Working remotely during the pandemic, and beyond

There are many strategies firms can put in place to keep employee morale high

Kevin Cheung

The COVID-19 pandemic has made remote working a necessity for many law firms. Getting ourselves and our staff offsite and outfitted with the proper technology may have been relatively straightforward. But because we were thrust into this situation so quickly and on the expectation that it would be temporary, a lot of us may be overlooking the negative side effects of working remotely. If we are to continue with this beyond the pandemic, law firm leaders need to recognize and manage the challenges it imposes on employees — even the ones who love it.

Does it work for you?

The pandemic has given us personal experience with how remote working works. It has made a reality of the fantasies many have entertained over the years. But while some staff have thrived, others prefer a dedicated office to go to, at least some of the time. There have been technological challenges, mental health challenges, and everything in between. This is all valuable data that should be obtained from staff and used to inform the organization of employees — even after the pandemic has ended.

Communication will always be challenging

The loss of face-to-face interactions can heighten the sense of a lack of communication amongst staff. We lose the informal chats with staff and other lawyers that can lead to instructions, developments on a file, or spontaneous ideas. When interactions are stifled, restricted, and subject to mute buttons, we may be losing out on opportunities for creativity and spontaneity that keep us excited and motivated about the practice of law.

Effects on social atmosphere and firm culture

For many people, going to work has a large social component. The camaraderie and interaction with others is stimulating and emotionally uplifting. Friendships are created at the office, and seeing people daily factors into the enjoyment of work. Remote working can eliminate this important aspect of work, which can have detrimental consequences on mental health.

One of the biggest challenges of remote working is isolation and feeling detached from the office and colleagues. Without careful management of this, we risk having these negative feelings infect firm culture.

Firms must work hard to recreate the social aspect of work for remote workers in other ways. This can range from using online meeting platforms such as Microsoft Teams or messaging services such as Skype and Slack, to allocating time at meetings for off-agenda social chat, to events such as virtual happy hours.

Finally, when an office is small each person plays an integral role in its culture. Having a single person work remotely may alter the culture of the office, and not necessarily in a good way. This should factor into your decision as to what extent each employee works remotely post-pandemic.

The toll on mental health

Remote working presents mental health challenges for employees. Without a clear physical boundary between the office and home, there is no escape from workplace stress. Employees may experience greater difficulty switching off after the workday, or be more likely to let their working hours extend into evening.

These boundary challenges can give rise to feelings of resentment toward the job or the employer. To counteract this, employees should be encouraged to establish clearly defined daily schedules and to respect the end of each workday.

Communication is key

Communication is at the heart of any quality employer-employee relationship. This does not cease to be true when you or your staff work remotely; it is just harder to accomplish.

Firms that plan to implement remote working permanently after the pandemic will need to create an environment that encourages and facilitates communication for remote workers. This may start with an audit of the various avenues and forums for communication existing within the office, and then figuring out how those can be recreated or substituted when a portion of the staff is remote.

Be wary though, that communication challenges are not resolved by simply having regular videoconference calls; these calls do not replicate the experience of in-person interaction. Solutions should include a bundle of communication forums such as regular phone and video calls, online meeting and messaging platforms, and regularly scheduled in-person events.

Working remotely will be in the post-pandemic cards for many law firms. But while firms may be managing during the pandemic, they will need to ensure structures are in place to maintain cultural and communication continuity if remote working is to be successful in the long term.

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