by Zachary Deubler
Offices around the country are shutting their doors and directing staff to work from home as the World Health Organization on Friday confirmed more than 132,000 cases of COVID-19 (COVID-19) worldwide and declared the outbreak a world-wide pandemic. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging a nationwide halt to gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. With this rush to remote work, small and medium-sized law firms have been put in a tough spot. Firms are faced with difficult questions. Should I close my office? How quickly can we transition to remote work? What policies are (or should be) in place regarding remote office work?
In many instances, asking attorneys to work from home is a relatively easy matter. If an attorney has a laptop, internet connection and phone; remote work is not difficult. However, this assumes there are still support staff at the office fielding calls, submitting filings and other traditional office support. Typically, these individuals, which can be the backbone of a small firm, are only setup for in-office work—i.e. they don’t have a laptop, firm phones, or remote computer access. Moreover, how do you handle your physical front desk and the phones that need to be answered?
Certainly, there is no “one size fits all” approach and each individual law firm must make the choice that feels right for them. Moreover, these decisions are even tougher for small and medium -sized firms without dedicated IT departments to help them develop a plan moving forward. However, for these small and medium-sized firms, moving to a remote office is not as hard as one might think.
Remote Office Policy:
Whether a firm already has a remote office program in place or is looking into options for the future, it’s absolutely vital that firms spell out the details of their program up front. The first step is establishing clear expectations for whatever policy you choose to adopt. There must be clearly defined parameters so that managers, supervisors and workers all understand the rules; such details include expected work hours and which work options will be available—i.e. via phone or video conferencing, etc.
Another minefield that needs attention is the recording of hours for both salaried and hourly employees. Just because an employee is working from home, that does not mean they will not be paid their normal wages. Separate issues may arise between workers with salaried positions and those with hourly positions. Finally, the issue of expenses can be a particularly sensitive subject when it comes to remote work; costs such as personal mobile phone data used in connection with work on an employee’s non-business plan, or the cost of purchasing a computer compatible with the business’s network are all things that must be considered in the development of any policy.
Whether you are drafting a new policy or revising your current policy to conform with current events; it is critically important that you consult an employment law expert while drafting your policy. DiMuroGinsberg has decades of experience with counseling employment law related issues in the Northern Virginia and D.C. metro area and stands ready to answer questions about remote office policy and related business inquires that may arise during this national health crisis.
Remote Computer Access:
The simplest solution for remote file access to your firm’s computer network is a dedicated VPN. Many firms already have such a service in place. However, just because your firm has a VPN already established does not mean you are ready for mass remote connections. Every firm has an internet provider who provides the office with access to the internet. However, like your home internet plan, your office’s internet is “throttled” to the speed that is paid for within the plan. There are two relevant internet speeds, download speeds—how fast can your computer pull something from the internet, and upload speeds—how fast can your computer push information to the internet. For most of us in our daily lives, we are concerned with the former, download speeds—relevant for downloading files, programs, emails and streaming audio and video. However, a productive and reliable VPN connection relies primarily on upload speeds; this is because your computer is pushing files, remote desktop sessions and other information out from your office’s network to your home computer and/or laptop, In most cases, a firm purchases a single internet “hook-up” or pipe from their service provider in which all information flows (both in and out) and the internet speed plan controls how fast (and how much) information is allowed to pass through the pipe at any given time. If your firm does not have sufficient upload speeds, an increased number of VPN remote connections will render remote work horribly slow and unstable. As such, and as more firms debate remote offices, it is important that firms consult with their internet service provider now to ensure they have sufficient upload speeds to enable multiple simultaneous outside connections for remote work.
Though VPNs are a fantastic service, many smaller firms have not invested in the network hardware to make them possible; and if faced with the sudden decision about whether to close, managers might not have time to hire a vender to install the necessary hardware and software to make the VPN work. Not to worry, there are currently services available that offer many of the same benefits of a VPN—i.e. remote access to office networks—without the need to purchase or set-up additional hardware. Many of these services can be set-up in a matter of minutes and offer plans that range from month to month, to yearly. One of the best-known venders in this area is GoToMyPC1, which allows users to access their office computer’s desktop though a secure connection and can work on both Macs and PCs.
In addition to having remote access to work files, firms still must be able to answer their incoming calls even if there is no front desk receptionist. Some businesses have sophisticated phone systems, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP” Phones), which allow incoming calls to be automatically redirected to cellphones and home landlines. However, many small firms still have traditional landline-based phone systems without advanced features that allow for automatic call routing, hence the need for the phone answering service. There is a myriad of phone answering services available with a range of plans and features available to suit every firm’s needs. The greatest benefit of these services is that you can keep your firm’s current phone numbers. Simply have your phone system forward all calls to the answering service provider and allow your vender to handle the rest. These phone services can take messages, route calls to cell and home phones and make appointments—anything an in-person front desk receptionist currently does. Many service providers offer monthly and custom plans, so you can engage their services in a cost-effective manner.
While there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and its effects on our national and local economies, DiMuroGinsberg stands willing and able to handle the legal concerns of our clients and the community at large during this difficult time. If you have questions regarding employment issues surrounding your business decision to work remote, or if you have general inquiries regarding other legal matters reach out to us at (703) 684-4333 and we would be happy to assist you.