COVID-19 has been disrupting businesses and law firms in fundamental ways. While many firms have been getting it right in navigating their staff through the crisis, other firms have managed to crank up the anxiety of their employees.
We will not name and shame the firms that appear to be getting it wrong, as these are difficult and unprecedented times. But hopefully these examples (out of dozens of emails received) might assist firms in learning how not to treat staff during an emergency.
In some cases there has been a dichotomy in what staff have told RollOnFriday their firms are doing, and what the firms profess to be doing. Which, at the very least, may mean that firms need to improve the ways they communicate with staff during tough times.
While the majority of firms have been telling their staff to work remotely this week, an insurance firm with offices across the UK was lambasted by numerous staff members for being "completely unprepared due to their chronic lack of investment in their IT systems" resulting in the servers being unable to "cope with everyone working from home". The firm was also criticised for having an insufficient number of laptops for staff to work from home.
The firm's apparent lack of concern for the well-being of its staff was also highlighted. One angry insider told RollOnFriday that after the Prime Minister advised people to work from home, the firm's Managing Partner sent an email to staff "stating that despite government guidance, the health secretary has said those that are healthy should go into the office." Another insider said that a colleague with “a chronic condition" and a "very weak immune system" was initially told by the firm that her condition wasn't serious enough to work from home and she had to produce a doctor's note and argue with HR before the firm agreed that she didn’t have to come in.
"We have prioritised homeworking for those at risk, as deemed by the government," a spokeswoman for the insurance firm told RollOnFriday. "We have the capacity for over 70% of people to work from home and are taking urgent steps to increase that capacity" she added. "Around a quarter of staff cannot work remotely due to the nature of their roles." She also said that the firm does "not operate in an entirely paperless way and we need to carefully consider our GDPR obligations to our clients", but that "we have measures in place to scan documents for those teams who have not yet moved to a paperless environment".
"At this stage therefore we do not have immediate plans to close our offices or move to 100% home working", the spokeswoman said. "We are therefore implementing a combination of home working and measures to support social distancing."
All ready for remote working by April 2021
An insider at a US firm said that management had discouraged staff from working remotely. "Juniors, trainees and PAs" were under "the most pressure to come in", said the source. "Some have been attending work despite minor symptoms, for risk of being seen as not resilient."
A spokesman for the US firm said they would make "no comment" other than to say that the London office had now closed and all fee earners were working from home "apart from limited staff to support infrastructure".
At a PI firm, a source told RollOnFriday "going against all government guidance" the firm "is still remaining open and requiring all staff to come in, including members of staff with underlying health issues such as asthma." The insider added "it is now common knowledge that other firms are closing down, however our firm have sent round an email listing the 'financial year end' as their top priorities.”
A spokesman for the PI firm said, “vulnerable people with health issues have been identified and arrangements have been put in place to ensure they have everything they need to work at home." He added that "remote access is already available to all employees" and "we are working rapidly towards having the majority of staff working at home."
At a London head-quartered firm with offices across the UK, an insider said that after the government had told people to work from home, an internal communication offered contradictory advice by telling staff that the firm's offices “remain open” and they “should proceed as normal and come in.” However, a spokesman for the firm said that the communication said that if staff "knew that they were not required to be in the office for any reason and could sensibly work from home then that is what they should do, particularly if based in London. Otherwise the offices were open if they needed to get something done.”
Not all staff complained. An insider at Freshfields was pleased to report that the firm was reimbursing associates on a case-by-case basis for computer monitors, laptop stands and wireless keyboards. "Other firms should do the same," said the source.
"We will be operating a remote-first policy for as long as necessary and continue to take into account current advice and guidance from local governments in each country and the wishes of our people and our clients," said a spokeswoman for the Magic Circle firm. "Our business and our commitment to our clients continues as usual."