With many states beginning to adjust their coronavirus health guidelines, law firms that shifted to remote work during the pandemic are now planning to re-open their doors. But what changes should be made so that employees and clients are protected against the spread of the virus? While law firms cannot go back to “business as usual,” there are some things that law firm leaders can do to safeguard the health of their team.
Establish a Transition Team
If you are considering re-opening your law firm, one of the first steps you might want to take is to create a transition team. This group will help identify any protentional health issues as well as oversee the safe re-opening of the business. A transition team can develop a plan for the return to work, utilizing the recommendations of the CDC, local government, and other public health officials. The plan should include items such as virus testing for employees, policies for transitioning from remote to in-person work, and guidelines for client visits. The team would monitor that this plan is implemented correctly and communicate with the legal or human resources team when needed.
Prepare the Office Building for Returning Employees
Prior to the law firm’s official re-opening, business owners should inspect the building to make sure it is ready for occupancy. You want to make sure that you are creating a healthy and safe workplace for everyone. To begin, check the HVAC system (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) to ensure that it is working properly. If possible, increase the total airflow supply in the building as well as the percentage of outdoor air and natural ventilation (ex: windows, doors, fans). Make sure the air filtration system is functioning; you may also want to bring in air diffusers and HEPA fans to help clean the air. Additionally, you should check for health hazards that commonly occur when a building is closed for a prolonged length of time, such as mold growth, stagnant water, or pests.
Create a Social Distancing Plan
To keep everyone at the firm as a safe social distance, you may need to adjust how the office is configured. Office furniture, including desks and seating, should be six feet away from each other. Where it is not possible to separate employee workspaces, you may want to install transparent shields or other physical safety barriers. In the communal areas such as conference rooms, break rooms, and office reception, you can use signs or tape to indicate where people can sit or stand to maintain an appropriate distance or when physical barriers are not possible. The law firm staff should clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces as often as possible (ex: doorknobs, elevator buttons, handrails, light switches, printer/copiers, workstations). If the law firm has a kitchen or break room, you can consider replacing high-touch items such as coffee pots, water coolers, and bulk snacks with alternatives like pre-packages or single-serve items.
Change the Way Employees Work
Making the workplace safe for employees is not just about spacing the furniture and disinfecting surfaces; it’s also about monitoring how employees behave once they arrive at the office. To begin, consider conducting health checks before employees settle at their work station. If they are not feeling well, or if they are taking care of a sick family member, that employee should be encouraged to stay home. Law firm leaders may want to stagger shifts and break times to reduce the number of employees in common areas. If possible, install some outdoor seating and encourage employees to take their meals and breaks outside (to take advantage of the fresh air and natural ventilation). All employees should have access to disposable wipes and other cleaning material, so they can be proactive about disinfecting their work areas. The law firm should provide plenty of hand sanitizer and soap; it is also a good idea to post reminders about the importance of washing your hands for at least 20-seconds.
Introduce Employee Mental Health Programs
In addition to creating a healthy and safe workplace, employers should also be mindful of their employees’ mental health. For example, employees may be worried about returning to work for fear of infection. Or, they might be distracted because of a sick or immune-compromised family member at home. Further, employees could be anxious about the current health crisis in light of its effects on the culture, economy, and the security of their loved ones. To manage these types of issues, employers should consider flexible work-from-home arrangements or introducing an Employee Assistance Program and other mental health resources.
Continue to Educate Employees About Health and Safety
The health and safety issues related to the coronavirus are ongoing, and as such, employers should continue to educate their team. Law firm leaders should draft guidelines about health assessments, good hygiene, the importance of protective wear, sanitizing your workspace, and appropriate social distancing. These guidelines should be shared directly with employees and also posted in strategic spots around the office building. Employers may also want to train their team about what to do if they’re not feeling well, either at home or when they’re in the office.
Re-opening a law firm during a pandemic may seem stressful and overwhelming – and that’s understandable. These are unprecedented times. The health and safety of your staff should be a top priority. By following the recommendations of the CDC and other public health officials, you will be well on your way to re-opening your firm as safely and successfully as possible.
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