By Clayton Dodds
In today’s workforce, the ability to work remotely is a popular benefit offered to promote employee satisfaction and wellbeing. Employees are increasingly demanding the flexibility of working remotely, on either an ad hoc or weekly basis, for a variety of reasons. Whether it is to accommodate family needs, to reduce time spent in traffic, or to promote mental health, the idea of remote work has permeated throughout most industries. The legal industry is no stranger to this trend, especially in California. The prevalence of affordable video & audio equipment and the ease of using video conference technologies like Zoom make it all the more appealing.
While there are tremendous benefits to remote work, it is nearly impossible to replace face-to-face interactions. There is also a common misnomer that “working remotely” means someone is instead chilling at the beach. In order to promote teamwork, collaboration, and effective workflow management, the following elements can be helpful whether you yourself are working remotely or are considering offering remote work to your employees.
1. Clarify Expectations of Virtual Work vs. Remote Work
Make sure to set the correct expectations, starting with how to refer to the work. Generally, “remote” means that an employee is working during normal business hours, just in a different location. It should be expected that the remote employee is online and available to answer phone calls, e-mails, and chat messages at the same time as other employees in the firm. Conversely, “virtual” work means that an employee works on their own time schedule, in a separate location, and is not necessarily working the same hours as the rest or majority of the firm. Be very clear about whether the associate is working remotely or virtually, and set expectations about availability and progress accordingly.
2. Be Proactive in Communication – And Make It A Priority
Whether working on a distributed team or managing employees who are working remotely, it is very important to communicate. The remote workers should make it known to secretaries, assistants, and co-workers exactly when he or she will be available and how they can be contacted. They should be proactive when a conflict of any magnitude arises, and should not hesitate to pick up the phone or initiate a video teleconference to address the issue. Encourage recurring status reports about a specific matter or series of matters, and make sure it is circulated consistently – both in format and timing. For example, it can be very effective to send a weekly e-mail every Monday morning that provides an outline of major case updates and next steps. Remote workers should make it a priority to be responsive to colleagues and proactive in communicating with the firm.
3. Test, Then Test Again
Technology is imperfect, and sometimes can be outright frustrating. Remote connection and video teleconferencing technology has come a long way towards being user-friendly and cost-efficient. However, many problems can arise when utilizing these technologies for remote work, and the origin of those problems are not always easy to diagnose. The cause of a tech issue could be the internet speed and connection, or the connection of the webcam and microphone, or the settings on the workstation, or the configuration of the video conferencing software, or the security protocols on either end. Make it a priority to test the components and the system early and often. If meeting with clients, offer to conduct a brief A/V connection test 10 minutes prior to the appointment – most clients will appreciate the forethought and commitment to a positive experience. As you test to figure out the optimal configuration, document what you learn in the process and use that information for the next step.
4. Have a Troubleshooting Document & Backup Plan
It is going to happen that issues arise while working remotely. The internet or phone system will inevitably go down right before a big motion or response is due. The screen will freeze or the audio will go out while on a video conference call. The voicemail system will stop notifying you of voicemails and you will miss an important message. Issues like these are going to happen to remote workers, but hopefully on an infrequent basis. Prepare in advance for problems by creating a troubleshooting document and a backup plan. These materials should include different scenarios with step-by-step instructions for what to do when an issue occurs. Use information learned from doing regular system tests to inform the troubleshooting document. Install backup or redundant systems, such as a different teleconferencing software when one fails, or a desktop sharing platform when the VPN goes down, or even a pay-as-you-go cellphone & hotspot for when the phone and internet provider is experiencing an outage. Tech issues can be disruptive, but with a well-considered troubleshooting and backup plan, they don’t have to be detrimental.
5. Give Special Consideration to Security & Privacy
Remote work necessarily requires some technology, and where technology is involved, there could be security and privacy vulnerabilities. Work with your IT team or consultant to ensure that the remote system being used is secure and handles sensitive information in an encrypted manner. Popular software platforms like GoToMyPC or LogMeIn are easy to use, but might not be as secure as utilizing a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. Make sure antivirus or malware prevention software is installed on both the remote and office workstation. Use proper procedures for handling sensitive information in the remote work environment – for example, if you write down a client’s credit card number to initiate a transaction, be sure to shred the paper when finished. Observe all regulatory requirements, such as HIPPA, and take steps to ensure your remote environment is compliant. With the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) coming into effect in 2020, and with the increasing number of security threats, it is very important to consider the security and privacy of the remote working environment in advance.
About the Author
Clayton Dodds is the incoming 2020 chair of the Law Practice Management & Technology section of the California Lawyers Association. He is a frequent author, speaker, and contributor to local, regional, and international organizations about a host of technology topics, including digital technology, marketing automation, and IT Security. Clayton works as the Director of Marketing at Brewer Offord & Pedersen LLP and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org