Given that, here’s what I can tell you: Most of the basic information out there on how to create and supervise a virtual team is right (e.g., companies with remote workers need to align expectations, emphasize communication, and ensure that the technology systems work).
But everybody knows that already.
So instead of best practices, let’s talk about the people practices that make remote work, work. They seem especially important in this moment where people are switching en masse to remote engagements out of necessity, not personal preference.
Let’s talk about empathy, engagement and connectedness.
At the root of making event-triggered remote lawyering effective, particularly during periods of uncertainty, is empathy. Legal leaders must be attuned to, and communicate an understanding of, the disruption impacting employees professional and personal lives. They’ll need to give people time — not just to adjust to a new way of working, but to adjust to a new normal for living. Kids are out of school, shelter-in-place restrictions are taking hold in communities everywhere, and those caring for elderly members are facing even more restrictions and concerns.
Empathy must be at the root of every employer's interaction with every one of their employees. Full stop. That’s the bar.
Once they have met it, legal leaders must then focus on providing remote lawyers with the type of environment that nurtures their efficacy: one in which they feel engaged, connected, and armed with the tools and knowledge to do their job.
In fact, that’s the very first question every leader should ask about their (remote) lawyers and legal professionals: Are those three things true? Do my lawyers, remote though they may be, feel plugged into a community of peers? Do they feel ownership of and autonomy in their work? Do they feel well-equipped with the technology or individual skill sets to execute against that work?
If the answer is no (and it might well be), the next question must be: How do we change that? What kind of virtual operation can mimic or replace the community created by the face-to-face rhythm of typical legal work?
Or if the answer is yes, then the question becomes how to sustain that yes. What kind of supplemental support can we provide lawyers so that they remain engaged and connected while uncertainty increases and fears climb? Daily team calls that start with personal check-ins on the state of the employee communities and schools? Weekly video calls or internal webinars geared toward addressing some of the unexpected burdens and challenges created by the remote working environment? Virtual social hours to combat the isolation of those feeling unaccustomed to working from the home office (or spare bedroom or dining room table)?
Creating a successful and productive remote legal organization goes well beyond providing lawyers with a Zoom dial-in and a high-speed internet connection. It requires organizational emotional intelligence and a thoughtful, deliberate approach to creating a virtual, but connected, community.
It also requires something from every lawyer and legal professional: transparency.
Remote working doesn’t work when people feel they must apologize for or hide it. And lawyers often feel that way — even in unavoidable, disaster-related scenarios. Too often they believe they have a duty to shield colleagues and clients from the at-home interruptions that are inherent to remote lawyering. That’s a mistake that not only further distracts — it erodes trust.
Particularly now, in the midst of a pandemic where companies are permitting, encouraging and increasingly obligating stay-at-home work, people must not only be transparent, they should be kinder to themselves. They have to understand that peers and clients are likely experiencing and living through this moment simultaneously and similarly. They all have some version of dogs barking, kids crying, teenagers yelling. Remote lawyers must be real and upfront about interruptions that may send signals of distraction. They should call out actual distractions that require some amount of flexibility during the workday, and ask for it. And, leaders need to be quick to demonstrate to teams that it’s OK.
Legal organizations and legal professionals must each shoulder some responsibility if they want to turn COVID-related remote working into effective working. Those responsibilities include providing and using all the operational tools that will facilitate offsite work, and creating the type of virtual work environment in which lawyers can succeed.
As uncertain as the aggregate impact of the virus might be, I’m certain that companies of all sorts and their fully remote teams, in legal or in any other industry, can be effective, collaborative and resilient. I’m certain because we have been doing it for years. Other legal organizations can, too.
David Pierce, a lawyer, is executive vice president and global head of commercial at Axiom.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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