Innovation and Evolution will Guide Firms Back to the Office: Recap Blog | Tenant Talks

On April 28th, 2021 Formcraft hosted the latest edition of our virtual speaker series, Tenant Talks™. This time we wanted to talk about how innovation and evolution will guide firms back to the office in 2021 and beyond. 

Panelists included representatives from Formcraft, Cozen O’Connor, and Morgan Lewis. Justin Henry, a reporter with The Legal Intelligencer, moderated the event for us.  

Our panelists discussed their current firms and how the pandemic has forced them to be innovative in the face of many challenges. 

Here’s what we learned.

(More of a watcher than a reader? Watch the video recording of the event here.)

The panelists started by discussing, in general, the types of challenges they’ve faced since the pandemic started. 

Vincent McGuinness, President and Managing Partner at Cozen O’Connor said that his firms faced a lot of challenges over the last year. Those challenges were in three main areas of the business: operations, finance, workplace culture

He said that while the first two were relatively easy to overcome after some planning and preparation. Workplace culture, however, is something that his firm is still working on. 

“We have to make sure we have the right work-life balance in place,” said Vincent. 

Sarah Bouchard, Office Managing Partner at Morgan Lewis talked about lessons learned from other Morgan Lewis offices around the world. Mainly, learning from offices in Asia who were ahead of the United States in dealing with the pandemic. Sarah also touched on how the pandemic has taught us to be more flexible in response to changes in the office environment. 

“There’s a lot of partners who would never have done a pro forma online, and now everyone is doing that online,” Sarah used as an example. 

She also touched on the fact that during the last year, the legal industry has proven that they can in fact go paperless. 

Jeremy Drummond, Design Principal at Formcraft, wrapped up the discussion with a quote he recently heard: “Nothing forces change quite like a pandemic,” especially in the legal industry.

Question #1: What’s your firm’s approach to returning to the office? Is it a high priority? Do you anticipate any issues with this?

Sarah started off the discussion by saying that employee safety is the most important thing. Morgan Lewis is relying on information from the Health Department and their recommendations as far as reopening the office. 

She talked about the importance of creating a solid plan and sticking to that plan. At Morgan Lewis, they are strongly recommending their staff and partners to get vaccinated when it’s possible for them to do so. 

Vincent agreed that the first and most important thing is safety and getting vaccinated. He said that having those safety measures in place will make it possible for firms to get back into the office, which is the overall goal.

“I think there is huge value in having folks return back to the workplace,” Vincent said. 

Vincent also talked about how employees actually want to return to the office. That people are missing that human connection with coworkers

Because Jeremy designs workplace environments, he has noticed a lot of changes to protocols and policies, as well as planning and strategizing in many organizations. He wrapped up this question by talking about having a more functional workspace for the environment we are currently in. 

Justin then asked Jeremy about global design changes.

Jeremy said that he doesn’t see a future where there are lots of global design changes. Rather, design changes will reflect what your organization and its people need. 

For example, the global design changes that we thought we would universally have to put in place 10-12 months ago (i.e. planning for social distancing), aren’t actually happening. 

One universal change he has seen in organizations is prioritizing their staff’s health and wellbeing. 

“Health and wellness have really moved to the top of the list,” Jeremy said. 

Question #2: Is mental health as big a concern for your firm as providing safety measures to protect your employees from COVID-19? And what are you doing to help alleviate this?

Sarah brought up the fact that safety and mental health often go hand in hand. She used the example of an employee being afraid to use public transportation because of the possibility of getting sick. 

Sarah also talked about how there are different levels of mental health issues for different segments of the firm’s employees. She used the example of someone who lives alone and has continuing feelings of isolation since the COVID-19 pandemic began. She also touched on the fact that parents who work from home have to help their children with schoolwork, a job they did not sign up for. 

“You have a whole host of really huge stressors and have to recognize that a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work,” Sarah said. 

Vincent touched on his firm’s experience in dealing with mental health in the last year as well. 

“People are experiencing such significant changes in their lives, whether they are affected directly or indirectly, because of the pandemic,” Vincent says. 

Vincent went on to explain that it’s important that firms provide support service, guidance, and communication to ensure their associates and partners are doing well in terms of physical health and mental wellbeing.  

Jeremy then asked the panelists to weigh in on their thoughts about pressures to return to the office and how those pressures are affecting stress and mental health. 

Sarah said that she hopes her employees do not feel that pressure. She said that the pandemic has given the legal industry a need to be flexible in a way that the legal profession has never been before. 

Jeremy touched on the fact that research and analysis have shown that professional development and growth have suffered greatly during the pandemic.  

Vincent wrapped up the mental health discussion by talking about other outside factors that have affected so many people during the last year, including racial injustices and political turmoil. He said that these factors, plus the pandemic, have really affected the mental well-being of a lot of associates and partners and that these factors need to continue to be addressed going forward.

Question #3: How has working remotely impacted your organization’s culture? If it’s been impacted negatively, how have you worked to improve the culture?

Vincent said the key to enhancing and maintaining a positive workplace culture is collaboration. He said that spontaneous peer-to-peer type training and collaboration has suffered because of the pandemic, but that technology like Zoom has helped combat that impact. 

Sarah touched on her firms’ culture before the pandemic and some changes they’ve had to make in order to keep a good culture in place while so many people were working from home. One example she used is that her firm instituted a virtual book club, where they read a book that was relevant to the work they do. 

“We also had meditation breaks every day with tips on mental health,” Sarah said of her firm’s changes to workplace culture.

Question #4: What are you hearing from firms and other businesses about the range of options that employees can expect as far as their work schedule goes, moving forward?

Jeremy talked about how most businesses are more than willing to offer a flexible scheduling option to their employees. 

“Ultimately it has to be a strategy that’s rooted in engaging and understanding your employee base and the organization,” Jeremy said. 

Sarah discussed her firm’s strategy and the fact that they want their policies to attract high-quality employees while also adhering to safety protocols

Vincent says that his firm is still working on a policy about schedules and what options are provided to their employees. He said that there are so many components that come into play, that there shouldn’t be a rush to put a policy in place, and that firms will have to remain flexible

Question #5: Do you believe that the innovative approaches that your firms are developing will improve your associate’s perception of the firm’s care for them? 

Jeremy reiterated a point that Sarah made which was that it is extremely important to listen to your employees and what they have to say. He touched on the fact that it’s important to make sure your employees feel comfortable at work and comfortable with their work schedules

“Communication has never been more important than it has been over the last year. And I think moving forward all employees will want to know what the organization is thinking,” Jeremy said. 

Sarah said that they really try to listen and hear what their employees are saying. 

Vincent wrapped up this question by talking about the importance of communication and engaging your employees

It was great to hear industry experts discuss the current workplace and their plans for the physical office moving forward.

To listen to hear the poll question and answers and find out what our audience asked, watch the full TenantTalks™ video recording here.

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