When the pandemic first started making the news, it was met with a variety of reactions. For businesses, families, communities, and individuals, the response had a lot to do with how people fared over the course of 2020. In hindsight, many wish they would have done more to prepare for both the shock and the aftershock.
Robert L. McKenna III, a partner at Kjar, McKenna, and Stockalper, LLP in Huntington Beach, was proud of what he managed to do at every stage of the pandemic. His instincts, combined with his compassion, would prove successful for his law firm during a fraught time. Learn more about why he championed remote work from the get-go, why his employees were grateful for his leadership, and what his tips are for running a successful hybrid work model.
McKenna admits that his quick thinking was spurred by the forewarning of a friend at a VC firm. In February 2020, Robert had a strong suspicion that social distancing was almost certainly on the horizon. He stressed its imminence with his partners, though it was clear his partners didn’t have the same sense of urgency. Instead of allowing his convictions to fall by the wayside, though, McKenna pressed forward. At the very least, he insisted on developing a structure for remote work.
To that end, he took it upon himself to do a deep dive into the policies and procedures of the office. Because his office was already working largely in the cloud, McKenna was pleased to learn that almost everything at his law firm could be accomplished without having to visit the office in person. If just one or two people were on the premises for a short window of time per day, that was all the firm needed to remain successful.
The law firm was ready for a dry run of remote work when the official stay-at-home order came out in mid-March 2020. This was earlier than McKenna assumed, but certainly not unexpected. However, because the coronavirus was like nothing we had seen before, the metrics for most people were unclear. Even for lawmakers, it was ambiguous as to who was affected and how the vague regulations should be enforced.
It left an opening for many, and some were all too happy to take advantage of the ambiguities. Case in point, many law firms claimed that they provided essential services and that their offices were thereby exempt from the rules. While the firms might have been able to get away with these policies at a legal level, it was clear that they were blurring the lines of morality for their employees.
Robert McKenna III didn’t choose to get ready for COVID simply because he didn’t want to get in trouble. He did it because this was a deadly illness that could affect his employees and the loved ones of his employees. His competitors were playing with fire, and it would come back to haunt them in the end.
Because of the games, other law firms were playing, McKenna started to see his inbox flooded with applications from experienced administrative workers. They wanted to work for an employer who cared about their overall well-being. There were two major factors at play: one was health, and the other was the location.
People wanted to work remotely not just to reduce their odds of catching COVID, but they also wanted the freedom to move outside the crowded city, where it was prohibitively expensive to buy a home, to a town where they could own their own home. McKenna was able to staff his firm with some of the most committed professionals in the industry.
McKenna doesn’t discount the importance of face-to-face conversation, and he readily concedes that some interactions are more productive if they take place in the office. However, he also doesn’t see the need for his employees to be in (or near) the office five days a week for 8 – 10 hours a day either.
That’s why even as the fear of illness subsides; the hybrid model is here to say for his firm. He asks his employees to be in the office for two days a week, and he gives them the freedom to choose which days those are. The high rates of employee satisfaction (and, of course, retention) reflect that his firm’s flexibility made all the difference during one of the most stressful time periods in recent history.
Robert McKenna’s Tips for a Hybrid Workforce
Despite having the basics worked out before stay-at-home was a household phrase, McKenna would still learn plenty along the way. He offers the following advice for anyone who wants to split in-office and remote work in two,
The first thing you need to do is to put your work into buckets. The at-home bucket and the in-office bucket are the two big ones, but then you need to start breaking down who exactly needs to be where to get everything accomplished.
McKenna says that he spent a few weeks getting into the nitty-gritty of it all, including who was picking up the mail, who was addressing the envelopes, and when everything had to be picked up or sent out. Every office is different, which is why it’s important to figure out the non-negotiables first before you start trying to offer perks to employees. If you promise that they only need to be in the office three times a week, but then you make exceptions every month for the all-hands meeting, it may not go over very well.
Internet connection, office chairs, laptops, files, computer programs: you need to find out what your staff needs when they’re at home. While tempting to let them get their own supplies, McKenna says that you’re better off going the extra mile for the staff.
This doesn’t mean spending extravagantly, but it does mean buying quality items that they can count on. Also, you need to think about your liability when it comes to people working from home. A single virus on a home device could quickly spread to anything else on that network, so it’s important that you take precautions against security risks.
The Right Space
Robert McKenna says that the right space has a lot to do with your mindset and productivity. It needs to be quiet and, ideally, only used as a place for work. You shouldn’t be working in a bedroom, but rather in a space that ‘feels’ like work.
McKenna encourages his employees to have a solid routine that reminds the brain that they’re on the clock. Similarly, there needs to be a disconnect when people are on their own time. McKennas says that whatever that cue happens to be, whether it’s the clothes you wear or the order in which you shower and shave, there should be some variation.
Remember Your Boundaries
Even under the best of circumstances, a home workstation can be tricky for people. Working from home can be freeing in one sense, but it can also start to feel like a prison if you’re not careful. If there’s no space between home and work, then the mind doesn’t have a chance to relax and regroup. Burnout isn’t just real; it’s more debilitating than people sometimes want to admit.
McKenna says that he sees the blurred lines all the time. People are on vacation, but what’s the harm of sending just one email or asking them to call in for one meeting? Colleagues and supervisors alike expect instant responses, no matter what day (or time of day) they send their responses.
McKenna says that he tells his employees to log off their computers and to only answer within a certain window. This isn’t just for his sake as a leader; it’s for his employees’ sake too. Sometimes, that nagging urge to work comes from within — not from a boss. He can’t expect anyone to function at full capacity if they’re constantly pulled back to the job.
Robert McKenna has been practicing law since the early 1990s. He has trial experience in both state and federal courts and was named a Super Lawyer by Los Angeles Magazine for 15 years in a row. He knows that managing an office isn’t easy, but he also knows how important it is to be flexible enough to change with the times.