April 24, 2020 4 minutes to read · 1000 words

Creating a Virtual Office Is Now Critical for Law Firms

By Jess Coburn

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As the coronavirus situation intensifies, it is becoming more and more apparent that we must become increasingly flexible and innovative in how we approach our day-to-day lives.

The major change will be that, for some firms, having a virtual workplace will evolve from being simply a convenience to becoming standard practices.

The major change will be that, for some firms, having a virtual workplace will evolve from being simply a convenience to becoming standard practices.

NickyLloyd/E+ via Getty Images

Nowhere is it more evident than in how we run our businesses. For law firms, this will require a total reevaluation of how business is conducted. For those firms with employees—as opposed to sole practitioners—it is critical to consider going fully remote during this time. It makes sense from a health standpoint and also from a business survival perspective. It’s important for employees to remain healthy and to be able to conduct work, especially during these uncertain times.

It’s also important to recognize that families are being impacted due to school and daycare closures, requiring employees to be at home to care for them.

All this being said, the move to a fully remote status requires a culture shift. For many law firms and other professional services organizations, this is a major adjustment. These firms take pride in their offices and regularly encourage client meetings in their conference rooms. Many firms have an “old school” perspective dictating that employees must “go to work” to be truly efficient, allow for collaboration, and develop a collegial work environment.

Fortunately, the technology exists to create a virtual workplace, and many firms are using it, allowing employees to work from home, on the weekends, and during business trips. As the COVID-19 crisis plays out, we’ll be seeing a much heavier dependence on technology to accomplish these tasks. The major hurdle could very well be cultural. We must acknowledge that virtual workplaces will likely be the wave of the future, well beyond the current pandemic.

The major change will be that, for some firms, having a virtual workplace will evolve from being simply a convenience to becoming standard, accepted, and mandatory practices.

Issues to Face When Going Virtual

Let’s take a look at several of the issues law firms will face as they create or increase their virtual presence:

  1. Recognize that this is the best strategy to maintain the health of your employees and clients. Those firms that aren’t making this move will likely lose clients and employees.
  2. As discussed, the technology allowing this already exists. Office 365 is perhaps the most efficient and comprehensive system. It is a cloud-based, integrated experience that empowers your employees with the tools they need to collaborate efficiently, communicate on the go, and access files with ease. Its business apps allow you to manage bookkeeping, customer scheduling, and referrals in a secure environment.
  3. The key element, though, is to utilize the communications tools such as video conferencing, conference calls, etc. Many firms have these capabilities. But now the critical issue is to use them all the time. For example:
    1. To minimize delays and interruptions, start each day with a short, five-to-ten-minute quickie meeting to address anything team members need from each other. Hold weekly conference/video calls to review files, challenges, and workloads. Most importantly, continually use the technology to enhance the corporate culture. Look at this as creating a virtual “water cooler” to focus not only on work, but also on camaraderie, social interaction, etc. When possible, it’s always preferable to use video communications.
    2. Use these same communications tools with clients.
    3. Use Office 365’s ability to monitor employee calls, e-mails, hours, and progress on files. Initially, this may seem “Big Brotherish,” but it’s no different than checking on these issues in-person at the office.
    4. Make sure all security protocols are in place and that files are password protected. It’s also best to set up your employees with company laptops as opposed to allowing them to use personal computers, which are more likely to be compromised. If they must use personal devices, bring them under management and help to secure and clean them before they can connect to the corporate network.
    5. Consider providing tutorials to clients on how to best set up virtual workplaces.

Tips to Help You Go Virtual

It will also be important for management to educate staff on best practices for working at home. It requires discipline, boundaries, and routine. Here are a few tips we have implemented since going virtual several years ago:

  1. Establish a schedule:
    1. wake up
    2. make coffee
    3. shower
    4.  get dressed for work
    5.  go to the office, which will be a few steps away as opposed to a few miles
  2. If possible, establish a dedicated workplace in your home. This signals to your spouse and children that you’re “at work” and that they should try not to disturb you.
  3. Recognize that it’s easy to “burn out” when working at home. It’s important to set boundaries by turning off the computer and walking out of your home office at the end of the day.
  4. Maintain the separation between weekend and weekday rituals. Saturdays are different from weekdays in that you may not shower or “get dressed” for work. And you may not get to your home office by 9 a.m. on the weekend, or at all.

The Advantages of Going Virtual

Once this new workplace culture is adopted, you’ll find that there are many advantages:

  1. Employees will take fewer “sick days” related to children, as they can still get in a full day’s work even with trips to the doctor.
  2. Workdays will start and end earlier, providing employees more time with family.
  3. When hiring, your law firm will no longer be restricted to a local talent pool. With a virtual workplace, firms can recruit and hire talent in other parts of the country. This transition is also a recruiting tool because future generations will expect this.
  4. An unexpected benefit is the elimination of “porch pirates” stealing packages shipped to your home—you are there to receive them.

The Challenges and Benefits of Going Virtual

The major challenge in managing a law firm is maintaining communication with the workforce, whether it’s virtual or face-to-face. This transition to virtual communication can’t be done overnight. There will be a time for adjustment so consider small steps as big victories.

This crisis will eventually end, but you might find a silver lining: The shift to a virtual office could be permanent, resulting in a more efficient workforce, the elimination of expensive rents, and the ability to recruit your workforce of the future.

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Jess Coburn is president and founder of Applied Innovations (www.appliedi.net), a Boca Raton-based firm that has helped many law firms protect data and succeed in the cloud since its inception in 1999. Today, Applied Innovations is one of Microsoft’s closest partners and a recognized industry leader in delivering high-performance, secure cloud solutions.

Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 9, April 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.