As the COVID-19 global pandemic enters its eighth month, with no definitive date on things returning to “normal,” law firms have been forced to change their status quo on pretty much everything. Operating a law firm during this time of crisis has brought with it a unique set of wide-ranging challenges. For instance, while some industries have allowed remote working for years, remote working at a law firm has been rare. Seemingly overnight, firms went from response planning to shutting down offices and sending employees home to work. As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, many firms had no choice but to implement a remote work atmosphere in an effort to keep attorneys and staff healthy and comply with mandatory shutdown orders. Law firm management is now pulled in many different directionsfrom managing communications and crisis response planning, to maintaining continuity of the firm’s operationsall while keeping employees engaged and monitoring and tracking performance.  While the pandemic has been mostly taking from everything and everyone in sight, in small ways, it has also been giving back. Firms have generally struggled with employee engagement and the ability to find successful alternatives to the ever-dying annual performance review. The pandemic, however, has provided us with opportunity to cure these challenges.

The initial excitement from months of firmwide virtual happy hours and socials can only last so long. Easy-to-implement engagement ideas can include things such as weekly email competitions seeking pictures of work at home life, scavenger hunts or firm history trivia contests. Select a few random winners who receive a nominal gift card.  Also incorporate dress down days for those select staff working in the office. Firms can also boost engagement by recognizing and rewarding employees for their good performance. Employee recognition can help productivity and keep your employees dedicated. Recognition can come in a form of a gift card, home delivery from a local restaurant, a simple acknowledgment like saying thank you and calling out an employee for their hard work during a virtual firm meeting. As we approach the holiday season, look at interactive virtual celebrations that can bring employees together, even if physically far apart (or at a six-foot distance!). Consider hiring an outside facilitator to run a virtual wine and cheese tasting or a virtual cookies or gingerbread house competition. Normally at this time of year firms would be supporting in-office food and toy drives and should still do that even if it’s replaced with electronic gift cards that the firm collects to send to local charities.

It is important for firms to keep up with all of this positive employee engagement because engagement is a key driver in overall performance. We do not have the luxury of dropping in an employee’s office or stopping by their cubicle to do check-ins so we need to determine the best way to meet with employees (phone, Skype, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.), but beware of Zoom fatigueit is still appropriate to have phone calls when face-to-face meetings are not necessary! It’s important for managers to meet with their employees more often during stressful times. Meeting with each employee provides the proper support and attention one may need. Consider scheduling weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one meetings to see how employees are doing. During the meeting be sure to discuss priorities, deadlines, status of projects, clear expectations and any anticipated barriers resulting from pandemic related priorities (such as homeschooling children or mandatory quarantine due to exposure). It’s also very important that you listen to your employeesmake sure you ask for feedback on areas where they may need support.

You may have some employees who weren’t as productive and now during the pandemic their productivity levels are still subpar or worse due to the crisis-induced circumstances. While it may be hard to separate out productivity issues in the office versus in the home, keep in mind employees have had to adjust to fully remote work, sharing remote workspaces with spouses and/or children and juggle caregiving responsibilities. It’s recommended to communicate and set clear expectations, but demonstrate flexibility, being mindful that not all employees have an ideal telecommuting setup while daycares and schools remain closed/partially closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, be patient and understanding and encourage your employees to take paid time off if they need it during these times to tend to their other responsibilities.

Lastly, while this time of year usually lends to annual performance reviews, firms look at whether a revised approach to formal employee evaluations. This year employees have double the stress of working from home during a global crisis with little to no separation of work and home life. Firms should instead be conducting 360-degree reviews throughout the year. This allows for less than exemplar performance to be addressed head on, as it is occurringthere is no reason to wait until the end of the year to correct an employee’s poor performance. By evaluating performance throughout the year, it also relieves the stress that often builds up during the anticipation of an annual performance review. If your firm still plans to implement the annual review process, consider that one size does not fit all, not before and definitely not during a global pandemic. The work from home situation is not the same for everyone and so considerations have to be made. Review your current performance tracking system and evaluation forms to see where adjustments need to be made to ensure you the metrics make sense for the current state of working. It may make sense to postpone formal annual performance reviews until the first or second quarter of 2021 so that the firm has opportunity to assess the bottom line impact 2020 has caused on firm profits. Whichever path your firm chooses, it’s most important to be clear with communication on the process and metrics used.

Even though restrictions were beginning to ease and firms implementing phased return-to-work plans, as global coronavirus cases begin to again surge, the threat of another shutdown looms.

Our industry, along with the rest of the world, was caught off guard when COVID-19 hit. We now have the opportunity of lessons learned and we need to take advantage of that now.

Reprinted with permission from the November 12, 2020 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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