- The way you manage the remote team will differ from how you may manage on-site.
Whether you have a virtual office, have remote or hybrid employees on the team, contract with an outside attorney for overflow, or outsource administrative functions, the way you manage the remote team will differ from how you may manage on-site attorneys and support teams. What tools and tactics will help you confidently manage virtual employees without micromanaging them?
If you have outsourced some support functions, for example, a managed IT company or a virtual CFO, bookkeeper, receptionist or paralegal, you will need to determine whether they will be added as users in your systems or if you will leverage technology they provide. For example, if you use a virtual receptionist, will you allow them access to your calendar tools? Practice management application? Document management or storage system? Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)? Or will they provide the backbone technology? If so, will this technology integrate with the systems you use? You will need to track their activity, check for dropped or missed calls, and provide instructions daily. Have you done a “secret shopper” test to see how they answer the calls, texts and chats they are hired to help with?
You also have a duty to supervise under Model Rule 5.3 and a duty of confidentiality under Model Rule 1.6. You may send a nondisclosure and confidentiality agreement if the outsourcing company does not proactively provide one. If your outsourced team is given access to your systems, make sure they can only access what is necessary for them to do their job. You have a way of enforcing security best practices by using business password management applications and multifactor authentication using a firm-managed authenticator instead of a personal mobile phone.
If you are outsourcing responsibilities, the management is baked into the service. With remote employees, whether they formerly came into the office or have only ever worked remotely for the firm, the challenges will rest squarely on the shoulders of firm management. Remote workers may find that the lack of face-to- face supervision leads to inadequate direction. They may struggle with a lack of access to information. Their working environment at home may lead to social isolation and distractions. If the firm practice areas are siloed, the remote setting may only enhance this issue. Fortunately, these challenges can be overcome with some shifts in strategy.
Regular, strategic and intentional communication is essential to managing remote employees. This includes identifying what tools you will use to communicate and establishing a cadence of regular conversations. You will also need to discuss expectations for responsiveness.
Work with your team and individuals to schedule regular meetings. A weekly one on one, a short “standing” team meeting scheduled at the beginning of the week to review the week ahead and longer monthly team meetings can ensure that everyone communicates regularly. Establish agendas for longer meetings and follow up from meetings with assignments and deadlines. The weekly huddle can consist of each team member briefing the group on what they will spending time on during the week, asking for help, and reviewing struggles or triumphs. This seems like a lot of meetings, and it is. They need not be long, but creating space for consistent touch points will help replicate what might have happened when everyone was together in the office. Try not to cancel meetings at the last minute.
For unscheduled communications, determine what tools you will use. Teams chat? Slack? Law practice management technology? VoIP? Separate team communication from client communication. Likely you communicate with clients via email, text and a client portal. Those communications need to be managed, organized, stored and retained. Adding intra-office communication through email adds to the difficulty of managing the client record.
Establish preferences for communication and expectations for availability, and respect people’s time. If you want your team to be available during certain times, make that known. However, is it realistic or fair to expect quick responses after hours, on holidays and on weekends? Reserve those messages for items truly worth the disruption.
Using an electronic calendar—whether Microsoft Outlook, Google Workspace or a law practice management system—and keeping it updated will help let others know when you are available. You can color code for external or client events (meetings, court appearances, CLEs, presentations), for internal time (blocked productivity time and internal meetings), and to mark time as private. Then make that calendar visible to others in the firm and instruct them to do the same. You can easily check someone’s calendar to see their availability and request time on their schedule.
If you are using Microsoft Outlook or Google Workspace, make sure to synchronize your calendar to automatically show free and busy time as a virtual “available” or “do not disturb” signal in chat tools like Teams, Meet or Slack. You can also set messages on chat tools to indicate where you are and what you are doing on a given day or for specific times, like an out-of-office message in email.
Create a “watercooler” for your team to blow off steam, share the events of the weekend and have a space for nonwork communication to strengthen bonds between employees. Consider adding channels like “hobbies” or “pets” or “fun” to your chat tools, or create a Yammer community or Google Group on your firm intranet.
No one wants to feel micromanaged or distrusted. Firms considering deploying technology to track employee remote work should realize that while a person may be seen by management at their office desk, it never meant that they were actively working. Employee monitoring software became a cottage industry during the pandemic. That does not mean it is a good idea. With effective communication, and using metrics based on work done rather than “work,” there should be little need to use tracking technology. In a survey from ExpressVPN, 54% of respondents indicated they would be likely to quit their jobs if they learned of workplace monitoring.
It is essential for your firm to assemble templates, “best of ” documents, brief banks, practice guides, clause libraries, how-tos and guides for employees. Make these resources available in a searchable, sortable and easily accessible place like a firm intranet or online library. In the past, someone might walk down the hall to ask if someone had a question. In a remote setting and with varying schedules, documentation and self-help guides will keep work flowing.
Documented workflows and tasks are essential tools for successful management of remote workers. Random emails, sticky notes, voicemails and dropping by someone’s desk to give them an assignment all ensure the tasks remain undocumented and rely on the memory of at least two parties. There is no visibility in assignments and deadlines, reporting on progress, or documented accountability. There are many tools available to firms, from simple Outlook or Google Tasks, Microsoft To Do, project management applications and practice management applications. It is incumbent on management to spend the time to use these tools. Firms should focus on outputs and outcomes, not merely activity. Measure what is done, not face time.
When assigning tasks, managers should add context, include sample documents and let employees feel comfortable requesting help and clarification. Rather than saying “Why haven’t you done this?” ask “What can I do to help you accomplish this task?”
To be a good manager means you are committed to the success of your team. Leading a remote team is a paradigm shift that requires adopting an attitude of thoughtful engagement, tracking accomplishments, providing help, being a good listener and being present for those who report to you. If you strive to provide mentorship and management, remote workers will be more likely to seek your guidance instead of hiding the ball when struggling. Law firms are busy, stressful and demanding workplaces. Whether your team is fully remote, hybrid or all in the office, adopting best practices in managing a remote workforce will improve transparency, engagement, productivity and success.