The way lawyers work underwent a profound transformation in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic. With the onset of the pandemic, many law firms were required to shut down partially or entirely. Lawyers began working remotely. Client conferences, depositions, hearings, and even trials were conducted via Zoom. The entire practice of law changed. Lawyers and law firms had to adapt and transition to remote work to survive, fundamentally altering traditional workplace dynamics.
Even as the pandemic’s grip has loosened and we have returned to a semblance of normalcy, a new work paradigm has emerged, one that merges in-person and remote work.
Lawyers are still conducting meetings via Zoom rather than traveling to meet personally with colleagues, clients, or witnesses. Remote court appearances are still the norm in many jurisdictions. Many lawyers can work remotely from home as easily as they can work from an office.
A combination of in-person and remote work has now become a part of the professional landscape. More and more employers have started to step away from the traditional work model requiring lawyers to work solely from an office. As a result, they are considering more flexible employment relationships. Welcome to the era of hybrid work, a transformative force reshaping how we define and experience work in a legal profession that has been forever changed by the pandemic.
While taking advantage of a hybrid work arrangement can provide immeasurable rewards in terms of time, freedom, flexibility, and work-life balance, this nontraditional work model is not for all lawyers. For example, although some lawyers find remote work extremely satisfying and liberating, others miss the social interaction that comes with being in an office environment and find the lack of in-person interactions to be challenging. Likewise, some lawyers find they are extremely productive while working remotely, while others have experienced difficulties working from home without sources of external motivation or because of distractions that are not present in an office environment. Understanding the challenges of working remotely is critical to creating a sustainable hybrid work arrangement.
Creating a Professional Workspace
One of the biggest challenges of hybrid work is maintaining an air of professionalism while working remotely. Everyone has stories about unprofessional-looking backgrounds during videoconferencing calls. If a lawyer is conducting a deposition, appearing at a hearing, or participating in a meeting via videoconferencing, nobody should see an unmade bed, hanging laundry, or dirty dishes in the background. Likewise, nobody should hear a dog barking or the sound of a distant television. A dedicated office with a door that can close not only will maintain a professional-looking workspace but also will prevent unwanted sounds and distractions.
If a lawyer working remotely does not have a spare room to dedicate to an office, there are plenty of ways to create a dedicated office space. One of the easiest is to simply use part of a dining room table for work. Remove a chair from the table and replace it with an office chair. Set up a storage basket on top of the extra chair and another under it for office supplies.
Another solution for those without an extra room to dedicate to a home office is to remove a nightstand from a bedroom and replace it with a small desk. Built-in shelves above the desk will create additional storage space. Working in a bedroom where it is possible to shut the door will have the same effect of creating a noise- and distraction-free work zone that a dedicated home office space would provide. Just make sure that any videoconferencing view is of a wall or window rather than a bed or the door leading into a bathroom.
Unused nooks under stairs or in a corner are also possibilities. Removing a door from a coat closet and moving in a desk can create a perfect workspace as well. Think about how hotel rooms take very limited spaces and create dedicated places to sleep, eat, lounge, and work all within the same room.
Whatever the solution is for a home office, the key is to have a dedicated space to work from. Ideally, kids should not have an expectation of using a work computer to play games, cats should not be jumping up on work surfaces, and the home office area should not be a dual-use space.
Creating Boundaries Between Work and Home
Having a designated and professional-looking workspace for remote work also helps create a clear boundary between work life and homelife that is critical to maintain in a hybrid work arrangement by signaling that the focus is on work when in the dedicated workspace. Being outside the dedicated workspace is an indication to switch off from work.
While balance and flexibility are the primary reasons many lawyers choose hybrid work arrangements, finding and maintaining that balance are not always easy. When a lawyer works in an office, there are natural boundaries between homelife and work life. The most obvious is location. A lawyer must change into business clothes and commute to an office. That signals the start of the workday. Leaving the office and changing out of work clothes signals the end of the workday.
Although smartphones have clouded the line between work and personal time, dressing for work and leaving home to go to work still create at least somewhat of a differentiation between work and personal time. Lawyers do not generally watch television in the middle of the day if they are in an office setting, nor do they nap, do chores, or take their dogs for a walk. People act differently in an office than they do at home.
The problem with not separating work and personal time when working remotely is that it can thwart finding balance. If a lawyer working from home takes an hour-long nap during the middle of the day, that lawyer might have to skip a family dinner to meet the next day’s deadline. Similarly, it is much easier to work another couple of hours in the evening to the exclusion of spending time with family if a lawyer must only step into the next room to work rather than having to drive a half hour to the office. Binging a show on Hulu during the workday means working extra hours another day. If a lawyer blurs the lines between work and personal time, finding balance between work life and homelife can remain elusive.
Keeping work and personal time separate requires setting clear boundaries. Lawyers working remotely from home may feel pressure to be constantly available to clients or colleagues and to respond quickly to emails and messages. This can create a sense of always being “on” and can lead to stress and burnout. Constraining accessibility only to the workday will help eliminate the pressure to be constantly available; this is much easier to do if work time and personal time stay separated.
Even with a dedicated workspace and clear boundaries between work and personal time, some hybrid workers still have difficulty finding the discipline necessary to succeed when working from home. Remote work takes self-motivation. Without the structure and accountability of a traditional workplace, lawyers can easily fall into unproductive habits or lose focus. For those who struggle with self-motivation and discipline, remote work can be particularly challenging.
Working in an office, especially given the competitive culture of the legal profession, can provide external motivation. For example, no lawyer enjoys billing only five hours in a day despite spending eight hours at the office because of a lack of focus. Regular firm meetings to discuss workload, tasks, and outcomes can provide motivation for a lawyer to move cases along so the lawyer is not in the position of having to explain a continued failure to complete a project.
It takes a lot of self-management to stay productive when working remotely. Working from home without sources of external motivation that exist in an office setting can be difficult for some lawyers. Whereas some lawyers find that working from home or working in another setting outside the office increases productivity because of the absence of typical office distractions, such as colleagues wanting to chat about what happened over the weekend or the call for everybody to gather in the kitchen for a birthday celebration, other lawyers find that a lack of external motivation adversely impacts their productivity because they cannot keep focused.
For those lawyers who need assistance staying focused when away from the office, there are a lot of tricks that can help. They all involve establishing structure to help manage time and stay organized. For example, sticking to a consistent daily routine can be very helpful. When working from home, start work at the same time each day, dressed for the office. This will help mark that it is time to shift into work mode.
Lawyers can also start a remote day of work by creating a list of tasks to do and prioritizing them based on importance and deadlines. Checking the list while working remotely will help maintain focus on work and what needs to be accomplished that day. When lunch rolls around and there is still a major project on the list that will take several hours to complete, taking a 90-minute lunch break to eat and stream the latest episode of a new television series will not seem as enticing.
Minimizing distractions in the remote work environment will also help productivity. This could include turning off social media notifications, closing computer tabs unrelated to work (such as a personal email account or news websites), and letting family members or roommates in the remote workspace know not to interrupt.
Time management techniques such as taking a five- or ten-minute break every hour to help maintain focus can often enhance productivity as well. There are also many productivity apps designed to help focus attention and enhance productivity, such as to-do list apps, time-tracking apps, and project management tools.
In addition to productivity issues, another challenge is the isolation that lawyers who enjoy working in an office setting often feel when working remotely. Lawyers working from home may miss the social interactions and support networks that come with traditional employment. While lawyers can turn to online communities and networking events to connect with colleagues, these efforts sometimes feel forced or insufficient, particularly for those lawyers who thrive on socializing or crave regular in-person interactions. These lawyers can stay connected with colleagues while working remotely through lunches together and regular check-ins, in addition to videoconferencing and chat platforms. This can help maintain a sense of camaraderie and collaboration even without being in the office all the time.
Overcoming Technology Breakdowns and Security Concerns
Technology, which makes remote and hybrid work possible, can also be the source of considerable frustration. Internet connectivity problems, for example, can make it difficult to videoconference, access legal research databases, or remotely connect to a law firm’s server to retrieve client documents. Fast, reliable Internet is critical to working remotely.
Software glitches can also disrupt work. Make sure the software on a remote computer is compatible with office software. For example, if a home computer and a work computer have different versions of Microsoft Word, there may be formatting issues when pulling up a document at work that was created on a home computer; these compatibility problems can take a lot of time to resolve.
When thinking about software, it is also important to consider security. Working remotely can introduce security vulnerabilities, especially when using personal devices to access law firm networks and databases that contain sensitive client documents or for communications that include confidential client information. Consider email encryption technology or case management software, which can have built-in and secure communication tools, in addition to a virtual private network (VPN) that establishes a secure and encrypted Internet connection.
It is also important to make sure a remote workspace is set up to facilitate work. In addition to having appropriate software, the right hardware is also essential to enhance productivity when working remotely from home. Transactional lawyers who do not do extensive brief writing may need nothing more in a home office than a laptop and a reliable Internet connection. An appellate lawyer who is writing 50-page briefs, on the other hand, might prefer a desktop computer with dual monitors. Whether considering hardware or software, knowing technology needs and preferences is important to being an effective remote worker.
In the evolving landscape of hybrid work, acknowledging and understanding the challenges are essential. Remote work, while laden with benefits, also has obstacles that will be different depending on a lawyer’s work style and preferences. By recognizing the challenges, lawyers can proactively address them, positioning themselves for success in this new post-pandemic era of hybrid work. The multifaceted challenges of hybrid work related to maintaining professionalism, sustaining productivity, establishing clear boundaries between work and personal life, preserving discipline and self-motivation, combatting feelings of isolation, and considering technological requirements make it evident that merely embracing the concept of hybrid work is not enough. To thrive, lawyers must strategize and implement effective solutions, which will be different for each lawyer. Adjust and experiment to discover what keeps you focused, energized, and productive while working remotely.
Ultimately, success with a hybrid work schedule lies in embracing its challenges as catalysts for growth and innovation. By recognizing and addressing the hurdles associated with hybrid work, lawyers can create a hybrid work environment that enhances freedom, flexibility, and balance. In a post-pandemic world where hybrid work arrangements are increasingly becoming the norm, the ability to bridge challenges will ensure the sustainability of a nontraditional law practice.