At this virtual law firm, there is a more flexible work-life for both employer and employees. The result has been a happier, more efficient, and creative group of people.
By Elise Buie, Family Lawyer
Ten years ago, I started a virtual law firm. At the time, this was unheard of. I wanted to practice law differently. As a newly divorced single mother of four, I homeschooled; as the primary breadwinner for my family, I knew a nine-to-five job wouldn’t cut it. I needed an environment where I could do my work, care for my family, and – just as important – care for myself. What I also knew was that my work life didn’t have to be one way.
Little did I know that in 2020, my idea, born of necessity, would position me to weather a pandemic and enter a period of rapid expansion. My Seattle law firm grew from a handful of divorce and family lawyers to more than 30, made up of attorneys and staff.
At My Virtual Law Firm, Everyone Loves Coming to Work
Those wins come from the pride every team member takes in their contributions. We like coming to work, even if our desks are miles apart. I don’t have an MBA or business training. What I did have was a burning desire to change my life and my employees’ lives, which I did. Post-COVID, it’ll be (virtual) business as usual, because I have seen firsthand how it can make for a better working environment. Today, I wouldn’t do it any other way.
But it does take effort and a lot of self-awareness. There’s a definite way to do this, and it took practice. Indeed, many employees at other firms are suffering from working at home, largely because there was no roadmap before COVID-19 sent us into our home offices or makeshift workspaces where there were none before. For many employees, it hasn’t bode well.
A recent study conducted by Microsoft (which polled 30,000 people from a variety of companies in 31 countries and used trillions of data points around labor and productivity) concluded that a majority of remote workers are struggling in their present work environment. As many as 41% said they’re considering leaving their current positions. Even so, many employers are ignoring the reasons why their employees are having a difficult time; those managers and company leaders polled reported that they’re “thriving.”
Working at a Virtual Law Firm Doesn’t Mean You’re Available 24/7
Here’s what I know: virtual work-life can equate to a more flexible work-life for both the employer and their employees. But there needs to be consciousness on the employer’s part to make that happen. To that end, depending on my employees’ lifestyles, and my own, that may mean working at odd times. However, unless there’s an emergency, I don’t ping employees during non-business hours. Cell phone notifications ratchet up stress, making downtime a downer.
For after-hours communications, I draft emails to go out first thing the next day. Well-rested employees are happier and more productive, making everyone’s day, including mine, better. It’s also not enough to offer vacation and sick days if employees are afraid to use them. Therefore, I don’t schedule important meetings or create deadlines during scheduled time off.
During normal times, it’s easier to miss the challenges people are facing, especially when your business is virtual. By continuing to watch and listen to my employees, even over Zoom, I can see and react to the clues they’re leaving (even if they’re unintentional clues).
Supporting Virtual Employees through the Pandemic: “Virtual” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Distant”
During collectively hard times like the COVID-19 pandemic, it helps to implement emergency policies or take specific actions to support employees. However, sending out a company-wide email saying “I care” isn’t enough. With the constant threat of illness, having to care for relatives or themselves after contracting COVID-19, dealing with the loss of a loved one, or supervising school-aged children during the workday as remote learning became the new norm, my employees’ experiences ran the gamut.
In response, I made calls, shot out emails and texts, and sent flowers and gifts. I wanted my team to know I saw them no matter where they were and where they weren’t. I also informed the rest of the team when someone needed space and who would cover in their absence.
Tips for Managing Happy and Productive Virtual Employees
My door’s always open. Even though I’m not down the hall, my employees know I’m available. Slack has become my new go-to. If I can’t respond immediately, I will shortly. I continually convey how our conversations are never a bother and a welcome interruption.
As an owner, I am well aware the performance of my employees reflects on me. In other words, mentoring benefits us all. However, with expansion, it’s become impossible for me to attend every meeting. So I created a leadership team to head various groups in my organization and act in my stead when I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I’ve disappeared. I still make the virtual rounds. Together, we keep discussions fresh, ideas flowing, and the energy high.
Office life can positively intersect with personal life as well as move into the non-virtual world even though we work remotely. That’s why I host both virtual and in-person events. In addition, by sometimes including my employees’ significant others and children in firm events, whether remote or in person, I remove pressure and guilt that can come from being away from the family. Plus, I get to see a side of my team members I wouldn’t ordinarily. Time is valuable, and I want my employees to know I value theirs. My hope is that time off is quality time off.
With that in mind, I offer team members a discretionary monthly wellness benefit. It may not seem like much, but I know small perks add up. Our firm also arranges cooking and yoga classes employees can attend voluntarily. No pressure. I believe in a healthy lifestyle and that the workplace can be a source of encouragement instead of why health suffers.
I get that remote burnout exists. By offering extended time off firm-wide during the year, I can express my gratitude for employees’ hard work while allowing them (and me) to recharge. But I know as an owner, I can’t rely on my employees to always come to me. No matter how welcoming I am, I understand they may still fear being judged, looking weak, or jeopardizing their job. Working this way is still not considered the norm and can cause insecurity for some.
So even when nothing’s wrong, I pop in, virtually of course. Check-ins are invaluable for building rapport and a strong connection. Then, should a problem arise, the lines of communication are already open.
Career Advancement Doesn’t Require Brick-and-Mortar Offices
No one knows what the future for remote work holds, whether it will become more accepted, and what that will mean for advancement. I understand my employees expect to further their careers, and I want them to know there doesn’t need to be a brick-and-mortar office for them to do that.
By recognizing hard work and offering growth opportunities, I’ve witnessed greater job satisfaction among my team and more motivation from them to succeed. With room for employees to grow along with the firm comes less turnover. That saves money and keeps the bond between employees and me, and among them, strong.
No one wants to fail, especially professionally, myself included. Assigning a doable amount of work, including meetable deadlines, allows people to produce quality in a reasonable timeframe. In the same vein, rather than shoehorning employees into roles according to need, if they have a strength, I let them run with it. The result has been a happier, more efficient, and creative group of people.
When employees go above and beyond, their efforts should never go unnoticed. I love saying thanks privately and giving office-wide shoutouts. I also offer awards or bonuses. But what I tell my employees I’m most appreciative of is that virtual hasn’t meant distant. And wherever we are, we know we’re in this together.
Elise Buie, Esq. is a Seattle divorce and family lawyer. As a divorced, single parent, she left her job as a law firm associate and created her own virtual law firm in 2015. In the comfort of her own home, she discovered that she was able to work faster and better; she was more efficient because she was happier. Her firm has now grown to over two dozen family attorneys, an estate planning department, intake specialists, a marketing team, and paralegals – among others who make the firm run smoothly, day and night. www.elisebuiefamilylaw.com
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