It has been over a year, and few people have returned to their office desks. The city that never slept, New York City, once characterized by towering office buildings and an endless bustle on the street, has transformed into a much calmer place indeed.
Some employers are committed to a return to full time work in the office when the pandemic is behind us. This may be a minority view, however. Many companies have had surprisingly positive experiences with their legal teams working remotely. In house lawyers have demonstrated resiliency and have worked efficiently and productively while maintaining connectivity with their peers and internal clients. The opportunity to work remotely, at least 1-2 days per week is increasingly important for many lawyers – even for those who had not worked remotely before the pandemic. Accordingly, many lawyers believe that there will be a missed opportunity if companies do not allow some degree of remote work post-pandemic.
The pandemic has brought remote work to virtually all professional services industries, and even the late-to-adopt legal industry is not immune to the shift. It is important for managing partners and, in particular, GCs to get a handle on how to both manage a legal team and provide top-quality legal services to clients remotely.
In this article, we are going to discuss some best practices that you, as a manager of lawyers, should keep in mind as you guide your legal teams through the rest of this pandemic.
The Technological Logistics of Remote Work
We have been living through the Covid-19 pandemic for over a year, so the logistics of working remotely most likely have been worked out by now. Yet, just as a reminder, here are the fundamentals that your team needs to have in order to effectively work remotely.
- Strong internet connection. As you would expect, it all starts with connectivity to the workplace. Encourage your team to work with their own internet provider to ensure that their internet connection has two important elements: speed and stability. Also, you may want to provide assistance to team members on how to take advantage of a portable hotspot (like using their smartphone as a connectivity source) when they are in a jam.
- VPN access. Next, your company or firm should ensure that the virtual private network (VPN) allows attorneys to log on securely from any location. The VPN access, of course, should allow attorneys to have access to anything they would normally reach from their office computers.
- Home office recommendations. Finally, you want to encourage your team members to have a dedicated workplace that is as free from distractions as possible. That is particularly important given that video conferences will occur from that workspace.
Some Remote Work Management Best Practices
Even though managing people remotely may feel like a different experience, it is not as different as you might think. Remember, managing people remotely is still . . . managing people. Most of the basic skills of managing people remain the same whether your legal team is right in front of you, or 3000 miles away. So, as we go through this list of remote management best practices, you will find that they apply regardless of the location of your team.
- Clear Expectations
As with in-person management, people are more comfortable in a role if they are aware of what is expected of them. As managers, we can become fearful that when people are not in the office, they may not be as productive. (Interestingly, however, some recent studies show that remote employees are more productive when working remotely). So, avoid frustration all around by making sure that your remote team is aware of such things like:
- How often they should check in
- How they should track their time
- Whether you want to connect before the end of each day, or the end of each week.
- What goals or milestones are expected, and when.
Having expectations set upfront will ensure that you are getting the updates you need, and your team knows what they need to do to keep the workflow humming along.
- Engage Regularly, and Consider Touching Base Once a Day
It is a good practice to engage directly with the members of your team at least once a day if possible. It can be an email or instant message, and it does not have to be a phone or video call. This is important because the longer you go without reaching out to employees, the more likely they will feel left out and may disengage from their work. Regular contact will allow team members to stay motivated and feel that they are adding value.
- Hold Team Meetings Regularly
Having some team building activities does not stop when everyone is remote. In fact, it is more important to have occasions when the team members can see and interact with each other on a regular basis when everyone is in their own remote world. So, have a virtual video conference once per week, or once per month. The meetings will allow team members to stay bonded, re-connect, touch base on project details, and contribute new ideas.
- Get Beyond “Just the Facts, Ma’am”
When you connect with your remote team members, try not to always make it all about business. Don’t forget that building and maintaining a good rapport with your team (small talk, asking about their weekend, or hobbies) will improve productivity and the employee’s connection to the group.
- Give Feedback, but Don’t Micromanage
As noted, it is common for managers to feel concerned that team members working remotely are not sticking to their tasks. Acknowledge that emotion, but do not let it develop into micromanaging behavior.
As a manager, you need to trust that your team members will do what is necessary. If you set up the expectations of what type of milestones and progress reports you require early on (as noted in #1 above), then simply rely on that report system to let you know whether something is not getting done as needed. If certain employees lack the self-discipline for remote work, then the progress reports will reveal that to you fairly quickly. Bombarding remote workers with messages will lead to stress for both parties and shows a lack of trust. Focus on outcomes and goals rather than visible activity. You want to make sure the work is done on time, so worry less about a person’s work style.
Managing a team requires a host of people skills that they don’t teach you in law school. It requires understanding that people have different work styles, that people need to feel valued and a part of a larger purpose, that people need to meet certain goals yet that they will be trusted to meet those goals with relative autonomy.
The above tips should help you navigate that challenging management path for your team members working remotely. Getting these skills down now is probably a good idea because even after the pandemic, remote work will likely be a core part of the legal industry long into the future.