed remote work in certain circumstances, we will take what has worked successfully and incorporate it into our decision-making for hybrid work approvals moving forward.

At this time we are requiring everyone to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status. We will continue to follow mask mandates of state and local areas, and require anyone who is not fully vaccinated to wear a mask in our offices. This includes guests.

Kristin Stoddard (Summit Law Group): We have followed the CDC and state recommendations as of June 30, including continuance of daily health screenings. Summit is not requiring our employees to receive a vaccination, but we do highly recommend it. Those who have provided proof of vaccination can now choose to not wear a mask on-site and do not need to quarantine with any potential exposure. Any person who has not provided proof will need to continue to wear masks in common areas and will be required to do a 14-day quarantine if exposed.

Ann Callahan (Helsell Fetterman): I see us following the changes in regulations pretty closely, preferring a lagging pace to some extent. I think the preference here is to revert step by step to prior norms. We are offering incentives for those getting vaccinated, and I can see that continuing for some time to come. We have rolled out remote work policies and these are expected to become a part of the norm. Those who are unvaccinated will be required to wear masks. I can see us making changes to mask policy in phases—a month or so of continuing to wear masks (for all) in public spaces, but not at desks.

Mikael Kvart (Friedman | Rubin PLLP): With every one of our attorneys and staff fully vaccinated, we are not maintaining any COVID-19-related policies or procedures for our own people beyond what might be required. However, some of our employees will continue to mask and social distance because of unvaccinated children or vulnerable people in their lives. COVID-19 restrictions will still apply to unvaccinated visitors. Of course, this could all change depending on what direction the global pandemic takes.

Q. Are you requiring employees to reveal their vaccination status? Why or why not?

Williams: We require masks regardless of vaccination status as state or local authorities require/recommend, and when it is appropriate, we will permit fully vaccinated employees to work in the office mask-free. Our firm has recently rolled out a vaccine mandate policy in an effort to safeguard the health of our employees and their families, our customers, and the community at large. This policy requires proof of vaccination and the signing of a verification form. We will address requests for medical or religious accommodation on a case-by-case basis.

Stoddard: We are not requiring employees to reveal their vaccination status for several reasons. We want our employees to understand we take their privacy seriously. This also allows many to know that they will not be discriminated against or treated differently if they choose not to receive the vaccine.

Callahan: Our only requirement around revealing vaccination status is related to wearing a mask. We are now allowing fully vaccinated employees to discontinue wearing masks in the office—if they wish to do so. Vaccination status must be revealed to me only (HR), and we have named four forms of documentation that are acceptable: CDC card, photo of CDC card, signed document from health care provider, or credible documentation from the state immunization information system.

Kvart: Everyone was invited to voluntarily share their vaccination status, to help us understand what we were dealing with. The initial plan was to allow only vaccinated attorneys and staff in the office, meaning those who were unvaccinated or preferred not to say would be asked to not come into the office. As it turned out, every single person was vaccinated!

Q. When are you planning to bring employees back on-site? Will it be voluntary or required?

Williams: Employees were scheduled to return at least one day per week in July, and at least three days per week in August. Absent any state or local changes to the contrary, we expect to have our offices “fully” open the second week of September, allowing for a hybrid office/home schedule that has been working successfully.

Stoddard: Summit has been running a full-time voluntary crew that comprises about 15 percent of the firm since Phase 1. We planned for a full reopening Aug. 1, at which point people were required to begin working on-site based on their previously approved schedules. These schedules are predominantly hybrid, but some employees will be fully on-site or off-site.

Callahan: Beyond a small core group who have always been on-site, we’ve had workers rotating into the office since July 2020. There has been a very small group who, for specific reasons, have not come in at all. But the rest have been coming in one or two days per week, as the limitations allow.

Kvart: During the last 15 months we have found that our work as trial lawyers for the most part lends itself quite well to remote work. We are therefore letting everyone decide what works best for them—return to the office, continue to work remotely, or do some combination of the two—as long as that works for the team. This means that when they are needed in the office, we expect people to be there. We will monitor whether this arrangement continues to be effective and efficient longer term.

Q. Will you allow remote or hybrid employees to temporarily work outside the state? Outside the country?

Williams: This is more of a risk analysis determined by wage and hour, business licensing/taxes, unemployment, and workers’ compensation. If someone wants to log in and do some work while out of town on a short trip, it is not an issue. However, arrangements to work out of state for an extended period of time (i.e., other than vacation or need to temporarily care for a family member recovering from injury or illness) would not typically be allowed, as we are licensed to do business only in Washington and Oregon.

Stoddard: No, we do not allow any employees to reside/work outside of Washington.

Callahan: We are currently grappling with this question. We are small enough to have only one business location, and the work it would take to administer additional state/country locations is hard to justify.

Kvart: This is not new territory to us; we have had employees working remotely full time out of state for many years and have found the extra administrative work well worth it. For shorter periods of time we definitely don’t see a problem with this, but we will need to evaluate requests for longer-term remote work out of state or abroad on a case-by-case basis since there are so many factors to consider.

Q. What of the following factors (or others) are being considered in deciding who will work on-site, remotely, or in a hybrid role, and why?
  • Position
  • Department
  • Attorney preference
  • Billable vs. non-billable
  • Exempt vs. non-exempt
  • Health risks for vulnerable employees
  • Employees with children
  • Another determining factor

Williams: All of the factors listed are considerations, plus performance while working remotely and the employee’s ability to perform all (or a majority, without a burden to others) of their essential responsibilities. We are using the same methodology for allowing hybrid work as we would have prior to 2020, except we now have more data to determine what works and what does not. It is easier to convince attorneys of a productive staff member’s ability to work remotely part of the time, as we have a year’s worth of evidence to support it.

Stoddard: We encouraged employees to review several aspects of their work, including physical needs for equipment, needs of attorneys/practice groups, and ability to support the firm. We then asked them to consider their preference of working schedules and location, in combination with the working aspects already mentioned, to develop a proposed working arrangement. This arrangement was then run by their attorneys/practice group leaders for approval, then approval at the firm administrative level. Outside of a couple of positions that must remain in-house (reception and office services), we were able to accommodate all requests, with only a couple of very slight modifications. This allowed everyone to take ownership of their choices and will hopefully result in a more efficient and effective environment for all.

Callahan: Position function is the major factor. Beyond that, there will be expectations regarding productivity which, if not met, will result in withdrawing the remote work option. New hires, whatever the position, will be required to work in the office for at least six months before considering any remote work options. Per existing accommodation procedures, we may use remote work as a means of accommodation for those with specific health issues.

Kvart: At least for now we will let everybody choose their principal work arrangement—on-site, remote, or a combination of the two—as long as it works for the team. With the exception of our receptionists (who work in the office), individuals and teams have proven themselves to be highly productive while working remotely over the last 15 months.

Q. How will you try to create balance and equity for employees in different working situations—for example, for those who will be allowed to continue working remotely and for those whose jobs do not allow for remote work?

Williams: We will be working to encourage on-site work by resuming social activities such as birthday and anniversary celebrations, happy hours, and other opportunities to gather and reestablish our community and collegial culture. In addition, we will have virtual gatherings to make sure those who are remote still feel connected. It is important to our culture to make everyone feel appreciated, regardless of where they are working.

Stoddard: This is a tough thing to consider and judge, as everyone views it differently. Getting buy-in on schedules by letting each person determine what would work best for them is our attempt to provide each employee with the ability to decide what is equitable for them and what will create balance in their lives. It is up to them to maintain the level of quality and high expectations of the firm and our clients; so as long as they can, we feel we are giving them the best experience we can.

Callahan: As a baseline, I think it needs to be understood that not all jobs are equal. For instance, the person who processes mail can only do their work in person at the firm. None of the other typical roles require this. But no one thinks twice about this. The pandemic has prompted us to embrace remote work on a level never anticipated. In general, it’s worked well. But, as has always been true, not all job functions and not all personalities are suited to remote work. Given that our culture sees remote work as a benefit to the employee and not a burden, our approach will be two-pronged. We have been carefully analyzing the workflow of each position and gauging whether that function adapts well to remote work. We’ll make those analyses known to everyone. Any worker who wants to work remotely will have the opportunity to apply for that and to also define how many days per week they prefer. So I think much of the balance and equity is in standardizing the process. We are not including any financial elements on either side of the equation.

Kvart: At Friedman Rubin we have had people both on-site and working remotely for many years and are confident that we have created balance and equity for everyone regardless of where they work—although we understand that perhaps not every employee feels like that is the case. As we now see more people work remotely, we are watching for any issues in this space as they might come up so that they can be addressed.

Q. How are firms tracking productivity of hourly employees (who are not reporting billable time)? What methods or tools do employers intend to use for that?

Williams: Non-exempt staff continue to record their time on electronic timesheets as before and are trusted to work their hours. The proof is in their timely work product, reliability, and availability when needed during their work hours. In addition, we will require staff to be logged into Microsoft Teams and on their softphone when remote, so that they are available in “real time” to communicate with, as though they were in the office and we could walk up to their desks.

Stoddard: Summit has been requiring all off-site, non-exempt staff to clock in and out daily and for their lunches since the beginning of the mandated work from home. We will continue to do this in our new remote work policy. Additionally, the off-site staff need to send an email to their direct group and an admin distribution list at the start of each day. This allows us to start the day by opening communication within the group and ensuring everyone is online and accounted for. At this time, we are not tracking productivity through any software tools.

Callahan: A basic tenet here is that performance cannot be effectively managed by getting snared in the minutiae of attendance patterns. Further, if there are attendance issues, they are almost always reflected in productivity metrics. The better focus is on whether documents are being timely created/crafted/filed and whether billable-hours expectations are being met (for those who do report billable time).

Kvart: Ensuring productivity is a tricky area. At Friedman Rubin, we trust our employees to be truthful in reporting and putting in the required amount of work—just like we did pre-COVID-19 when people mostly worked in the office!

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“Ask a Legal Administrator” is a new Bar News column, developed with the help of the Puget Sound Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators (PSALA), that will cover a range of topics related to law firm administration. Have a question you’d like to pose to this group? Email us at wabarnews@wsba.org.

About the author

Susan Williams has been the HR director at Williams Kastner since 2018. Prior to that, she spent 14 years working in human resources at Davis Wright Tremaine. In her 30-plus years in the legal industry, Williams has been a receptionist, complex litigation legal assistant, and marketing coordinator, and provided executive support to the assistant general counsel at Washington Mutual. She earned her PHR in 2013 and her SHRM-CP in 2015.
» Number of attorneys at firm: 65; 56 in Seattle and nine in Portland.

About the author

Kristin Stoddard has worked within the Seattle legal market for over 20 years. She currently serves as the executive director of Summit Law Group and is committed to driving innovation, fostering the values of the firm, and ensuring the success of the firm and all its employees.
» Number of attorneys at firm: 36.

About the author

Ann Callahan, SHRM-SCP, CLM, has been a human resources professional for over 25 years, joining Helsell Fetterman LLP in 2007. Working in different industries—both large and small, publicly owned and privately owned—Callahan has a broad range of experience and knowledge.
» Number of attorneys at firm: 33.

About the author

Mikael Kvart is the business manager and general administrator of Friedman | Rubin PLLP, a plaintiff-side trial lawyer firm in Seattle. With degrees in both engineering and business, he enjoys the variety of his work and the people he gets to work with. Originally from Sweden, Kvart has lived in four countries on three continents.
» Number of attorneys at firm: 20.


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