Going back to the office in a COVID-19 world comes with risks for law firms

Workplace preparedness and the feasibility of a hybrid workforce are some issues firms should pay attention to, according to Marsh’s Mercer Marsh Benefits team

Going back to the office in a COVID-19 world comes with risks for law firms

Marsh’s Mercer Marsh Benefits (MMB) team has outlined some risks for law firms who are looking to go back to the office in a COVID-19 world.

Working from home has suited many firms, who report increased work-life balance and overall sense of well-being as a result, the risk advisory firm said. However, not all firms feel the same way.

Under the pandemic, more than half of professional services firms reported that employees had mental health problems as a result of the social isolation that comes with a remote work setup, according to the findings of a recent Mercer Global Survey.

“There is a lack of experience in managing remote workforces, and managers are not picking up on body language and physical traits due to this ‘invisible’ workforce,” Marsh’s head of group life, Chris Sinclair, told Australasian Lawyer. “There are also expectations to continue to deliver office-based KPIs at home, and entry-level employees are not having the mentorship and interaction with senior managers which they are used to in an office.”

Thus, Sinclair said, law firms have a chance to “adjust working models to enable a level of flexibility that meets the individual needs of their people.” Nonetheless, returning to the workplace poses its own risks, including the preparedness of the office itself and the need to incorporate flexible work arrangements into a hybrid setup.

With remote work having been the new norm for many professionals in the legal industry over the past few months, making the shift back to a full working day in the office can take some getting used to, physically and mentally.

“When firms rapidly sent employees home back in March, this instant change in environment increased the likelihood and severity of claims being made,” Sinclair said. “Firms need to establish peace of mind by ensuring there are measures in place to protect employees.”

He suggests that firms develop a “structured and gradual return to work plan” that he said should focus on “adjusting and building the cognitive resilience of their people” in addition to adhering to government mandates on social distancing.

In the process of developing a staggered schedule for return to the office, Sinclair said that firms should also establish a risk assessment/operational plan to determine the feasibility of a hybrid workforce. It can also help them ensure that they are complying with protocols, avoid fines and facilitate clear and effective communication.

“For those who wish to continue remote working, employers may be liable for injuries and incidents sustained by workers in their homes during COVID-19, even though they had little control over the home environment,” Sinclair said. “Employers should enquire if employees have appropriate equipment to set up a home office. If not, employers should assist in this process by purchasing new equipment, borrowing equipment from the office or encouraging employees to buy their own equipment.”

In modifying their working models, law firms could also see insurance premiums being affected, with life insurers proposing premium increases based on perceptions of future claims costs in the profession, Sinclair said.

“Any changes to an organisation’s working model can significantly affect salary continuance insurance (also known as income protection) premiums; already one of the biggest insurance premium spends impacting law firms. MMB has seen a notable increase in mental health salary continuance claims in recent months,” he said.

Firms should also not forget to give consideration to those who were hit by redundancy due to the economic impact of the pandemic forcing businesses to undergo restructuring.

“COVID-19 is a time where hard conditions drive businesses to make hard decisions, and looking after people affected by redundancy is just as important as looking after those retained in a firm,” Sinclair said.

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