Five Tips for Communicating Effectively While Working Remotely

By April 28, 2020 No Comments

©2020. Published in GPSolo eReport, Vol. 9, No. 9, April 2020, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This  information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder. 

Due to the urgent need to slow the spread of COVID-19, many law firms have temporarily switched to working remotely. My law firm has been virtual since its inception in 1999. Even for law firms that are well versed in operating virtually, this method of work can prove challenging at times. Recently I spoke to another attorney about the differences between his office operations in downtown Seattle and my firm’s virtual setup. Upon considering my situation, my colleague commented, “Yes, but that’s so hard to manage. It’s so much easier if everyone shares the same space.” I had to acknowledge that my colleague was completely right.

As my firm has grown, internal communications have occasionally proven problematic. In fact, this year the theme for my office team is communication. We focus on it every week, identifying weaknesses and ways we can improve. Although I certainly don’t profess to having all the answers, I can share some ideas for fostering effective internal communication while working remotely.

1. Identify Team Members Who Excel at Working Remotely

Not many people are uniquely suited to work effectively from home, performing their assigned tasks correctly and efficiently. A remote worker will never have the option to stroll into the adjoining office and say, “I don’t understand what you want me to do here. Does this look right? Is this what you wanted?” And, since those questions need to be answered, your office team will need to find alternative ways to communicate. If your law firm is operating remotely on a temporary basis, I recommend that you quickly identify those members of your office team who adjust to remote work like a duck takes to water. Workers who tend to be much more successful in a virtual setting can articulately communicate their questions as needed to ensure that each aspect of their work is being performed correctly and listen carefully and absorb feedback—even though that feedback will likely be given via e-mail, case management software, telephone, or video conference. Workers who thrive at working remotely also tend to be thoughtfully and fiercely committed to good communication and understand why, in a virtual environment, more attention and care is required than they may be accustomed to in a brick-and-mortar setting. Upon identifying your key individuals, you can then structure the work so that, at least on a temporary basis, these team members can provide leadership and guidance for other office personnel who may be struggling with the change in their work environment.

The current health crisis may create an opportunity in disguise by compelling you to hone your firm’s internal operations and communication methods. It’s a time to learn good habits, which will likely prove beneficial regardless of whether you eventually switch back to a physical office setting or, possibly, if you like this new experience, choose to continue operating your firm virtually after the crisis has ended.

2. Keep Track of Physical Documents

While your law firm operates remotely, you may experience challenges in keeping track of physical documents required for your work. For example, I would not be truthful if I didn’t confess to a few mad scrambles over the years trying to track down someone’s original will or other key document. Because my office team members all work from home, our lawyers may review the virtual client file within the case management software and note everything that they need to know—except who has the documents they need to bring to court. A very inefficient, stressful, and time-consuming dialogue ensues: “Oh my God. Does Sally have it? But wait. Maybe Tim has it?” And so on. Learning from several of these lifespan-reducing mishaps, my office now carefully uses the mail records in our case management software to document not just when mail is received or sent, but also where the essential original documents live. Each time an original document is transferred from one team member’s home to another, that transfer is documented as a mail record. Physical documents can occasionally be misplaced in a brick-and-mortar setting, too. So regardless of whether your firm eventually returns to a physical office space or continues working virtually, good habits for keeping track of documents may be developed during this crisis that will prove beneficial in either context.

3. Think Through the Best Communication Method

Because discussing an issue in person is not an option, working remotely requires you to think more carefully about how best to communicate. Choosing the ideal method of communication in a virtual setting is complex, and it’s important to get it right. Truth be told, due to the inability to have face-to-face discussions, the interpersonal relationships in a virtual setting tend to experience more fragility than would be the case in a law firm where co-workers see each other on a daily basis. A careless or hurried e-mail or message sent via case management software can result in hurt feelings and damaged relationships, which in turn can harm your office team’s ability to work effectively together. While your firm works remotely, the nature of some needed communications will require you to take a breath and pick up the telephone rather than rattling off a quick response that is likely to be misinterpreted. Some communications may require that you take the time to discuss the issue via video conference. Hopefully, by focusing on the best method of communicating during this time of crisis, these habits will carry on and be beneficial to your law firm once the COVID-19 crisis has subsided.

4. Apply the Principles of Brevity and Clarity

As we all learned in our legal writing course in law school, the best lawyers achieve that magical balance of brevity and clarity in both oral and written communications. The same skill also proves invaluable in developing effective internal communications while working remotely. During this crisis, undoubtedly, you would prefer spending time assisting clients with the myriad novel and confusing legal issues they may be facing, as opposed to addressing internal miscommunications caused by the confusion and stress of adjusting to remote work. By remembering to take a few extra minutes to ensure the goals of brevity and clarity are met in your communications, you will ultimately save time both for you and your office team. And, if you decide to switch back to a physical office setting, these habits will hold you in good stead.

5. Invest in Communication

My law firm participates in weekly attorney calls and monthly administrative calls to ensure we are communicating well about our client work, workflow, and internal operations. During one recent week of chaos and deadlines, I canceled the monthly administrative call in order to focus on client matters. An extremely tempting choice for any busy lawyer, right? A member of my administrative team wisely reminded me that a call needed to occur, gently chiding me with the comment, “Communication is an investment, Stacey, and we need to do this.” At that time, I wanted to throw my laptop across the room and shout, “How can you invest if you have no time to invest?” But, humbly, I had to acknowledge that she was right, and I was wrong. Communication is an investment. And especially now, in a time of chaos, transition, and uncertainty, it is a necessary investment. Although good communication may seem time consuming, it ultimately saves time by creating a well-tuned office. Investing in communication now, while your firm works remotely, will enable you to create and strengthen communication structures that will work well into the future.

Someday, the crisis related to COVID-19 will be a distant memory. Hopefully, the lessons learned about communicating effectively while operating remotely will not drift into the background if your law firm moves back into its physical space. By honing these skills during this time, and then being mindful of lessons learned as life returns to normal, you will operate more efficiently in the future—and prepare your law firm for the next health crisis or other calamity that may come our way.

This post is for informational purposes and does not contain or convey legal advice. The information herein should not be used or relied upon in regard to any particular facts or circumstances without first consulting with an attorney.

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