Important considerations for managing associates or other employees remotely.
By Ursula Furi-Perry, Family Law Attorney
As virtual offices become a reality, and as technology helps employees work from anywhere at any time, an increasing number of employees are working remotely or telecommuting at least some of the time. In fact, according to a 2014 New York Times article, the annual survey of the Society for Human Resource Management “found a greater increase in the number of companies planning to offer telecommuting in 2014 than those offering just about any other new benefit.” The same article reports some promising news: employees who work at home tend to put in more hours and are more productive.
While law practice tends to be bit slower to catch on to trends as other industries, it is by no means immune to this trend. Some firms are more likely to allow their employees to work from home or telecommute at least part time, and virtual law firms have become a clear trend. A 2014 article on Forbes.com highlighted one of those firms, for example.
This article, admittedly, is the byproduct of my own virtual work arrangement with my managing partner at a family law firm. I work a flexible schedule, most of it from home or our office in my home town, while also being available to meet with clients and assist the firm in its main offices. The arrangement works for us. But what are some important considerations for managing associates or other employees remotely?
Set Clear Goals and Objectives
As my managing partner Damian Turco puts it, for any virtual work arrangement to be successful, “the associate should clearly understand what is expected on a week-to-week basis. And, there must be good controls in place, like a good billing management program, week-end summary emails, and regular phone and email communication.”
Among others, managing partners should discuss the following with associates or others working remotely:
- Office hours. What are some particular times during which the employee is expected to be reachable by clients, colleagues, or managers? (Setting some clear limits is as important in this regard as setting some clear times for contact.) If the employee is working from home, as opposed to a satellite office, what are some times during which the employee is available to come into the firm’s offices to meet with clients, participate in firm meetings, etc.?
- Methods of communication. What are the preferred methods of communication for reaching the employee? What are the ground rules for communicating with clients—for example, how quickly must the employee get back to the client? How are “emergency” cases and projects labeled, and what are the ground rules for responding to them?
- Time-management issues. How will the firm ensure that the employee will follow the firm’s dockets, keep track of important deadlines, and ensure those deadlines are met? What tools will the firm provide to the associate in this regard?
- Issues of professional responsibility. How will the firm ensure that the remote working arrangement will comport with all applicable rules of professional responsibility—for example, in the case of sharing documents via a cloud-based system?
- Reliable technology. What tools are necessary for the associate working remotely to effectively do his or her job? Just as importantly, what skills are necessary for using those technological tools effectively?
Feedback and Interaction Are Most Important
Ideally, managing employees who work remotely will include some face-to-face contact, through regular meetings or check-in sessions. In the absence of meeting in person, regular calls, texts, or emails are a must. Tools such as Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime, or other virtual “visitation spots” can allow for an even more personable approach to keeping in touch.
“Keeping the lines of communication open is essential,” Turco notes. “You don’t want your associate to feel he or she cannot reach out to you as needed. You also don’t want your associate to be concerned when a meeting is necessary.” In our firm, connecting at least a few times a week works well, as do Monday morning emails setting out plans for the week. “Most importantly, though, you need trustworthy, self-disciplined associates,” Turco says, “and if you are uncertain that your prospective associate has these characteristics, I would wait before putting him or her in another location.”
Ursula Furi-Perry is an attorney at Turco Legal, PC, where Damian Turco is the founding and managing partner. www.TurcoLegal.com
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