March 27, 2017 Asked and Answered

Getting ahead while working from home (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

A handful of large law firms recently announced limited telecommuting plans for associates, which is a somewhat radical change for the profession. Does this mean that for lawyers, office face-time may no longer be central to demonstrating you’re a valuable team member?

In this month's episode of Asked and Answered, Stephanie Francis Ward speaks with Sara Sutton Fell about lawyers working remotely. Sutton Fell is the CEO and founder of Remote.co, which helps companies hire, train and manage employees who work offsite, and FlexJobs, a career website focused on telecommuting, freelance work and part-time jobs.

Podcast Transcript

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Stephanie Francis Ward: A handful of large law firms recently announced limited telecommuting plans for associates, which is a somewhat radical change for the profession. Does this mean that for lawyers, office face-time no longer has to be central to demonstrating that you’re a valuable team member?

I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, I’m speaking with Sara Sutton Fell about lawyers working remotely.

She’s the CEO and founder of Remote, which helps companies hire, train, and manage employees who work offsite, and FlexJobs, a career website focused on telecommuting, freelance work, and part-time jobs. Welcome to the show, Sarah.

Sara Sutton Fell: Thank you so much for having me, Stephanie.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, yes, I’m glad you’re here. So Morgan, Lewis & Bockius recently announced a plan where associates can work from home two days a week. And Jackson Lewis said that employees can work from home on an as-needed basis recently as well.

With two big firms having these sorts of plans, what do you think that means, in terms of acceptance of telecommuting in the legal profession?

Sara Sutton Fell: Well, I’m hopeful. I believe that, in many ways, the legal industry is obviously a traditional industry, but over the years, we’ve seen more and more law firms offering flexible jobs and remote work opportunities. And I think that these continued examples are showing that working from home is starting to take hold.

From a practical standpoint, it’s very important to give your teams more options in how, when and where they work for productivity, and also to move away from burnout that’s associated with a lot of corporate cultures that rely on face-time, such as the legal field.

So, I think that I’m very hopeful, and I think that by having established firms set precedents that this is something they find important to their culture, it will continue to help evolve.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And I think a big piece of the motivation for this was associate retention. Have you seen situations where, with professionals, they are more reluctant to leave a job if they can telecommute, as opposed to going somewhere where they don’t really know how accepted it is?

Sara Sutton Fell: Absolutely. Telecommuting options are a significant retention tool for HR departments to rely on, not just for people who are considering leaving and looking at other opportunities—although certainly as you described it, it’s very valid, but if you’re going to take a job with another firm, and you’re not sure about their telecommuting policy and you already have it, it’s more painful.

Oftentimes, if you ask people who’ve had telecommuting arrangements, they really are reluctant to give them up. So, certainly from that side, it’s significant. But on the other side of retention are the reasons that people leave. And many of the reasons that people, particularly women during motherhood years, in terms of at least the volume of people considering this, are because they don’t have more flexible options.

And by allowing working parents and working mothers and others who want or need work flexibility for some reason, telecommuting can really help you keep the good people in, rather than having them leave for unfortunate kind of reasons that otherwise you could address easily with telecommuting and the technology that we have available.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you give me any sort of ballpark number about, like, by hours, how much more productive an employee can be if they work from home, versus going to the office and going home every day?

Sara Sutton Fell: Well, the numbers can be fairly astounding. I mean, we’ve seen surveys where people have confessed that they waste up to 70 percent of their day in offices with meetings and kind of useless—well, kind of meetings that aren’t as productive, certainly the time it takes from a stressful commute to decompress when you get in the office, the office chitter-chatter, interruptions, etc.

So, seven hours is pretty extreme obviously, and I think it depends on each individual role and what their responsibilities are and also what their commute time is, things of that nature.

But in study after study, it’s shown that the productivity numbers are significant, and with offering telecommuting, that generally the engagement and productivity numbers go up.

For example. Gallup had done a study a couple years ago that highlighted different segments of workers telecommuting. And it started with no offer for telecommuting and then in 20 percent increments. And all of the increments that offered any level of telecommuting had a higher engagement score than those with no option for telecommuting.

And engagement and productivity go hand in hand, and so it’s very important to keep employees feeling like they’re treated like adults, as opposed to being micromanaged like children. That helps their enjoyment, their stress level, and also their ability to kind of step up to the role and have motivation to kind of perform on their own. I mean, I think that there’s a lot that goes into it.

So, productivity is absolutely one of the huge benefits that law firms and other industries are seeing with telecommuting options.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Have you seen certain work-from-home arrangements that tend to work really well for attorneys? I know that, for a while now, I’ve heard about appellate attorneys oftentimes will work from home more than other attorneys. And I would imagine too at this point that patent attorneys might be working more from home than they did at one point.

But have you seen certain arrangements that tend to work well for the practice of law?

Sara Sutton Fell: In terms of the specific types of role for lawyers and others in the legal field, some of the trends I’ve seen are staff attorneys, freelance legal secretaries and file clerks, paralegals.

But we do, even in glancing through the jobs on our site today include corporate attorney, litigation attorney, kind of general review—a lot of—it looks like there’s document review attorney, a civil litigation attorney, a software-licensing attorney—it really, really runs the gamut.

But I think that, through all levels, when you consider a role and whether it’s conducive to telecommuting and telecommuting successfully or not, it has to do with how much of the role is done independently, working from a phone or computer or other device.

And a lot of—there’s a lot of paperwork involved in the legal field, and I think that those are the roles, especially when you’re not relying on in-person collaboration for negotiations or something of that nature, really those are the areas that can be done very successfully telecommuting.

Stephanie Francis Ward: You mentioned document review, and perhaps this is a stupid question, but are you saying that there are jobs out there now for document review where you can do that work from home?

Sara Sutton Fell: Yes.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So, you don’t have to sit in the little room with, like, 30 other attorneys? Wow.

Sara Sutton Fell: I mean, it’s pretty amazing what’s available.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. You mentioned collaboration, and I think collaboration is a big part probably of practicing law, certainly with things like litigation and deal-making.

What is a good way to keep your ability to collaborate and work with your team and come up with great strategy while you’re doing your work remotely? Is a speaker meeting/conference call enough, or should you do Skype? What do you think about that, in terms of really talking about strategy going forward?

Sara Sutton Fell: It’s a great question. The technology platforms that people in different firms, or honestly it comes down to the individuals to some degree, in how they feel most collaborative with their colleagues and clients, it does depend.

For me, personally, I often prefer phone. Within our company, which is entirely virtual—and we’ve interviewed over 100 companies on Remote.co, asking what tools and platforms they use as well—it can vary.

Some companies feel more comfortable with video chat, and they can do that through a number of different platforms, whether it’s Google Chat or join.me or others.

We personally, in our company, rely on phone conferences and screen-sharing much more, although we have some teams who really use Slack, and we also use a program called Sococo.

There’s a wide variety of platforms that essentially teams can identify that make the most sense for how they want to collaborate and how they feel the most comfortable collaborating.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. And can you tell me, what is Slack?

Sara Sutton Fell: Oh, Slack is a project management tool that it’s a very, very popular platform online that’s utilized by—it started out with technology teams and development teams, but it’s something that’s been widely adopted in a lot of different industries now.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK.

Sara Sutton Fell: And I guess, to elaborate a little bit more—and I’m not a full expert on it—but there’s chat functionality and kind of a lot of dialogue, but you can use the chat functionality and project management with searchability function, so you can really search the history of the strings of conversations.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I know one of the concerns that law firms tend to have is the security of documents if you’re doing remote work. If you use something like Google Docs or a platform that draws off of Google Docs, can you be confident enough that your client documents will be secure, in terms of telecommuting arrangements?

Sara Sutton Fell: There are absolutely ways to make sure that documents are protected safely, and I think any firm considering these arrangements—and quite honestly, this is already an issue because so many documents are in the cloud already—

Stephanie Francis Ward: True.

Sara Sutton Fell: —but they need to be working with their IT department closely and making sure that remote workers or people who are telecommuting as an option know what protocols to take and also that the corporate settings in the cloud are very proactive in these areas.

But it is, I mean, I would say that it’s a very important point that these are considerations law firms and other companies should be paying attention to already because of the volume of information and sensitive information that is available in the cloud.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’re going to talk about how you can keep your career on track as a lawyer when people don’t see your face in the office every day. We’ll be right back.

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Stephanie Francis Ward: And we’re back. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, I am speaking with Sara Sutton Fell about telecommuting. So, we were just discussing things like keeping your documents safe if you have a telecommuting arrangement.

And next, I wanted to ask you, Sara, I think that sometimes face-time seems to be so important to some lawyers, in terms of being in the office, getting at your desk at 8:00, leaving at 6:00. If you telecommute, is there a risk that because people don’t see you, your career might go off track?

I mean, I suppose the opposite side of that is there’s plenty of people who get to the office at 8:00 and leave at 6:00 and don’t really do a lot while they’re there.

Sara Sutton Fell: Absolutely true. I think that there’s a real falsehood and kind of a lazy management reliance on face-time because it doesn’t actually measure productivity at all.

And in this day and age, when so many lawyers and people in the legal field, and quite honestly all white-collar fields, already are doing work remotely from their phones, from their laptops at home, on their commute, while they travel, etc., the fact that people don’t only do work in the office anymore anyway.

So, that is a baseline that’s important to acknowledge and to realize that managers need to be really evolving how they look at the kind of key performance indicators for productivity amongst their staff.

I would say that some tips that we really give remote workers in general though—there are certainly things that they can do to be very proactive in this, and staying in regular communication with their in-office coworkers or manager is fundamental.

And I think finding out how they want to communicate well—again, is it a weekly meeting? Is it a regular end-of-day update? What type of arrangement will work best?

I also think that keeping in communication on the progress and keeping up-to-date on the projects you’re working on, making sure everyone’s on the same page and that you’re involved and kind of not being silent on that.

Offering to help coworkers is another great area and asking for help to stay on top of mind and be a part of the team, as if you would in an office.

And, finally, a big one, I think, is speaking up for yourself and advocating for yourself, in terms of career progression, again as you would in an office.

Oftentimes, I think the mentality of a remote worker is, not just on the management side, but also on the remote worker’s side, where they kind of get a little hesitant to bring up some of the things that they would in person historically. Whereas, there’s really no need for that.

And I emphasize to any team that’s embracing remote work to just consider what the in-office parallel would be and to feel comfortable adapting it or finding a way to handle it.

And I was speaking with a colleague at a Fortune 500 company the other day, and she was saying that for every situation somebody says remote working can’t work or there’s a problem with it, they’re always able to find a solution example. And it really is just kind of about broadening your mind and really looking about what is it that you need to be productive in your role.

Stephanie Francis Ward: In the same respect, if you have a manager who, for whatever reason, is just not very accepting of telecommuting, do you have much of a chance of convincing him or her that they should let you do it, or is it something that perhaps at some point you need to move on from, as long as you work for that person?

Sara Sutton Fell: I would definitely not move on too quickly. I do think that there are opportunities to provide information to managers who are hesitant to reticent or outright kind of in denial that this is something they want for their team.

There are so many great case studies from companies with strong remote programs, and within these companies are legal teams, such as Dell, Deloitte, United Health, American Express and the list goes on and on.

I also, though, as an individual, I would look around within my company and see if there are others with flexible arrangements, telecommuting or otherwise, flexible schedules, reduced schedules, etc., and kind of do your due diligence.

Take them out to coffee. Ask them how they got that. Did it come through the HR department? Did it come through their manager? Did it evolve? Is there anybody else on their team doing it? Because, essentially, you can arm yourself with some successful cases from within your own organization often that you might not have picked up on, and also get tricks and recommendations on how they’ve made it work well. So, I think that that’s one really important element.

I also would say that it’s important to convey to the manager that remote work, first of all, as I said, is already happening because in almost all cases, lawyers and others in the legal field are not doing their work exclusively in the office—they are working, whether it’s even five, 10, 15 percent of their time, from home or on their commute, or what have you—but that remote working is not all or nothing. It can be occasional. It can be part-time.

And so, you can propose situations where it’s transitional and built on trust. It can start with a trial period and then build up, being very communicative about the KPIs and expectations and the benefits.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m also curious, so, say you have a telecommuting arrangement, is it a good idea to have a good relationship with a peer who is physically in the office who can kind of fill you in on things that you may not get in memos, just kind of keep you updated on various office politics?

Sara Sutton Fell: I think that that is a scenario in which it certainly couldn’t hurt, but shouldn’t be relied upon. I don’t think a successful telecommuting arrangement should require that by any means. And, in fact, if management teams in general are being proactive in how they’re embracing telecommuting, that should basically be unnecessary.

But it’s always nice to have relationships within your team, and I think that, especially if your company has a hybrid model where some of the workers are in the office and others are remote, it can be particularly nice to have a mix of both of those professional relationships.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Gotcha. And for lawyers who do telecommute, what are some good ways to have boundaries between your home and your professional life, if both is taking place in your home?

Sara Sutton Fell: Absolutely a great question as well. For lawyers who are working from home or starting to work from home, I think it’s incredibly important to, first of all, have an office space that’s a dedicated, quiet space where you can focus, ideally a separate office space with a door. And I think that maintaining that kind of differentiation between your physical space of where you work and where you live is important.

For example, a lot of people refer to working from home as, “Oh, you’re going to be sitting on your couch, working at your kitchen table.” Those are not things we generally recommend for an ongoing successful telecommuting role. Certainly, it’s nice to mix it up, but not really for when you have to get down to work and be super focused.

I also, personally, I think finding a schedule that works for you, even if it’s just a core schedule—for some people who need working from home and flexible schedules, they might have an afternoon that might be a little bit more flexible.

But having core hours that you can stick to and communicate to your colleagues and managers that you will definitely be online is very helpful, and really communicating about your schedule to your team, whether they’re remote or in the office; and, also, if you live with others, talking to your family or roommates about what working from home means and that they really need to respect your situation.

So, I think that there are a lot of traits that I focus on within my team when I’m hiring and/or working with our workers to be as productive as they can and to make it as successful as they can, and those are things like self-discipline, organization, again communication.

But it really is—I mean, life is already getting kind of infiltrated by technology being available 24/7, and so I think probably for most, at least most lawyer friends I have, creating boundaries in their lives anyway can be a challenge, whether they’re in the office or not. And I think it can be a little exacerbated at home. So, you do really want to be good about those boundaries.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And, Sara, I think that’s everything I had to ask you today. Would you like to add anything else?

Sara Sutton Fell: I think the most important thing I like to convey to people is that this is—it’s a win-win-win situation. This is not just a warm, fuzzy benefit for the lawyer or the professional. It is also a win for the employer. It does help in retention and recruiting. So, HR loves it. Finance teams love it because it can save on real estate overhead, as well as those other kind of retention and turnover issues we’ve discussed.

A lot of the technology teams often are really pushing for these things, as well, so that it helps to be more of an impetus for more secure situations in companies, which many companies are being too lax on, given the amount of cloud-based working that’s already happening, even though it’s not formally acknowledged by companies.

So, it’s really a financial win; it’s a lifestyle win; and it’s something that is the future of work, in my opinion. But it’s also very optimistic. It will help people ideally save time on their commute, be more productive in working where and when and how they feel the most efficient and can get the most done. And, yeah, so, it’s really an optimistic time with remote work, and I’m excited to see more legal firms taking it on.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. It was great to have you as a guest.

Sara Sutton Fell: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Of course. And listeners, thank you for joining us, as well. Until next time, I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and you’ve been listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

End of transcript.

Updated on March 30 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Sara Sutton Fell is the CEO and founder of Remote.co, a business that helps companies hire, train and manage employees who work offsite, and FlexJobs, a career website focused on telecommuting, freelance work and part-time jobs.