Big Ideas ALA Executive Director’s Letter

Crisis Affects Everyone Differently — Here’s How to Make Sure Your Communications Reflect That

For the coming months, members of ALA’s volunteer leadership will be taking turns writing the Executive Director’s Big Ideas column. We hope you enjoy the fresh perspectives they’ll be sharing.

In a time of crisis, it is very important to embrace diversity and inclusion in the workplace. ALA is committed to maintaining an inclusive environment for the entire law community during this difficult time. 

As law firm leaders and managers continue to transition business operations to virtual spaces, all members of the legal community are encouraged to keep equity and inclusion at the forefront of their interactions. Below, we share a lot of ways you can help ensure we continue to uphold our values in regard to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Firms should be mindful of the ways in which a crisis can affect various communities and how individuals from different backgrounds (race, ethnicity, age, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) may have varying responses to the same situation based on their life experiences. Be cognizant that during a global crisis there may be increased tension and heated discussions. 

Use constructive language and good judgment when communicating about the pandemic. Refer to the virus as either “COVID-19” or “coronavirus” in both oral and written communications and not by a name that associates the virus with a specific region or group of people.

Ensure that your materials are accessible for individuals who may be differently abled. For video meetings with Zoom, you can record the meeting and enable captions that will appear when the video is downloaded. You can also use the chat box feature to share written notes, which can be saved and shared later. 

RUNNING VIRTUAL MEETINGS SUCCESSFULLY

When running virtual meetings, make sure you’re being inclusive. First and foremost, double-check your invitation list and make sure you are not leaving anyone off that should participate. If you are going to do a check-in, make sure you ask everyone on the call for an update — not just the people with families and children. Make sure you avoid “groupthink,” but also don’t put anyone on the spot if they are uncomfortable speaking. 

Be kind. Be flexible. Be adaptable. Be a role model for inclusive behaviors. Remember, everyone has different circumstances and is operating with different resources and could have additional stressors during this time.

You want to give everyone a chance to review the agenda, so send it out to attendees at least 24 hours ahead of time. This allows the team to come better prepared and ready to participate, while also giving those who are hesitant to speak up during the meeting a chance to share their thoughts, too. Interrupt interruptions to ensure everyone can be heard. 

Additionally, remember to be extra patient during any IM and video conversations. Sometimes communications over these new channels can break down without a conscious effort to maintain kindness. Finally, follow up after each meeting and ask for feedback.

COMMUNICATE WITH KINDNESS

Use language that exhibits respect and sensitivity to everyone you are communicating with. As one example, to avoid gender-specific language, you can use generic greetings like “Dear Team” or “Good Morning Team” when addressing a class or large numbers of individuals in emails, announcements and videoconferences. Additionally, make sure that you say and spell everyone’s name correctly and that you use correct pronouns. 

As leaders, we need to be cognizant of our personal biases and blind spots. While many different biases exist, the three you should watch out for in times of crisis are affinity bias, confirmation bias and attribution bias. Question your assumptions and the decisions you make about people. Ask yourself, “Why am I including the individuals I have chosen in my decision-making process, and what are the real actual capabilities I need?” Emphasize decisions, not opinions. Have the courage to hold yourself and others accountable.

Be kind. Be flexible. Be adaptable. Be a role model for inclusive behaviors. Remember, everyone has different circumstances and is operating with different resources and could have additional stressors during this time — such as an ill family member, a family member who lost a job, having to parent and teach children, etc. Now more than ever, it’s important to leverage everyone’s unique perspectives and ideas and reinforce your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion through your daily communications and actions. 

Extra Resources
ALA’s Diversity and Inclusion resources
Tips for Increasing Equity and Access When Running Remote Meetings
5 Things to Know About Coronavirus and People with Disabilities
COVID-19 Teaches Us A Lot About Differences in the Disability Community
7 Best Practices for Supporting Employees During COVID-19
How Managers Screw Up Inclusion Efforts in a Pandemic
The Forum on Workplace Inclusion Podcast
50 Ways to Fight Bias
Using Closed Captioning on Zoom

 
OM Feature Operations Management

Bringing Workers Back to the Office

Working from home may be nearing its end — partly, anyhow. And after weeks spent teleconferencing and video chatting, many thousands of law firm personnel are doubtless eager to return to their offices. In managing this reverse migration, though, law firms must coordinate a patchwork quilt of safety measures, procedural modifications, effective communications and technological innovations.

Phillip M. Perry

“Legal administrators will play a crucial role in developing re-entry policies,” says Angela Pinto, Senior Director of Administration at Los Angeles-based Fisher Phillips, a firm with over 35 offices in 24 states. “The Chief Talent Officer and I have started to discuss the best way to proceed. I have a great team of office administrators who have volunteered to work on a task force dedicated to the issue.”

The multifaceted nature of a successful re-entry initiative is not lost on those in the driver’s seat. “We need to be cognizant of three principles,” says Jack Huddleston, Executive Director of Administration at Thomas Horstemeyer in Atlanta. “The first and foremost one is to ensure employee safety. The second is to address operational necessity. Finally, we need to continue to provide quality client service.”

FEAR ITSELF

Perhaps the greatest challenge will be convincing people the workplace is safe. “There is still a lot of fear out there about returning,” says Debra Gray, Executive Director at Frandzel Robins Bloom & Csato and President of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of ALA. “Our top challenge is making sure employees trust that firm management is putting good policies and procedures in place to keep everyone safe.”

Given that trepidation, a successful program will require not only the requisite safety measures but also effective communications. “People have a right to be concerned about their safety,” says Timothy B. Corcoran, Principal of Corcoran Consulting Group. “Law firms need to make safety measures known publicly with lots of signage so everyone can work effectively without undue concern about their personal health.”

Safety measures may start with the obvious provisions of sufficient masks, sanitizers, gloves and antiseptic gels. Corcoran advises filling up “goody bags” with such items and handing them out to the staff.

“We need to be cognizant of three principles. The first and foremost one is to ensure employee safety. The second is to address operational necessity. Finally, we need to continue to provide quality client service.”

A successful program, though, must also tackle procedural concerns. Some revered staples of office life may need to be retooled. “Law firms will be asking questions as simple as, ‘Do we use a single-service coffee machine or a group coffee maker?’” says Corcoran. “Or ‘How about an ice maker or an ice dispenser where we can get single servings?’ Then they can go on to more challenging topics such as, ‘Do we have to remove chairs from the conference rooms so people sitting down can remain 6 feet apart?’ or ‘Should we just have one person turn on and off the office lights?’ or ‘Will employees wear masks and gloves in common areas and restrooms?’”

No manageable element of the workplace is out of bounds. Some firms will be taking temperature readings of arriving employees, establishing one-way hallways where possible, and posting signs indicating the occupational status of bathrooms. Others will be requiring social distancing in elevators. Building cafeterias will likely remove their salad bars. And fitness centers — for those firms that had them — will be closed. If the details differ by firm, the larger intent is the same. Says Huddleston: “All things we can control, we have controlled.”

Some safety measures present special challenges. Maintaining the proper distance between workers, for example, will be difficult for firms that have reduced their footprints in recent years. “Firms will have to decide if they need to modify their layouts in order to do social distancing,” says Michael Kemps, Chief Executive Officer at Innovative Computing Systems. “If the staff and the secretaries are normally too close together, for example, perhaps just one secretary will be assigned to come in per day. Or if the work cubes are too close to each other, some will have to be moved.”

Some firms will need to modify their so-called “hoteling” procedures. The term refers to the rotation of temporary workspaces for home-based personnel who float from desk to desk during occasional office visits. This technique, introduced as a response to rising lease costs, may now pose safety risks.

“Firms using hoteling will need to decide how to keep the work areas safe,” says Kemps. “Will staff members with dedicated laptops take them along as they move to various desks in the firm? And will people who use shared equipment be comfortable utilizing the same keyboards and mice?”

Not the least of the challenges is that of communicating the panoply of new procedures to employees who may feel overwhelmed by a long list of dos and don’ts. For Fisher Phillips, the solution recalls an old saying: a picture is worth a thousand words.

“People have a right to be concerned about their safety. Law firms need to make safety measures known publicly with lots of signage so everyone can work effectively without undue concern about their personal health.”

“We are creating a video that everyone will watch before returning to work,” says Pinto. “It will include topics such as proper mask wearing, handwashing and safe workplace procedures. We will also be preparing a similar video for viewing by office guests, such as opposing counsel, clients and candidates for interviews.”

No safety plan can succeed if too many people crowd into the office, placing themselves and others at risk. Many firms are moving to moderate the return flow by bringing back people in stages, even requiring volunteers to obtain clearance from legal administrators. And on the other side of the coin, firms are respecting the feelings of those fearful of an early return.

“Those who are not comfortable coming into the office may continue to work remotely,” says Pinto. “This is especially the case if the kids are out of school and the daycare centers are closed, or if people are caring for elderly family members.”

The bottom line, then, is pacing. “We will have a soft opening, not a hard, everyone-come-back-to-work one,” says Gray.

FUTURE NOW

If the COVID-19 pandemic is changing how law firms operate in the short term, still more modifications will occur over the long term. And many will center on technology.

A successful program, though, must also tackle procedural concerns. Some revered staples of office life may need to be retooled. “Law firms will be asking questions as simple as, ‘Do we use a single-service coffee machine or a group coffee maker?’” … ‘Do we have to remove chairs from the conference rooms so people sitting down can remain 6 feet apart?’” 

“Firms will probably be utilizing more cloud-based solutions,” says Huddleston. “And they will be working more in virtual environments with the help of collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams.” Increased use of docking stations, he says, will allow staff members to migrate from desk to desk and to work from home, employing multiple monitors that can increase productivity.

Indeed, that practice of working from home may be a bit stickier than anticipated. Huddleston feels the pandemic may bring about a change of heart at firms that have resisted the remote labor concept — and he doesn’t think that’s a bad thing.

“Remote work can reduce a firm’s required office space, saving money,” he says. “In addition, it can cut down on commute time with its related environmental impact. Finally, it can increase the job satisfaction of employees who enjoy the flexibility of working from home as circumstances dictate.”

A smaller workplace population may carry with it an unanticipated benefit, says Huddleston — a better signal-to-noise ratio. “Those people who do come into the office may experience a quieter, less distracting environment.”