We’ve been shifting our firm from a traditional office model to a distributed workforce model. That means we’re shifting our practice from having everyone come to work in an office each day to a model that allows our people to work from any location.
For us, the shift is less extreme than it might sound since we haven’t had offices for our team for a long time. More than 10 years ago, we shifted from individual offices to an open office space plan where our team worked in big rooms shared by everyone in that location. We’ve always been sort of weird.
Now we’ve given up the big rooms. We’ve cut our space—in all three offices—by more than 70 percent. We’re down to nothing but conference rooms and lobbies. We have a workroom in one office that houses two resident employees dealing with incoming and outgoing paper. Otherwise, everyone is working from home, coffee shops, courthouses, or other locations they choose.
We’re booking conference rooms in our facilities for client meetings, initial consultations, mediations, arbitrations, settlement conferences, etc. I’m thinking of our conference room locations as hotel rooms, and our small administrative team is responsible for running the front desks and making sure clients, attorneys, and paralegals have a good experience while visiting the site.
We started working on the shift more than a year ago but only started discussing it within the firm about six months ago once we had formulated a plan.
The biggest challenges we’ve faced so far include the following:
1. Employee (mostly lawyer) resistance. We announced the shift last fall at our quarterly firm meeting. While I know everyone heard and understood the concept, I’m pretty sure that it didn’t fully sink in. We kept talking about the shift in January and February. It was only when furniture started moving that people took notice and started to really think about working from home. We got some resistance, some upset behavior, and lots of questions.
Most of our team set up their desks at home in early March and quickly settled down and concluded that being able to work in pajamas might actually be a good thing. Of course, we’re still dealing with a bit of resistance (these are lawyers, after all). At the other extreme, we’ve had a few employees head home and almost never come back. One left the state and has been working remotely, 300 miles away, since late February. All and all, it’s going smoothly.
2. Liquidating furniture. At the moment, there isn’t really a market for used office furniture. We’ve disposed of 40+ desks and office chairs. In many instances, we’ve given them away because no one would buy them. With the current economic situation, office furniture is basically worthless.
3. Deciding what we needed to keep and what we needed to sell. For instance, we really don’t need the big refrigerators and drink coolers we’ve been using. With employees working from home, our drink consumption has declined dramatically, and no one brings his or her lunch anymore. We don’t need as many copiers and postage meters since we’ve centralized some functions. These machines are leased, and we’re negotiating our way out of those contracts. We’ve had to figure some things out as we’ve moved forward, and we’re still tweaking as we go.
4. Cleaning up the mess. Eliminating 70% of our office space has required us to clean up. We’ve disposed of unbelievable piles of stuff. We’ve found office supplies we never knew we had. We found junk piled behind junk. It’s kind of wonderful to throw away all of this crap. Disposing of some things is stressful. Some of this stuff cost a small fortune and seems like it should have some value, but it doesn’t. We’ve had to throw away dozens of laser printer cartridges we’ve found for printers we don’t have anymore. It just doesn’t feel right to toss the stuff.
5. Making the technology work remotely. We’ve shifted from our old phone system residing on a server in one of our offices to a hosted phone system. We’ve shifted from Lotus Notes on our own server to Salesforce.com and NetDocuments.com. We’ve moved our bookkeeping system and e-mail to hosted services. All of these changes have been rolled out over the course of a year, so we haven’t had to bring our team up to speed on everything all at once. We’re stuck with a bit of legacy software that won’t easily run in the cloud, and we’re still working on it. Document assembly in the cloud has really stumped us (had a crazy interaction with ContractExpress.com where the company “forgot” to mention a $90,000+ fee).
6. Figuring out how to manage remote employees. We have some experience with these issues. Our managing attorney has always had to deal with attorneys in other cities, and our current managing attorney has always worked from another state, so she’s used to this arrangement. I suppose I’m having the most trouble with this issue. I’m used to visiting the people in our Charlotte office and hanging around all day. I can’t hang out at their houses. Am I supposed to stop going? Will we only see each other at firm meetings and on Skype? Maybe so.
All and all, the transition is going smoothly. Things have proceeded uninterrupted from a client perspective. We’re dealing with a bit of construction in one office, but that will be over soon. Life goes on in our pajamas and, hopefully, everyone wins as a result.