Because of the restrictions flowing from the COVID-19 outbreak, many in-house lawyers will now be working from home. This is rather different from the usual working from home situation where this is interspersed with periods in the office, including attendance at meetings.
Working from home for a prolonged period clearly raises a number of issues and challenges, particularly in the current environment.
In this article we consider some of these and identify ways to help you cope and rise to the challenge. These are all subject, of course, to the overriding priority of staying well and caring for family and loved ones, as necessary.
1. Maintaining workflow
Some or all of your work may already be captured on casework or workflow systems making it easy to track activity and milestones. But not all your work may be covered or, perhaps, none if your work is largely or exclusively advisory. This makes email more vital than ever even though it may not be the ideal tool for collaboration – realistically it is the main way that work-related messages will be exchanged.
- Make sure that key dates and deadlines are diarised and reminders issued.
- Filter emails so that you quickly see what’s most urgent.
- Use agreed email procedures so that, for example, urgent emails are so marked and time frames identified. Bear in mind also, the need for email and document security.
- Use document control processes and systems (such as version control) to protect the integrity of working documents and make them more accessible to users.
- Speak regularly to colleagues and internal clients. It’s too easy for matters to get lost or overlooked otherwise.
- Focus on outcomes and results as much as possible.
- Technology is a great enabler here. Look at systems that make it easy for clients to refer work and for managers to assign and track it. There are also collaboration tools to enhance team working.
In this context it’s not just about the technology (though important) but also about how you stay in touch with lawyers, other colleagues and external stakeholders as necessary. In normal circumstances you’d be seeing many of these people on a regular basis but now all communication will be by other means. Working remotely, you’ll quickly realise how much you used face to face communication to get information and understand the challenges and complexities of an issue, picking up things that you may not have done via email alone.
- Schedule regular catch ups with lawyers and key clients, whether or not you think it’s absolutely necessary.
- Let people know when you’re available and when you’re not, particularly for phone calls or video chats/conferences.
- Use technology to keep in touch with lawyer colleagues and others – not just telephone conferencing but whatever video conferencing system you use or prefer – e.g. Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype etc.
- The work is important, of course, but our work relationships go beyond just this. So, look for ways to keep in touch socially as well.
Linked to connectivity is the question of how meetings are run when everyone is working remotely. Clearly, the ‘informal’ face to face meeting or chat with colleagues is no longer possible and these will be replaced by telephone calls and messaging. Formal meetings will need to use video conferencing and telephone dial in. The fact that attendees are remote makes it more important than ever for meetings to be well run. Otherwise there’s the risk that contributions will be missed or overlooked and participants leave the meeting unclear about what’s been agreed and who’s doing what.
- Ensure the meeting is chaired, prepare an agenda (including who’s speaking to which items), and indicate any key decisions to be made. Follow up with a note or minute, identifying actions and responsibilities.
- The chair should go around the attendees in the meeting and cover introductions so that everyone knows who’s present. The chair needs to also make sure that all attendees get an opportunity to contribute given that it will be more difficult to pick up non-verbal signals.
- Circulate any supporting papers as much in advance as possible.
- Make sure the technology works in advance!
- Listen - whether you’re chairing or attending the meeting, listen carefully to what’s being said. Even with a video link you may miss some of the nuances of the discussion, making good listening more important than ever.
- Build in some fun/social chat. People will be feeling a bit isolated at this time.
4. Managing your team
If you manage people, you’ll now need to do so at a distance. Some of your team may already be remote in that they work in different locations so you’ll be use to managing remotely, subject to the fact that you may physically meet periodically. But if the team is co-located, you’ll lose the opportunity to speak and catch up face to face, which is an important part of the management process. So, you’ll need to work harder to make sure that your team remains connected, motivated and engaged.
- Let your team know when you’re available and how to reach you.
- Keep in touch with people. Organise catch ups with team members (and the team) to replace the informal chats, 1-2-1s and team meetings you had in the office.
- Make sure you’re on top of workflow and projects. Whatever system you used in the office, replicate it online. If the team’s work was all captured in a workflow management system then this should be easy but otherwise you’ll need a system for allocation and progress of work matters.
- Check on people’s well-being as well as whether the work’s being done. Work with HR to ensure that there is a process for supporting people and identifying stress triggers.
- Maintain dialogue with your clients and external stakeholders. Despite the circumstances, they’ll want reassurance that things are getting done.
- Manage business continuity, especially if you have reduced capacity. What are your triggers for stopping or diverting certain work, and what are the risks?
- Listen carefully.
- Celebrate successes.
5. Personal effectiveness and well-being
As well as ensuring that you do what you can to keep well, you’ll be keen to remain busy and effective. This is not easy when you’re isolated from colleagues and are subject to the stress of trying to keep yourself and loved ones safe whilst remaining productive and carrying on as normally as is possible in the circumstances.
- Create a comfortable, dedicated work space, so far as is possible. This may not be easy if you are sharing a house with family or friends who are also home working or who are at home from their school or workplace.
- Check in regularly with your boss and colleagues.
- Plan your working day, as much as possible, with a start and finish time.
- Take clear breaks.
- Focus on results at the expense of activity. You’re not valued for your billable hours but for how you support your clients and get things done.
- Keep in touch with your clients and non-lawyer colleagues.
- Listen carefully.
- Communicate your concerns, whether work or health related. Don’t struggle on alone.
Current events have forced many of us to change our working environment and habits. And there are additional public health restrictions on what we can do, meaning that we’ll be spending a lot of time at home. This can be challenging, requiring us to be adaptable and resilient, as well as effective. But there are steps we can employ to adapt to these changes, be productive and still enjoy some of the benefits of working more flexibly, even in these difficult circumstances.
Tell us your story
If you want to share what you’re doing to cope and adapt then we’d be pleased to hear from you. Your experience may be valuable to other in-house lawyers.
Also, if you want to raise questions or queries with the CLL community of in-house lawyers let us have these and we’ll circulate them, anonymously if you prefer. We can’t deal with legal issues or give legal advice but we’re happy to help where we can with all other aspects of in-house legal practice.
Finally, if you would like to find a mentor, or mentor someone else, let us know.