By Daniel Greenberg, Partner, and Andrea Tang, Senior Associate, Forward Risk and Intelligence
Investigations firms, like many white-collar employers, are grappling with changes to the workplace sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fortunately, the industry also grants us boons such as a workflow that can largely be handled remotely – with a few noteworthy exceptions, such as on-site court searches and in-person HUMINT interviews. However, for the most part, the evolution of the modern investigations world has created tools that – when properly applied – enable a workflow that can be handled safely, thoroughly, and responsibly from remote locations while diligently safeguarding information security and ensuring adequate training for new hires.
The immediate benefits of enabling a healthy and productive remote work culture in most white-collar industries have already spoken for themselves – article after article has already been penned upon the importance of not only mitigating pandemic exposure risks, but enabling the daily convenience, productivity, and mental and physical health of employees in a rapidly changing corporate landscape.
This increasingly popular hybrid work model boasts particular benefits for investigators. Chief among these is enabling firms to attract highly capable employees. The demand for complex investigative work frequently outstrips the number of talented and well-trained investigators available to handle such cases. As a result, investigative firms that perform best in the marketplace are those that can win the war for talent – and one of the best weapons available is a corporate culture that trusts gifted and experienced investigators to flexibly manage their own work environments.
Seasoned investigators often have good reason for preferring a work-from-home setup. In addition to the usual challenges of handling long commutes and work-life balance issues, investigators frequently contend with demanding assignments that require deep focus and uninterrupted time to concentrate on casework. Often, these assignments are more easily handled from the comfort of home – without the myriad distractions or social temptations of the office. For more experienced investigators handling difficult casework, the option of solitude may prove beneficial.
Of course, a firm only benefits from remote setups if work can be conducted securely and in compliance with data protection laws and norms. Investigative firms must stay up to date on the latest Information Security best practices and proactively ensure that remote employees adhere to company policies. For example, a firm’s InfoSec leadership must verify that each employee’s home office setup meets baseline network security standards.
Investigators must be aware that their firms, not unlike political campaigns, could be targeted by highly sophisticated hackers, including those supported by hostile nation-states. Legacy technology systems and concepts may not be up to the task. For example, firms must be aware of cyber risks if investigators are using a VPN from home to access an internal company server. Multi-factor authentication and a modern, highly secure cloud storage platform are both essential. The data storage environment must also have strict permission controls; investigators should only see data for cases they are directly working on. Of course, employees must be trained to be hyper-vigilant regarding common cyber threats such as phishing. National boundaries also come into play in various scenarios, such as jurisdiction-dependent access to certain OSINT resources. Not every search can be done from outside particular territories due to data protection regulations.
Office time remains instrumental to many aspects of investigative success. In addition to team-building and general camaraderie, office time fosters an ideal environment for collaboration on cases that demand the skill sets of multiple investigators. These may include assists on the same subject, as well as cases in which researchers must work on closely related subjects. For example, when handling shareholder activism matters, a research team typically investigates multiple members of the same board and executive leadership team, or of the same dissident slate. It is incumbent on all investigators to remain abreast of what their counterparts are working on, which is perhaps more easily done in an in-office research bullpen, where organic conversations often give rise to creative new approaches and lightbulb moments. Bespoke projects that necessitate unusual approaches or break new research ground are also often best handled by a team of investigators who can brainstorm on appropriate methodology and reporting structure.
Furthermore, time in the office creates opportunities for investigators with different specialties and experiences to share tips, tricks, and handy information. This collective in-person brain trust often fosters creative solutions to otherwise frustrating or challenging projects. Examples include familiarizing colleagues with new jurisdictions, lending a hand with advanced OSINT tools, and offering area studies expertise on non-US territories and foreign languages.
Although the vast majority of white-collar investigative work – such as open source and public records research – can be conducted remotely, exceptions exist. The closure of courthouses throughout 2020, for example, affected the ability of investigative firms to use court runners to conduct research on-site, and to retrieve court documents that were not available online. Creative solutions were sometimes available, but certain capabilities simply could not be directly replaced. Fortunately, most court closures have ended, allowing on-site research at courthouses to resume more or less normally.
Training and onboarding also tend to function more smoothly in an office environment. While not impossible to tackle remotely or online, research training simply hits fewer snags when new hires can ask direct questions and conduct practice cases in the presence of their more seasoned mentors. Although firms may convey all the same content, thanks to the wonders of screen sharing and other online communication resources, it remains unclear whether a presentation lands with the same impact if given over a call. In addition, trainees tend to ask fewer impromptu questions over chat, than in person.
Ultimately, more in-person face time for junior hires builds their confidence and skill at working independently, as they grow in their careers, whether in the office or at home. What a more senior investigator might breeze through remotely, a junior hire will likely require some degree of mentorship and supervision – and providing that environment will set them up for success working from any location. Direct face time for senior employees can be further incentivized with commuter-friendly benefits such as a conveniently accessible office address, in-office meetings that actively facilitate progress on group projects, and firm-subsidized social events. This may encourage and enable more experienced researchers to spend time in the office mentoring their junior counterparts.
While the lockdown era of 2020 may have been the initial watershed moment that created a mainstream rise in work-from-home setups, hybrid work models don’t appear to be disappearing any time soon. Events of the past two years have the benefits of a more flexible work environment in most corporate settings. Covid-19 pandemic aside, the growing acceptance of at least occasional remote work days creates several unrelated boons, including focused work time for senior hires, and a flexible work environment that may prove attractive to prospective hires in a battle for limited talent.
Ultimately, good investigative firms should consider mirroring their clients’ practices. As extensions of our clients’ support teams, it behooves us to examine the practices of law firms, hedge funds, private equity firms, and other clientele. At this point in time, we see a mix of remote and in-person work in most of these sectors, and it remains unclear where they may ultimately settle.
One thing remains clear: a hybrid work model, when intelligently implemented, provides the best of both worlds to premier white-collar investigators. By leveraging best practices for a flexible work environment, investigations firms cultivate an inherent adaptability that will benefit its team members and clients alike, regardless of what the future holds.
This post is the fourth in a series about workplace challenges facing investigative professionals and other white-collar researchers, focusing on practical advice and lessons learned from our own experiences. While tailored toward the investigative and intelligence industry, we hope that these articles are also valuable for others in the professional services sector, while also providing a behind-the-scenes look at Forward Risk’s values and operating practices.
If you have any questions or comments, or would like to suggest a topic for further discussion, please email our Partner Dan Greenberg – dan [at] forwardrisk.com.