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July 01, 2021 Vol. 46, No. 6

What now? Easing toward recovery, bars contemplate what ‘reopening’ means

By Dan Kittay

As pandemic restrictions ease and bars contemplate how to best return to their offices, there is a range of opinions on how much of the staff actually needs to be in the office in order to deliver services to members and the public.

There is general agreement on at least one idea: The disruption in workflow caused by COVID will have a lasting impact on how bars function.

"It's never going to be business as usual," says Yolanda Jackson, executive director of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

BASF had already been in the process of looking for a new building when the pandemic forced a shutdown in March 2020. After seeing that the staff could function remotely, bar leaders decided to scale down their footprint, eventually moving from the 23,000-square-foot headquarters to a new 12,000-square-foot space. The staff size has remained the same, but many workers alternate days in the office and days working remotely, and there are some shared offices, Jackson says.

Prior to the shutdown, the bar had a limited flextime policy that allowed some employees to occasionally work at home for limited periods. The pandemic spurred the bar to evaluate which jobs required a physical presence in the office, and which could be handled remotely.

The process of deciding how BASF would transition back to the office began with a staff-wide retreat, where employees talked about what they had learned from the shutdown.

"We can't come out of this pandemic and not talk about how it was good for us and how it was bad for us,” Jackson believes. "It was good for us in a lot of ways. We became more dependent on technology, which created a lot of efficiencies. We learned that we all don't need to be in the office five days a week in order to get our jobs done well. We learned where our weaknesses are as a team."

What will meetings, events look like now?

One important question for bars that are reopening is how to handle hosting events, such as CLE programming, committee meetings and networking functions. The word "hybrid" has become part of the lexicon, as bars try to accommodate those who want to meet in person and those who have become comfortable attending by Zoom or other video technologies.

BASF, which like many bars saw an uptick in CLE attendance when seminars were all done remotely, plans to keep offering many programs online. Jackson says that with many lawyers now working remotely for their firms, there are likely fewer who would be willing to drive into San Francisco for a program, preferring to participate from their computer. The bar expects in the fall to begin offering some of its larger programs on a hybrid basis, with about 50 people being able to attend in person and the rest connecting remotely.

The Dallas Bar Association will also be offering some hybrid CLE programming beginning in the fall, says Jessica Smith, the bar’s communications and media director. The DBA is different from many bars in that most of the staff has been working in the office since July 2020, Smith says. "We own our own building, and we each have offices, so we can easily socially distance," she explains, adding that a few employees with higher health risks worked remotely.

With the full staff now back in the building, the bar plans to ease into hybrid meetings, starting with some committees and eventually expanding to a limited offering of hybrid CLE programs beginning in September. The plan is to offer some programs online and in person, with the rest being in person with attendees following whatever safety guidelines are in place at the time, Smith says.

The DBA, too, saw an increase in remote CLE attendance during the peak of the pandemic, and it has installed equipment that will make it easier to stream programming. Predicting what attendance will be when things reopen is hard, Smith notes. Some members have said they are eager to get back to in-person events. On the other hand, there are more members who are farther away from the headquarters building who have attended remotely, and are likely to continue their attendance that way, Smith says.

The hybrid small bar

Hybrid is the name of the game for the Johnson County (Kansas) Bar Association, says Tracey DeMarea, executive director. The bar had moved into a new office in January 2020, shortly before things were shut down for the pandemic.

Working remotely was not a big challenge for DeMarea, who is the only staff member and was able to make the transition to an office at home. The biggest change was not being able to have the in-person events that were a big part of the bar's offerings.

The bar has acquired equipment to stream programming, and plans to offer in-person seating for about 30 members, with the rest connecting through Zoom.

DeMarea is also going to implement a hybrid schedule for herself. Her plan is to work from her home office on Mondays and Fridays. For parts of that time, she intends to work offline, to reduce the distraction of emails and notifications coming her way. She will be reachable by mobile phone and will connect periodically throughout the day.

How much of a factor is age?

The idea of working at least part time from home is not a new one, although bars have traditionally been reluctant to adopt it in any large way. While the pandemic may have forced the issue, there are other factors at work.

Younger workers who are "digital natives" have grown up with technology and are generally more accepting of the idea that "they can work anywhere," says Kathleen Pearson, chief human resources officer at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman in San Diego.

For those individuals, "work is a thing, not a place," Pearson says. She noticed that younger associates in her firm believe that it doesn't matter if they are working down the hall or miles away, as long as the work gets done. For some of the senior partners, the concept was a little harder to accept. Pearson developed the “thing/place” phrase to try to make it easier for senior partners to understand the approach of the younger associates.

While the idea that older generations are more opposed to remote working has general acceptance, talks with clients show that's not always the case, says Heinan Landa, CEO of Optimal Networks, an IT services provider that works with for-profit companies and nonprofit associations.

"If you look at the 'older generations,' there are some that had a chance to work remotely and loved it,” he notes. “On the flip side, there are the leadership of some organizations that just want to be back in the office."

Some younger workers feel that same way, Landa says: They want to have a place to come to where they can network and have a social connection.

Proceed with care

Some of Landa’s association clients have said that if workers don't want to come back to the office, the association will just hire new ones. Others have said that it's clear that no one wants to come back to the office, so the association will get rid of the offices and work remotely.

Whatever the approach an association decides to take toward returning to the office, Landa echoes the Bar Association of San Francisco’s Jackson in saying it’s important for leaders to make sure their staff has input into the decisions.

“The pandemic isn’t quite over yet,” he notes. “You have to be sensitive to the fact that your workforce has been at home, terrified, for the past year. I don’t know how productive it is to just say, ‘Everyone just come back to the office, now.’”

And many people are now experiencing a whole new anxiety, Landa adds, as they fear resuming in-person work and catching COVID as a result. Health and safety protocols are important—but so are communication and understanding.

“You have to be more closely connected to the pulse of your workforce than ever before,” Landa says. “[If you aren’t,] you lose the trust as a leader that you have their best interests in mind.”