Eugene Tucker recalls well the day in March 2020 when much of the staff started working from home.
“Everybody figured we’d stay for two weeks, flatten the curve and it’d be good,” said Tucker, vice-president and associate general counsel for St. Louis architectural firm HOK. “I had suspicions it’d be longer than that.”
It took two years for the office to fully reopen.
Tucker’s experience was hardly unique. The impact of COVID completely upended operations for companies across every industry. In-house legal departments have been no exception with many general counsels continuing to navigate the challenges of managing themselves and their personnel in virtual spaces. While sometimes creating concerns about corporate culture and morale, a wave of vocational innovation has transformed ad hoc arrangements into new information sharing capabilities and evolved emergency isolation measures into flexible hybrid working schedules.
The new normal
Sometimes, those changes necessitated an acceleration of vague, preexisting ideas into pressing immediate realities.
“It was a pretty quick turn for us to go from having some high-level conversations about what remote work could look like and what our technological capacity could be to make that happen to suddenly having to make it happen overnight,” said Jason Paulsmeyer, who has been general counsel for half a decade at Missouri LAGERS, a pension system for local government employees.
Paulsmeyer said that previous discussions had come to the fore a year or two earlier when a tornado struck the Jefferson City area and thoughts turned to what might happen had the office been affected. After the pandemic hit, he still came in pretty routinely to touch base but many of the support staff were working from home.
“It required a lot of conversations that would sometimes happen face-to-face to transpire via email or over the phone,” he noted. “It increased the attention we paid to implementing automated workflows for some of our internal processes as opposed to bringing around a paper file to my office.”
Some of that has become permanent with an online document management system that has reduced the amount of physical paper that needs to move around the office. It is a familiar story at business establishments nationwide.
“I think more than anything, it has forced us to rapidly become comfortable with remote technology that I think there was some hesitancy to embrace prior to COVID,” he said.
Back at HOK, Tucker said Zoom and Microsoft Teams became the norm and the transition was surprisingly smooth.
“I kind of got to see people more face-to-face than I usually did,” he said. “With Zoom, we were able to put more names to faces and get to have more of those connections.”
Despite a general return to normal, HOK has retained some of the flexibility induced by COVID with some staff being given the option to do their jobs outside the office on Mondays and Fridays.
“We’ve gone to a hybrid model now whereas, prior to the pandemic, there really wasn’t any thought about working from home,” said Tucker who noted that he’s glad to be relieved of some commuting miles during a time of high gas prices. “That’s kind of our new normal.”
‘A feeling of disconnect’
But even with the benefits of technology, the human element was sometimes lacking.
“You didn’t have the break room conversations,” said Mayme Sloan. “You didn’t have the things you learned in the hallway because you passed somebody just going to the restroom or something like that. The old way of getting information changed.”
As executive vice-president of compliance and quality and general counsel at Compass Health Network, Sloan was already used to working with teammates from other locations but when virtual became a lifeline, people who’d never worked outside of their jobsite had to turn living rooms into makeshift offices.
“What’s the buzz in the building? What are people working on? What are the issues?” she said. “You didn’t have that when you were in your home.”
Sloan said she found it harder to work from her house and that it could be difficult to maintain focus with family, pets and other distractions in the background.
“No matter how good your technology is, there is a feeling of disconnect,” she said.
She did note that her year of working offsite created some beneficial effects though. Virtual technology meant a more efficient way of meeting with staff and more time spent doing work rather than sitting in traffic. It also forced a greater degree of organization, structure and intentionality that didn’t happen when anyone could simply drop by your office for an impromptu chat.
“You have to schedule time with people that you could normally just walk down the hall and go talk to,” she said.
Sloan said her organization has maintained some flexibility and hybrid aspects since returning but those changes may fade as life resumes pre-pandemic operations.
“I don’t know that that is going to be long term,” she said. “I think we’re getting people back in offices and things are returning back to normal.”
Tucker agreed that disconnect could be a problem. The open office floor plan at his firm encourages interaction.
“What was lost was that mentorship, that kind of learning by osmosis, hearing what other people are doing,” he said. “If you have questions, you could just pop up and ask instead of having to schedule time on a calendar or look for openings to talk. That learning and camaraderie that occurs in the office was missing.”
In some offices, that might erode morale. Fortunately, Tucker said his boss, chief legal officer Lisa Green, tried to alleviate some of the stress with hand-delivered baskets of goodies or fresh fruit to staff members’ homes. Once she even showed up with a cake in the shape of a roll of toilet paper.
“It was those things that really — because it was such a time of unknowns — provided that personal touch that we were appreciated and we were seen,” he said.
For others, there was a different solution for not being in the office. They never left. Carrie Wrisberg, chief compliance officer and counsel at Moloney Securities said that the small core staff there never really changed their officing plans though a few independent contractors did make alternative arrangements.
“Just because of our business model being what it is, those independent contractor brokers that we support are already mostly remote,” she noted.
Wrisberg did say that the pandemic encouraged review of the company’s business continuity plan. But generally, things remained as they had been for the dozen or so people in management.
“I don’t think we have lingering effects from the pandemic,” she said.
Clifton Martin, associate general counsel at Save A Lot, also mostly kept coming into the office after departing initially for about six weeks. He was joined by 10 or 15 executives while support staff went home and relied on services like Microsoft Teams.
Fortunately, the St. Louis-based grocer had an advantage having just moved into a new headquarters that had a strong focus on technological capabilities.
“It was designed around the idea that people were all over the place,” Martin said. “Ultimately, we were probably uniquely positioned in advance of COVID to have the full core of the headquarters not in the office because all of those systems are accessible elsewhere.”
While some staff have since returned, the building may have hosted as many as 400 people on a typical day in 2019. Today, it has perhaps a quarter of that number at any given time as human resources has moved to reclassify an increasing number of roles as either hybrid or fully remote.
“I think one of the lessons that most companies have learned with the pandemic is that there is not necessarily a loss of productivity,” he said. “In fact, for some folks, you can see that they are even a little more productive when they work from home.”
He said the pandemic also normalized messaging as a form of communication.
“Just sending text messages back and forth with outside counsel on important matters is something that I probably would have done with select folks,” said Martin. “Now, I’ll do it with all sorts of folks. We’re meeting differently. We’re interacting differently.”