When the long-term implications of COVID-19 first began to make themselves felt, business as usual became anything but. As people scrambled to make sense of the quick-moving scourge and mount an effective response, the clock was ticking. What we learned about coronavirus resulted in a cataclysmic shift in nearly every aspect of the way we interact, both personally and professionally. While the pandemic’s devastating consequences may ultimately be quantifiable with figures and statistics someday, there’s simply no way to qualify the extent of its life-altering impact on society. However, for those, like Robert L. McKenna III, who were prescient enough to foresee the coming storm while it was still on the horizon and mitigate some of its destructive power, there has been at least something of a silver lining to the ominous cloud.
Robert McKenna III, a founding partner at the Huntington Beach, California-based law firm Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper LLP, had an early inkling COVID-19 was going to be a bigger deal than most suspected. In February of 2020, as the first reported cases of the disease began to filter into the U.S., a conversation between McKenna and a buddy who worked for a bio-tech forward global trading and venture capital firm tipped him off that major trouble was brewing.
Robert L. McKenna III Heeds an Early Pandemic Warning
When McKenna learned intel from the firm’s virologists and immunologists suggested coronavirus might be a substantial threat, his intuition told him the warning needed to be taken seriously. If he was overreacting, so be it, but with the mantra, “better safe than sorry,” McKenna notified his partners and office manager of the possibility they might have to close their offices for a few weeks and they needed a backup plan “just in case.”
McKenna admits his concerns were met with skepticism, but says he insisted the firm at least come up with a viable barebones scenario that would allow them to carry on in the event the pandemic made it difficult or impossible for the staff to come in to work. After reviewing office procedures, McKenna concluded that short of a few hands-on tasks that could be completed by one or two people during a limited window each day, with the right equipment in place, most of the firm’s daily duties could be performed offsite.
By mid-March 15, 2020, just as Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper were set to put a dry run of a scaled-back workforce exercise in place at the smaller of the firm’s offices, a national emergency was declared. Thanks to lawyer Robert McKenna’s foresight and insistence, moving from an on-site to a hybrid/distributed model was fairly painless. McKenna says even though the entire process happened a lot faster than he’d expected, he was relieved that his advance planning made the transition process that much smoother.
Robert L. McKenna III’s Cloud-Based Business Model Advantage
Another reason Robert McKenna’s team had fewer obstacles to overcome when faced with making a quick pivot to a distributed workforce was that, unlike other companies struggling to adjust to the new normal, Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper was already a functioning cloud-based business. Although their initial decision to convert from traditional server technology to the cloud wasn’t pandemic-related, having the technology in place meant the practice was prepared to make the switch with a minimum of fuss.
“We’d actually started as a cloud-based business,” says McKenna. [As such], you don’t have any servers, so you don’t have to have people coming in to work on them. The beauty of being cloud-based is even when you’re at the office, you’re working remotely … You can be anywhere and sign in anytime and do anything and it all works.”
When McKenna looked into how other law firms were handling realites of the pandemic, he learned that having a fully remote workforce was the exception rather than the rule. He explains that many law practices saw themselves as performing the sort of essential services that made them exempt from the strictures of lockdown, but he observed that not having viable systems in place often hampered other firms’ operational capabilities. “We decided not to go that route,” says McKenna, “and we were lucky.”
Robert L. McKenna III: How a Hybrid Model Helped Expand His Business
As it turned out, companies that attempted to maintain traditional office-based protocols came at a price of costlier than just efficiency — and their loss turned out to be Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper’s gain. Faced with inflexible attendance expectations, some dissatisfied administrative workers who form the backbone of most legal firms began looking for employers who were more attuned to their concerns.
“During the pandemic there were a lot of people who wanted to change jobs because of a family member with a significant health condition that put them at an increased risk of a bad outcome with COVID,” McKenna explains. “They wanted to work at a place that respected their health and the health of their loved ones.”
While other practices labored to maintain the status quo, McKenna says the hybrid model his firm adopted actually led to a healthy expansion for them. “We hired a lot of people,” he notes proudly. “We found that the experienced people could manage their time and their work [offsite].”
One of the keys to staying in the game and growing their firm was hiring experienced administrative staff that could pretty much hit the ground running without needing a lot of training. Thanks to the pandemic, the pool of candidates was fully stocked. Employers who not only saw but appreciated the upside to flexible work models had a definite hiring advantage, especially those who were willing to take a mandatory daily commute off the table.
McKenna reports that with the cost of owning a home in Orange County or Los Angeles beyond the means of numerous administrative professionals, many turned to more affordable real estate much further afield. “That was their only opportunity as a middle income family to own a home,” he explains. “When they were buying those houses, they were biting off a two-hour commute [each way], but that was worth it because they could own a home and raise their kids… and have a nice school district”
As the pandemic wore on and the model was tested, more and more, the possibility of remote or hybrid workforce options quickly became a real option. Employees who’d enjoyed its benefits were eager to embrace the idea of working full-time while getting back as many as 20-something hours per week they’d formerly spent commuting — and not simply for the duration of the pandemic. After experiencing the freedom and enhanced productivity of a work-from-home environment, what started out as a short-term, interim measure became a long-term requisite for a growing number of workers who found themselves unwilling to give up the precious new work/life balance they’d found.
Fortunately, permanently retiring the daily commute turned into an employee bargaining chip Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper was more than willing to cash in on. “If you got 20 hours back every week that you did not spend in traffic, you’re a happy person,” McKenna says. “This worked out very well for a lot of people that, because of the economic climate, live far away.” When it comes to top talent, the policy translates not only to a hiring advantage, but becomes a boon to retention as well.
Robert McKenna III Says The Hybrid Change is Here to Stay
While the hybrid/remote model has worked out exceptionally well for Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper, Robert McKenna concedes some collaborative business interactions are simply more productive when conducted in person. As pandemic restrictions relaxed, McKenna began orchestrating a return to the office for his staff. However, since the flexible model had proved so popular (affording a much higher degree of employer/employee satisfaction), going back to a traditional 100% onsite model was never in his plans.
“What we decided [to do on a returning basis was that] experienced administrative staff would only come in two days a week and they got to pick what two days they wanted to come in,” says McKenna. “It's been a very collaborative, cooperative effort.”
With pandemic concerns receding, much of the workforce will likely find itself heading back to an office office environment, however, now that the hybrid genie is out of the bottle, for some pulling bodies back into the office may be counterintuitive. Sometimes the most valuable gift we take away from a cycle of destruction and rebirth is what we learn along the way. Rather than bemoaning what’s been lost, we should instead look to the strengths that helped us adapt and survive in the face of hard odds, and ultimately, will ensure we continue to do so in the future.
“I don't think companies have a choice in a lot of situations,” McKenna asserts. “For firms, especially the ones that did a good job getting everybody remote early on, it became clear that most people can get their job done remotely, and that there's not a decline in productivity or work product.”