Engagement, connection help firms weather COVID-19 crisis
Frequent communication, light-hearted approach boost team morale
Due to COVID-19 and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order, business plans have changed, law firm goals have shifted to accommodate the new state of affairs, and there’s no clear end in sight. It’s no surprise that clients are feeling anxious.
Law firms large and small recognize these feelings are hitting close to home, too, and are taking steps to ensure that their attorneys and staff are being taken care of as well.
A variety of methods to keep staff healthy, either physically through social distancing or mentally through frequent check-ins, are being deployed.
The good news? Firms report that attorneys and staff have risen to the occasion to support each other, and their communities at large.
Miller Canfield’s Detroit Resident Director Joseph Vernon reports that morale has been surprisingly upbeat.
“Our attorneys and staff recognize that we’re in this together, and I’m proud of the way we’ve embraced the challenges as a firm and helped each other,” he said. “That spirit has extended to our clients and the greater community. We recently partnered with a number of other national firms to provide pro bono assistance to help small businesses survive the economic impact of COVID-19.”
Terry Bonnette of Nemeth Law PC in Detroit said the firm provides encouragement by expressing gratitude and appreciation more frequently.
“The message we’re sending to our team is we’re extremely proud of how everyone has adapted quickly, and the level of productivity being demonstrated,” he said. “It’s very encouraging that we’re able to work together as a team regardless of the obstacles that we have to overcome.”
A. Vince Colella of Moss & Colella PC in Southfield has a tight-knit staff and said that, when a crisis like this hits, they’re set up to deal with it.
“We showed our staff right off the bat that we are investing in them so they could continue to operate. I lined out a protocol, and I think my staff responded well to that,” he said. “They didn’t see someone in a leadership role at the firm panicking, which I think was the most important thing under the circumstances.”
Staff can feel increasingly isolated or disconnected when working remotely. They may be dealing with monetary worries, loneliness, fear of a job loss, or that they or a loved one will fall ill with the coronavirus.
While methods may vary, firms agree that frequent communication is crucial.
Soni Mithani, resident director in Miller Canfield’s Ann Arbor office, holds weekly half-hour Skype calls with all Ann Arbor office residents to give updates, answer questions people may have, and provide a forum where others can share experiences or vent frustrations.
“It’s a great way for many of us to stay connected and to replace the daily banter we’re used to engaging in at the office when we’re there in person,” she said. “It’s the virtual equivalent of ‘water cooler’ conversations. We share photos of our pets, recipes, songs on our playlists, shows we have been streaming, along with a daily joke and a daily trivia question. This communication has also facilitated discussions about how best to navigate day-to-day errands that we might have to manage while obeying a stay-at-home order.”
This connectivity is not just for attorneys. Miller Canfield’s Ann Arbor Office Manager Ronda Harris holds weekly meetings with staff and legal assistants to discuss issues or concerns, and checks in with the team regularly via email.
Colella lets his team know he has a virtual open door policy: if there’s a question or a concern, he is a phone call away for more than business matters.
“From a personal standpoint, I start conversations with my staff with ‘How are you feeling? How’s your family?’ It’s not to pry, but to let them know I’ve got their back,” he said. “That connection can get lost working remotely. Calls tend to be business-heavy, and you should be able to have social chit chat.”
Michael Morse, of Mike Morse Law Firm in Southfield, notes that his firm hosts meetings and daily huddles.
“I am requiring all teams to meet weekly if not more, all by video. This is not optional,” he said. “I want them to still feel connected to each other. I am suggesting daily huddles for 10 minutes a day, also by video, and I am asking my executive team to be on the video calls to see how everyone is holding up.”
Bonnette said it’s easy to get disengaged by relying on texts and emails so he encourages direct communication either by phone or videoconferencing, adding that meetings are now a bit more relaxed.
“We still have an agenda, but we try to have fun with reminders: you don’t have to be in a suit and tie, but no pajamas please,” he said. “Beyond the everyday pragmatics, we’ve tried to do things to lighten the mood a bit. We took pictures of our pets, who are our new co-workers or supervisors. We had so much fun with it we sent it out to our clients as one of our daily newsletters. It cheered everybody up.”
Vernon noted that staff and attorneys on the 24th floor of the firm’s Detroit office started virtual “water cooler” calls to help recreate the everyday interactions that get lost in a remote environment.
“It can be difficult to replicate these on a videoconference, but we find it helpful to do a virtual ‘walk’ around the floor and poke our heads into each cubicle and office,” he explained. “Yes, business-related discussions are important, but we also want to know how your family is doing, how you’re coping with any little ones, and how else your life has been impacted. We’ve even sung for birthdays.”
Morse said he won’t make “short-term, panic-driven decisions” about laying people off, or cutting pay drastically to make short-term gains.
“What can you do for your employees? You can support them, love them, and find a way to keep them employed,” he said. “I am waiving my 2020 salary to make this happen. I am looking at the vision of the company and the goals we set for 2020 and trying to keep them on track. I know we will get through this.”
Colella made clear to his team that they would remain intact, and weather the storm together.
“That was the baseline: everyone would know that we weren’t laying people off,” he said. “We’re going to be doing business differently, but it will be done with the same quality as before. We’re investing resources into our staff to give them some level of comfort.”
Moreover, he wants his staff to know that he’s making a commitment to them, not just to get through this time, but to help with their future growth.
“I told my lawyers that if they have any ‘free time,’ I want them to take advantage of expanding their legal education and sharpening their skills,” he explained. “If that means attending a webinar or taking a seminar, do it and I’ll pay for it. I want them to know we’re in it for the long haul and they’re safe.”
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