By Katherine Thomas, Free Range Lawyers and Emma Heuston, The Remote Expert
With the World Health Organisation on 3 March advising workplaces “to promote regular teleworking across your organization” and that “teleworking will help your business keep operating while your employees stay safe”, remote working in law firms has moved from being a business model issue, to also being a business continuity issue.
Katherine Thomas and Emma Heuston, who both focus on remote working in law firms, have recently seen an increase in firms making contingency plans to implement remote working quickly, should the need arise, in response to COVID-19.
For firms without the luxury of time to develop a considered strategy for effective remote working, but who want to provide more guideance than "take your laptop home and log-on", they've drawn on their collective experience to deliver these eight top tips on implementing remote working quickly, but effectively.
1. Update contracts
Remote working on a regular basis, or during a period of quarantine at home, throws up a number of issues. These issues are not necessarily problems, but they can become so if not handled well and implemented without guidance. For example, there needs to be clear guidelines around how an employee will access the computer systems, around confidentiality and around accessibility and work hours. There also needs to be clear communication and documentation around the expectations of each party with respect to the remote work in the form of a variation of employment contract. In this regard, look at whether the remote work is only for the period of the COVID-19 threat or whether, if productivity increases, it can become a more permanent arrangement, at least for some of the time going forward.
2. Fit-for-purpose policies and procedures
Policies are the guiderails on which we run our law firms. A new situation brings unchartered territory and while it can be hard to implement a catch-all remote work policy immediately, we suggest a temporary remote working policy be implemented setting out the parameters of the temporary remote work arrangements immediately. Then, if some of the remote work arrangements are successful, the policy can be updated to cover off a more permanent arrangement once things are back to business as usual. The upside is that the temporary arrangements will likely provide a good learning experience for your firm to find out what does and doesn’t work when it comes to remote work.
3. Deploy the right technology
Larger and more established businesses will, most likely, already have access to technology to enable people to work remotely, such as CITRIX. Others will need to adopt this quickly. Your technology manager or IT provider will help you identify the most user-friendly, secure tools available.
4. Use the technology
Alongside ensuring that staff have the technology they need, it’s also important to ensure that people know how to use it:
- Provide clear, simple operational guidelines. Video tends to work best: according to a study by the Pew Research Center, 87% of users said that YouTube is important for helping them figure out how to do things they haven’t done before. Most providers already have ‘how to’ videos available but short instructional videos can be created quickly within your firm using free browser-based programs like Loom and desktop software like Camtasia (Windows and Mac - free trial available).
- Identify and publicise technology champions in each team who can answer quick queries from colleagues on how to get things done. Even if your firm has an IT helpdesk, they may be overloaded during the transition to remote work, meaning additional assistance from users within teams can make a huge difference to productivity.
- Make sure you have a platform where people can communicate in real time – whether this is Microsoft Teams, Google Messages, or Slack, it makes such a difference to be able to have that real time interaction and keep that chatter out of the email box.
5. Adapt behaviours
Give your people guidelines on how to work together across different locations. As mentioned previously, remote working isn’t just a case of “take your laptop home and log-on”: success requires a specific set of behaviours, for example:
Communication - in an office, we can get away with a lot of implicit communication, but remotely, we to be more intentional and more explicit about what we need, what we’re doing and how we feel. Leaders and managers play an important role in setting the tone. For everyone involved, the mantra should be “if in doubt, communicate”.
Focus - those who over-focus when working remotely and apply themselves for hours without a break should put in place a structure that provides time out to rest. One simple way to do this is by setting an alarm every hour-or-so as a reminder to take a break. Those who find it difficult to focus can try setting challenges to focus for specific periods of time. Many people find the Pomodoro Technique, with its structure of working in 25 minute bursts, helpful.
6. Develop a consistent operating rhythm
- Set office hours - working from home shouldn’t mean overwork and it also shouldn’t mean sleeping-in every day and working until midnight to make up for it. Where possible, office hours should apply and every team should know how and when to contact other team members. Clients should not notice that anything is different – it will be ‘business as usual’, regardless where the team is working from. To achieve this, individuals need to work in the same way they would as if they were in the office: get up, get dressed and show up at the same time they would normally. Take regular breaks and grab a colleague to have a virtual coffee with over a video conference like Zoom or Google Hangouts to debrief.
For leaders of teams:
- Be consistent - the intangible nature of remote working makes the few tangible aspects - video conferences, phone calls and emails – even more important. Demonstrate their importance through an unfailing adherence to whatever operating rhythm you put in place.
- Set the standard - it’s important that the few tangibles inherent in remote working go well, so set high standards of professionalism, just as you would in the office. This means being punctual. It means figuring out the tech BEFORE the video conference starts to avoid delays. It means being intentional and appropriate in the use of communication tools.
- Balance the formal and informal -for example, combine video conference catch-ups at the start of each day to get the team connected and on-track, with weekly Friday 'water-cooler' chats to give everyone a chance to unwind and socialise.
7. Diversify leadership
Professor Steve Kozlowski of Michigan State University undertook a study of optimum remote working leadership structures in 2014 and found that shared leadership, rather than traditional hierarchies (so prevalent in law firms), resulted in better remote working outcomes. Effective leaders of remote working teams delegate some of the leadership function to the team itself, deploying members with specific expertise to drive areas such as project management, team culture and communication, or technology.
8. Don’t leave culture to chance
Successful remote-working companies like HIVE Legal, Zapier or Basecamp work on their culture daily, just as co-located companies do.
- Ask team leaders to specifically work on the personality and habits of their teams while operating remotely and give them permission to be creative with this. This doesn't have to be costly or difficult: in fact, the simpler the better. Early-on in Free Range Lawyers’ life, the team coined a simple phrase: ‘YIFAF” – ‘yours in freedom and flexibility’ – which is now used to sign-off all internal communication. This small, simple act provides a shared experience and binds the team together every day.
- Identifying ways to make the experience special, from sending staff vouchers or care packages, to holding a firm wide competition (best team lip-synch video, for example). The key is to do something that takes advantage of remote working, binds people together and makes it fun.
Implementing remote working across your firm at pace is not an ideal situation, however, if managed effectively, it can be a crucial part of ensuring business continuity.
Remote Working Success for Law Firms by Free Range Lawyers
Detailed information on how individuals, leaders and the business as a whole can make working a success. It also contains short summaries of top tips for lawyers, team leaders and business leaders that firms can directly share with colleagues.
The Tracksuit Economy – how to work from home productively and effectively (Kindle Edition) by Emma Heuston.
Remote work policy templates and variation of employment contract by The Remote Expert.