Our family law department is a tight-knit family. The day-to-day connection with each other is the foundation of our success, and the move to a remote work environment has tested our ability to support each other – personally and professionally. These tips for managing your “work family” remotely will help ensure your team is coping well & finding ways to thrive, not just endure, the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Brian P. McCann and Kristen E. Marinaccio, Family Lawyers
The COVID-19 pandemic challenges our basic emotional needs in ways many of us have never experienced before. As human beings, our need for certainty, variety, significance, connection, growth, and contribution are under attack, sending many of us into a panic, triggering damage control and survival mode. The family lawyer is not immune and the practice of family law has shifted as our work environment goes virtual.
As we manage and control our new work environments, it will not always be easy or feel comfortable – nothing new ever does. We must accept at a management level that this transition is a work-in-progress and we will learn and improve as we go.
Our family law department is a tight-knit family. We thrive on the ability to communicate with one another quickly, walking down the hall to another’s office to ask a question, bounce ideas around, or collaborate on strategies. We share stories about our personal lives over lunch. We celebrate birthdays and professional wins. We support each other when life knocks us down and when we have a tough day in court.
The certainty of having the team present in the office, the day-to-day connection with each other, is the foundation of our success. With the change to a remote work environment, the fabric of what makes our department successful is being tested. However, like a true family, we are circling our wagons, rolling up our sleeves, and finding ways to thrive, not just endure through these uncertain times.
Here is what we have learned thus far about managing your “work family” remotely.
1. Check-In with Your Team (No – Really Check-In)
Initially, the focus was transitioning from the office to fully remote, getting basic operations set up remotely, ensuring files were distributed, and setting up phone lines. It was hectic, but believe it or not, that was the easy part. The challenge now is supporting each other through the personal and professional challenges of working remotely. You think you know the individuals on your team, but crisis affects everyone differently. Check-in with them. No – really check-in. Do not make the assumption that your quietest associate is loving the solitude or that the social butterfly home with his big family is coping well. The founder of our firm, Sean Callagy, is legally blind and pushes us to “see what we do not see.” Each day, you should take the pulse of your team and ask yourself, “What am I not seeing that is going on?” “How is this pandemic affecting how we work, individually and as a group?” Take time to listen, ask questions, interpret, evaluate, and respond with empathy. It is easy to focus on the bottom line: how will we meet our financial goals and billable hour expectations? But you must support your “work family” – on a professional and personal level – for your organization to thrive.
2. Avoid Communication Gridlock
Our team went from shouting down the hall “hey can you jump on this call?” to being scattered across two states. Inter-office emails are suddenly building up, replacing those two-minute talks we used to have standing in the doorway of an office. Now, we are emailing, calling, Zoom video calling, and group texting in lieu of quick chats in a colleague’s office – and that transition has not been easy. We are at home, some of us sharing a kitchen table as our new “office space.” Many of us are juggling remote schooling our children while drafting a motion and listening to an upset client on the phone. Add in a curious toddler, a few barking dogs, and realizing it is your turn to empty the dishwasher, and a Zoom call is nearly impossible. One of our senior associates, who has been working from home in New York City with her toddler and husband, who also works full time, captured this challenge when she said, “We work in shifts to the best of our ability, but it changes daily depending on whether there is a call, conference, or court ‘appearance’ – and whether our son decides that today is the day that there is going to be a ‘nap rebellion’.” Accept that it is going to take time to adjust and figure out how to communicate, understanding each individual’s circumstances. Plan ahead for calls, figure out times of the day that are the least busy for everyone. Discuss how best to communicate with your team. What is important is that you do not let the difficulty in communicating gridlock the real work that needs to be done.
3. Focus on Non-Work Virtual Communications
Humor is a big part of our team dynamic and success. The practice of family law is not easy; emotions run high. We are oftentimes lawyer, counselor, friend, confidant, and punching bag. It takes a toll on us. Being able to share a joke or funny story with our team makes an otherwise extremely difficult day bearable. With our team now remote, there is no water-cooler talk, no dropping into a colleague’s office to share about our weekends. Instead, we need to make a conscious effort to connect virtually and share positive non-pandemic-related content. If you listened to a podcast and loved it, send the link around. If something funny happened to you at home, share it with your team. Send a meme or a hilarious post from the internet. [Ed. Avoid racism, sexism, religious bias, or offensive language – anything that would be problematic if it somehow made its way into the public domain.] More than anything, keep connecting, and don’t stop the friendly banter that characterized your pre-pandemic communication style. Schedule a daily or weekly Zoom coffee chat or happy hour. It is weird at first, but do it – if for no other reason than a virtual escape from the four walls of your home offices, the Disney movies on loop, or to save yourself from binge-watching “Better Call Saul” again. Find ways to maintain your personal connections with your “work family.”
4. Do Not Forgo the Future
It is easy to panic and let paralysis set in. However, this is not the time to stop innovating. Do not just go through the motions, do not forgo the future. As Stephen Covey said, “I am not a product of my circumstances: I am a product of my decisions.” Sean challenged us, asking: “Where do you want to be in six months? Stick your flag pole in the ground now and then figure out how to innovate and get there.” Business development has changed, our in-person connections are no longer an option. Instead, we must pivot and immerse ourselves into the social-media-based-world. We must continue to develop existing strategic partnerships by co-creating social media events, such as podcasts, webinars, and articles. Continue to innovate. Do not limit yourself to only survival mode thinking. Look to add value and meaning to your community and to the people and organizations that need your help. Find ways to create with purpose, providing certainty, significance, growth, and contribution to those you connect with. This situation is temporary, when we return to “business as usual,” the decisions you make today will lay the groundwork for your success tomorrow.
Continue to Communicate and Connect
None of us knows what is to come tomorrow, but basic human needs have not changed. We must find new and innovative ways to continue to meet those needs and care for one another. Continue to communicate and connect. Confront the realities, but do not lose faith. Search for the best answers. Take care of your “work family” and reach your flag pole. More than anything, remember to laugh. As Robert Frost said, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”
Brian P. McCann is a partner with Callagy Law in Paramus. He is a Certified Matrimonial Law Attorney, a designation granted by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Kristen E. Marinaccio is an associate attorney with the firm’s family law department. www.callagylaw.com
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