As debate intensifies around mandated vaccines for employees, Byfield Director Ben Girdlestone considers how firms are tackling communication challenges around the return to work, particularly in respect to following government guidance.
Early September certainly has the feel of Back to School about it, as it does every year. This year is particularly significant of course, as we have reached the point where many firms’ agile work policies are finally beginning in earnest. In every firm a huge amount of work will have gone on behind the scenes to make sure the building and technology is ready for increased numbers in the office and – most importantly – smooth integration between those working at home and in the office on any given day. Nobody wants a two-tiered work force where people working at home feel detached or, worse, like second class citizens.
While legal press headlines over the spring and summer centred on where firms have landed on the number of days their people are expected to come into the office, what appear to be fairly simple announcements are actually pretty complicated, particularly the internal communications. People need to know how all the technology will work, how hybrid meetings will be conducted, whether they still have their old office and everything in between.
So far, so straightforward. The big elephant in every law firm boardroom is, of course, that the pandemic is far from over. Cases are rising and will spike further when schools go back over the next few weeks. Last week, Morrison & Foerster announced that it will require its City headcount to be fully vaccinated before they are allowed into the office. In response, Magic Circle firms Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters all affirmed that they would not follow suit and, given that the Government had not mandated vaccinations, nor would they.
This is consistent with the decisions taken by the majority of big firms throughout the pandemic. ‘We are following Government guidance’ is a clear position to take on everything from social distancing and sanitisation, to mask wearing and vaccination. This method ensures that the underlying position is consistent, clear and that it (arguably) indemnifies the firm to some degree from direct criticism from its stakeholders.
Very real concerns about discrimination claims (not to mention the accompanying communications challenges) notwithstanding, I would wager that a good number of partners would dearly like to mandate vaccinations for their staff; but know that deviating from Government guidance – even once – is a line in the sand. Once crossed, there is no going back. If therefore, a firm mandates vaccinations for staff, then it has – in effect – become fully accountable for every decision it subsequently makes in relation to the pandemic. The firm is saying to its internal and external stakeholders: ‘We are taking our own decisions now and you can legitimately challenge us on each one, even if it matches Government guidance. We are accountable and we know we need to justify each decision’.
It will be fascinating to see whether other firms follow MoFo’s lead as the Delta variant runs rampant – and if senior decision makers decide the umbrella of reassurance created by a fully vaccinated workforce is worth sacrificing the protection of following the Government’s lead. What is certain is that clear and consistent internal communications will remain top of the agenda.