As originally published in the ALA’s Legal Management Magazine in November 2017
Virtual Offices: Is It Time for Your Firm to Say Goodbye to Office Space?
For most small- to midsized law firms, the two largest expenses are employees and rent. In today’s age of economic uncertainty, many firms are seeking ways to eliminate one of the two. Therefore, the concept of virtual offices — abandoning office space altogether in favor of an exclusively remote workforce — has been gaining popularity as a viable option for cutting costs.
According to a Global Workplace Analytics survey, the average real-estate savings if a business employs full-time teleworkers is $10,000 per employee per year. Multiply this by each of your attorneys and staff, and the justification for saying goodbye to office space becomes clear.
Cost savings isn’t the only reason the number of people working remotely four or five days a week rose from 24 percent to 31 percent between 2012 and 2016, though. Multiple studies have found that allowing your team to work from home will do wonders for overall quality of life — and, by extension, their morale and productivity.
In April 2016, Shearman & Sterling introduced a flexible work policy where associates and counsel in all of the firm’s five locations can work outside the office up to two days per month. Shearman & Sterling is seeing significant changes in morale: in The American Lawyer’s 2016 midlevel associate satisfaction survey, the firm ranked 21st with a 4.355 average job satisfaction score (out of 5). Imagine what the results might be if two days per month turned into five days per week? Other firms nationwide have similar policies, finding that allowing this freedom helps in both recruitment and retention.
The potential benefits are undeniable, but have we reached the point where shifting to a virtual office is something the average lawyer can seriously consider? Maybe.
Technology as the Primary Vehicle
When it comes to determining workspaces, the onus has always been on technology. Are we able to work without being tied to a physical network? Can we perform all of our job duties from the comfort of our homes? Can we do all this without compromising firm security?
The freedom is there. Thanks to developments in virtual desktops and other cloud-based solutions, employees can easily work from anywhere with an internet connection. The technology is well-established, affordable and only growing more sophisticated as time passes.
Combine this core platform with VoIP (cloud) phone systems and the right mix of collaboration tools for your team, and you have the makings for an entirely mobile, effective workforce. It might seem counterintuitive, but Harvard Business Review concluded that remote workers are often more engaged with colleagues than in-office workers. The plethora of technological tools available to help workers stay connected makes the difference.
Studies have found that allowing your team to work from home will do wonders for overall quality of life — and, by extension, their morale and productivity.
But is it Secure?
It’s no secret that law firms are a top target for cybercriminals. According to an American Bar Association report, 25 percent of law firms with 100–500 employees have been compromised, while 13 percent to 15 percent of firms with 2–99 employees have seen a security breach. That’s scary, considering how heavily law firms rely on data and how much their clients value privacy.
It is also a well-known fact that lawyers must be able to work securely from anywhere — from the courtroom to the boardroom. A recent survey found that 41 percent of those in the law or public policy industry often work remotely.
The good news is, cloud solutions like virtual desktops are typically far more secure than anything your firm could create and maintain at a physical office. But since we know not all clouds and not all providers are created equal, be sure to assess your cloud environment and your cloud provider carefully. Get plenty of information on:
- The data center’s physical security
- Environmental controls in place
- Redundancy measures for internet and power
- Where your data is backed up (and how often)
- The provider’s onboarding process
- How you’ll get support when you need it
- How the solution is helping firms like yours achieve their business goals
If you don’t feel confident based on your provider’s answers, choose another.
Above all, make sure your staff is well-educated about your firm’s new and existing policies as they relate to technology. Education about the importance of security, how to recognize attacks (especially spear-phishing attacks) and how to handle files and emails safely becomes all the more important when working from a virtual office.
If you’re seriously considering a switch to a virtual office, make sure you explore all security options available to you, as well as what fits best for your firm and clientele. It is very possible for law firm employees to work both remotely and securely, but it takes some effort.
And keep in mind that the move doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing scenario — you might find that having some employees remote and a smaller group working from a (smaller) office is the right balance for your business.
All in all, be very intentional with this sort of large-scale change to the way your firm lives and breathes.