Three Practical Steps for Engaging a Virtual Team
August 10, 2023
The pool of superb mid- and senior-level remote lawyers is now broader and deeper than ever. But some law organisations are missing out. Some hesitate to hire remote talent, mistakenly believing that remote workers cannot be as productive as those onsite. Other times, a law organisation hires remote legal talent but fails to get the most out of them.
These lost opportunities can be eliminated by maximising the engagement of remotely based Talent. The research is clear: when employees feel connected, understand the part they play in the goals, and feel respected by managers and colleagues, their productivity and engagement levels increase.
Three practices are critical to engaging remote legal professionals:
‘Macro-Managing’ Instead of Micromanaging. Some supervisors remain hamstrung by the notion that ‘when the cat’s away, the mice will play’. For most, the ubiquity of successful work-from-home lawyering during the COVID pandemic dispelled that myth, but holdouts remain. Their impulse is to micromanage by closely monitoring remote workers, endlessly scrutinising their work, and constantly critiquing how and when they perform their jobs.
This approach is doubly counterproductive. First, it requires managers and employees alike to spend (read: waste) time on the non-value-add activities that micromanaging involves. Second, it destroys engagement, with remote workers (understandably) feeling devalued, distrusted, and disrespected.
Engagement begins with valuable communications around the role expectations, outputs, outcomes, and timescales, with agreed check-ins. If a remote legal professional remains on track to deliver quality work on time, the ‘how, when, and where’ of their work becomes irrelevant. If one of your regular check-ins reveals an emerging problem, you can then confer with remote talent to determine what will remedy the problem before it worsens. A manager should always be available for ad hoc questions that arise, given that quickly trotting over to a remote person’s desk is not an option.
Listen to the questions you are being asked – they provide invaluable insight into the individual’s understanding of the task at hand or the bigger picture. Pause and take a step back. Making sure a task is communicated with context is critical to ensuring it is correctly understood.
Communicate Effectively. Engagement requires communication. Remote talent – particularly new joiners – must understand which channels, e.g., email, voice and video calls, messaging in Teams or Slack, etc., to use under which circumstances, and your ‘communication expectations’. For example, is your default ‘camera on’? What sort of attire and backdrop are the norm? For multi-lingual teams with members for whom the language used is not their first language, consider software such as Grammarly for emails and messaging.
Communication routines are critical to engagement. Brief daily team video-chat ‘watercoolers’ are especially effective. A growing body of research holds that face-to-face conversation is ‘the most efficient and effective method of conveying information’ for high-functioning agile teams. Daily ‘what’s on for today?’ video meetings (in which teammates share that day’s work priorities, key dependencies, potential sources of delay, etc.) serve to demystify overarching goals and convey crucial nuance too often lost in written or voice-only communications.
However, resist the temptation to ‘over meet’. Every meeting should have (1) a clearly defined purpose (i.e., a statement of what the participants must achieve for the meeting to constitute a success), (2) an agenda the organisers distribute in advance (unless a standing meeting that always covers the same topics), and (3) a strict duration. Your default should be 10 or 15 minutes – it’s amazing what a time restriction can do to keep everyone focused and concise!
Foster Community. Remote work can be isolating. Engagement of remote talent requires a concerted effort to foster a sense of community with remote employees – both amongst each other and with their onsite colleagues. Be creative! The possibilities abound, including friendly team competitions like virtual scavenger hunts, classes on recreational activities like cooking, and ‘virtual happy hours’ during which discussion of work is off-limits. The key is creating informal, relaxed, and fun opportunities for employees to get to know each other on a personal level. Just as with in-person work events, interactions that are not work-centric foster understanding, trust, friendship, and collaboration.
Achieving engagement is not magic: it only requires leadership by example centred on transparency, open communication, trust, and respect for a humane balance between work and life. Individuals who rise to that leadership challenge will reap the benefits of higher productivity and better work from all their talent – remote or otherwise.
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