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Managing Remote Professionals

We interrupt this program, as they say. Life has intervened, and many of us are working remotely.

Remotely, in this case, is a synonym for “home.”

For many lawyers, managing professionals who are not in the office – who are not in any office – is new, and may feel like one of those old maps whose edge bears the legend There be dragons here.

Let’s try to slay a few of those dragons, or at least encourage them to find other prey.

Treat Them as You Want to Be Treated

This tenet should apply at all times, of course, but it’s especially important now, with so much of work-life – and life-life – in flux.

You don’t want your manager hanging over your shoulder? Good. Don’t hang over your subordinate’s shoulder.

You can work productively without goofing off every ten minutes even if no one is watching? So can they.

Whatever you wouldn’t want your manager doing to you, don’t do to the people working for you. Trust that they’re working hard even while you’re not watching.

The Transition Is Hard, and Won’t Happen Overnight

If someone isn’t used to working remotely, it will likely take them some time – hours and days, even a week or two – to figure out how to do so effectively.

That time scale applies at least as much to you, as their manager.

Now consider that a team member can’t just pop into your office when she has a question, or when you do. When the dog needs to go out, the dog needs to go out, and work’s going to stop for a few minutes. Kids who are themselves stuck at home may need extra care at unpredictable times, and will interrupt even client videoconferences no matter how many times they’ve been reminded not to.

There may be multiple people working in a small shared space, whether your family or theirs. (Our own kids are here, remote-learning in college and med school, and my wife is working from home. We’re lucky to have a house with multiple non-bedrooms that can serve as offices, but not everyone can do that, especially in an urban environment. Make allowances.)

Don’t be rigid with yourself or with them. Accept that the world has changed, at least for the moment. If you insist on blaming someone, choose anyone other than your team, your family, or yourself as the focal point.

And leave room – for yourself and for your team, and for your clients as well – to take care of loved ones. It’s not just that someone could be sick and need tending. Kids are home. Parents and grandparents are isolated and scared. Even going to the store is not as easy as it was a few weeks ago.

Set Clear Goals and Expectations

Setting expectations and goals is always important as a manager. For a team working remotely, it’s even more important.

In person, we give immense amounts of subtle feedback and guidance through expressions, body language, even simple presence (or absence) in a one-on-one session or a meeting. All of those cues are gone when people are working by themselves.

Here’s a simple example. When you’re in a meeting with, say, three other people, how do you know who’s going to talk when? There are almost always cues that we pick up without thinking about them. Joe has begun to lean forward, for example, or Jane has made eye contact with the current speaker. These cues are limited or invisible in remote conversations, even video calls. There’s considerable theory and science behind this observation that I won’t go into here, but I’m sure you’re aware on some level that there is a cultural structure to in-room multiway conversations.

There is also a cultural structure to ordinary interactions, whether between equals or between manager and subordinate. This structure is part of our managerial toolbox, even if we’re unaware of it. And now, a large part of that structure is gone. The result is that you have to be extra-clear about expectations.

As always, share the why and what more than the how. Micromanaging is wasted energy even in the best of times, but now, it becomes doubly inefficient. Be clear on the result needed, the deadline, and why it’s needed. But give your team the chance to achieve that result in the way they find most effective.

(This is a terrific lesson to carry forward, by the way, once we’re all back together in one place. Or even if we’re not, should these coming months become the impetus for an enormous expansion of working remotely.)

Communicate

Communicate about both the big and little things.

I noted above the importance of communicating explicit expectations. But share other information as well. How’s the firm or department doing in general? What’s happening with various clients? Who’s sick with the virus, and how are they faring? (That’s the elephant in the room. Don’t focus on it, but don’t ignore it, either.)

Rumor abhors a vacuum, and if you don’t share information, others will make up information to fill the void. Even in good times they’ll make it up in the worst way possible. When people are stressed about the unknown, the rumor mill will grind ever more furiously.

Large-Screen Monitors Rule

Everyone with a laptop should also have a large-screen monitor. (They’re under $150 Canadian, delivered.) Laptop screens are amazingly good these days, but they’re also small.

Large-screen monitors are especially useful for videoconferencing. The larger the faces, the more we subconsciously fool ourselves into believing we’re in a shared environment.

(For reference, I often do videoconferencing by hooking my laptop to a fifty-inch TV. The big display really energizes my communication.)

Also, get IT to help users – that includes you – go to an “expanded desktop,” where the laptop screen and the external monitor show different content. For example, as I write this, I have Word open on my external monitor. The laptop shows two other windows, one with some notes I made for this article and another Word window with a book I wrote, which I’m mining for ideas.

If IT isn’t available, try this, after connecting the external display and turning it on.

  • Windows: Press the Windows key and P to get a popup offering options. Choose Extend.
  • Mac: Press the Apple key, select System Preferences, then Displays, Arrangement, and uncheck Mirror Displays.

Also, if you or the person working remotely doesn’t have a broadband connection, it’s time to fix that.

Finally, make sure they have an external keyboard and mouse. Laptop keyboards these days are usually slightly undersized (90% spacing), and aren’t necessarily conducive to fast typing.

Videoconferencing Is Different

Throughout this article, I’ve made references to videoconferencing, especially to display size and the scarcity of social cues.

It takes a while to get used to videoconferencing, and videopresence will never be quite the same as being there in person. That said, it’s a valuable, time-saving, and now “social distancing” tool.

Extending your desktop onto an external monitor allows you to take notes or review documents on one monitor while keeping the video on the other screen. Be aware that when you’re looking at your notes, you’re not looking at the camera, and other participants can tell your gaze has changed. (It works the same way in person.) Conversely, if you put the videoconference window on the external monitor, you’ll be looking at the camera only when you’re reading documents or taking notes. Understand that most everyone wrestles with this factor, and it will take some time to get used to.

If you’re really serious about videoconferencing, or will spend a fair amount of time doing so with clients, I recommend putting the external monitor above the laptop. With the camera on the laptop’s upper bezel, you’re always looking approximately at the other participants, even when you’re reading or writing in your notes. Get a monitor arm ($50 for a basic one), or prop it up on a stack of books. By the way, that big-screen TV I mentioned earlier is already wall-mounted, so for videoconferences I just set up my laptop on a table directly beneath it. If you want to come off your best with clients, this isn’t a bad setup to emulate. (I also use an external camera with a zoom feature, so I can stand back and still appear “headshot”-style on their displays. And now you know all my secrets.)

Finally, most videoconference software allows document sharing. I’m not an expert on security or privilege here, so I recommend you make your own judgment as to risks and benefits.

Coming Attractions

I hope by the next time I write, we can get back to our previously scheduled programming. Meanwhile, stay safe, and be confident that you can be successful in this remote-work environment.

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