Leading a Team Remotely During a Crisis

Published: June 15, 2020

Kevin Costanza Seed IP Law Group LLP Seattle, Washington, USA Law Firm Committee

Mark Evans Smart & Biggar Toronto, Canada

The COVID-19 pandemic is posing unprecedented challenges. For law firms, strong leadership is essential. You may lead a small client team of attorneys, paralegals and legal assistants, an administrative team of accountants or docketing clerks, one of your firm’s practice groups or regional offices, or an entire firm. In every case, the issues that arise and the core skills and tools you need in order to prepare for and respond to those issues, remain constant.

In this article, the Law Firms Committee discusses several things to keep in mind when leading and managing a team forced to work remotely for a long period of time.

Communicate. And communicate some more.

Strong communication skills are vital for law firm leadership. During a public health emergency or following a natural disaster, particularly when teams are forced to work remotely for a long period, frequent and clear communication, both internally and externally, is even more important—and the benefits much greater.

Internally, team members want to know what is happening—both good and bad. A lack of information, updates, and goals in such a challenging situation can create voids that naturally get filled with speculation and fear. When people are working remotely and not interacting regularly with teammates or supervisors, they may assume that a lack of communication is because the news is bad. Why else would a supervisor or management not communicate with them more or sooner? Such concerns can unnecessarily raise stress levels and adversely affect performance. They’re also avoidable.

Frequent and regular updates from a supervisor or manager can dispel such fears, give team members assurance that things are going better than they may fear, alleviate feelings of isolation, and give them defined goals to work toward.

Even very short communications can be helpful. A good leader is one who cares. Regularly checking in on team members reminds them that you are there and care about how they are doing. It also gives team members an opportunity to raise any issues, challenges, concerns, or problems they are experiencing.

Regular communication allows supervisors to gauge workloads, backlogs, utilization, and capacity. Learning early about issues related to workload and distribution can create an opportunity to get work done more efficiently. At the same time, it can also reassure team members that their supervisors are being vigilant to make sure they have an ongoing stream of work, which can help prevent feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.

Of course, the tone and content of a leader’s communications are key. While messaging should ideally demonstrate resilience and an appropriate level of optimism, law firm leaders must ensure that their communications are honest and transparent. This is especially so during a crisis. Messaging that isn’t truthful or authentic—even if intended to make people feel better—will create long-term problems.

Beyond uncertainties about work and the firm, leaders must also understand that public health emergencies, especially when working remotely for long durations, create other conditions that can have a significant adverse effect on team members. These issues include acute financial and health problems, homeschooling challenges and childcare demands during school and daycare closures, lack of a proper space in which to work, and frequent interruptions and disruptions. Long-term isolation or working from home during a crisis can also take a toll on team members’ mental health and potentially trigger high-risk situations such as substance abuse or domestic violence.

Leaders need to be alert to these potential situations. Having a regular opportunity to communicate, particularly by phone or preferably video, can give the team member repeated opportunities to raise such issues and ask for help. Make it a habit to always ask, “How are you doing; do you need anything?” Empathy and emotional intelligence are fundamental. In serious situations, such conversations can give your Human Resources lead an opportunity to provide a professional referral.

Supervisors or managers also need to work especially hard in a remote working environment to maintain a firm’s culture. Depending upon a firm’s particular working environment, consider having virtual “events” such as coffees, lunch breaks (or even a 24/7 virtual drop-in café for larger firms), happy hours, and other social “gatherings.”

Externally, frequent client communication is also critical. Stay close (virtually in the current instance) to clients—listen carefully; find out if and how they have been impacted and help them understand what solutions you can provide. Helping clients and being a trusted advisor has never been more important.

Finally, keep clients informed as to how your firm is managing during the crisis. Provide clients with the comfort of knowing that your firm is working seamlessly and is fully available to support their needs.

Organize/Delegate Communications

Working remotely for long durations under difficult conditions can affect every member of the firm. Hardships and challenges can be caused by the lack of regular communication, insufficient tools, a suboptimal work environment, and the resultant uncertainty, fear, confusion, and anxiety. Accordingly, for the firm to continue operating as close to “normal” as possible, and to ensure that all team members are supported and cared for, the same level of attention, communication, and support needs to be provided firm-wide, even if the exact tools and projects for the team members vary from person to person.

Firms are already organized into groups (for example, attorney and paralegal practice groups, industry groups, and major client teams, as well as HR, docketing, accounting, records, and other administrative and support teams). The existing organizational structure is a good start for dividing the firm into teams for the purpose of regular communication. To be effective under long-term work-from-home conditions, however, the groups must be manageably sized such that every team member feels like he or she has a direct, personal line of communication to a supervisor or manager. If the existing groups are too large, they should be divided into smaller, more manageable groups or teams with additional leads. Otherwise, many of the benefits obtained through direct communication may not be realized.

The existing group or team chair, lead, manager, or supervisor should take responsibility for communicating regularly (that is, at least once per week) to the entire group. Optimally, that person will also regularly communicate one on one with every member of the group. For this to succeed in large groups, the chair or lead may need to designate vice-chairs to be responsible for personally communicating with distinct portions of the group. Is there additional administrative effort involved? Certainly. But the benefits of regular, personal communication cannot be emphasized enough.

Ultimately, an organizational structure should be created such that the chairs, vice-chairs, group leads, and managers all receive direct communication from management and, in turn, communicate directly to every individual at the firm. To ensure success, consider scheduling weekly or biweekly group and individual video calls in advance so everyone can plan for them and has a regular opportunity to hear from and provide input to the firm’s leaders.

Technical Support

Most people are accustomed to getting their work done at the office. There they have all the tools they need, including a desk, office chair, computer, monitor and keyboard, pens, highlighters, and possibly a whiteboard or corkboard. In addition, they have suitable space in which to effectively use all these tools for long hours.

Working remotely, people often find themselves without many of these tools, which can significantly adversely impact their productivity, efficiency, satisfaction, and mental state. Working on a laptop in a hotel room for a couple evenings during a business trip, or on the couch at home over the weekend, is one thing; working in isolation for an extended duration is entirely different. Leaders should not always expect the same productivity and realization from someone working under such conditions.

Rapidly transitioning to working remotely and providing team members with as many of their regular tools as possible can be critical to firm productivity and realization. It is important to provide people as closely as possible with the tools with which they are accustomed to working—whether that means buying laptops, keyboards, monitors, desks and chairs, coordinating with team members to deliver such tools from their offices to their homes, or some combination of these efforts. The sooner this happens, the sooner work gets back to “normal,” minimizing downtime, frustrations, and productivity losses.

Act Early/Plan Ahead

The more quickly teams can fully transition to working remotely under optimal conditions, the sooner the firm can get back to concentrating on client support and work. Delays providing tools and equipment, setting up team members’ home offices, and initiating regular communication can result in a lack of productivity and increase the risk of confusion, frustration, and anxiety. When an emergency occurs, management needs to act immediately and decisively to fully support team members.

No one can predict what the next natural disaster or public health crisis will be or when it will occur. The current global crisis has demonstrated that the best way to transition quickly during an emergency is to have a carefully developed crisis management plan. While many attorneys and paralegals have been set up to work remotely for a long time, most people who work regularly from home or on the road are not fully set up to work for an extended duration away from the office. Having a well-thought-out plan in place is important, even for people who regularly work remotely.

It is also important that management makes suitable IT investments and regular upgrades to hardware, software, and network infrastructure to make it possible to “flip a switch” and transition the firm to working remotely. In addition, team members should be set up and trained in using a VPN and video conference technology (for example, Zoom, MS Teams, Skype, WebEx, or Meet).

Management must also prepare to provide, or budget to purchase, tools and equipment for individuals who would not otherwise work from home. Having pre-configured loaner laptops, for example, can help smooth the transition to working remotely by having tools at the ready to provide to mission-critical individuals who don’t otherwise work remotely. Having a budget for emergencies and being ready and willing to spend it immediately to purchase monitors, keyboards, and other peripherals will expedite the transition and demonstrate to team members that they are valuable members of the team.

Working from home for an extended period during a crisis is challenging and stressful for all involved. Firm leaders need to be prepared, engaged, transparent, empathetic, and supportive. Done well, leadership under such challenging times can actually result in increased trust, respect, and loyalty across the firm.

Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of items in the INTA Bulletin, readers are urged to check independently on matters of specific concern or interest.

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