MSBA Legal Summit attendees were treated to a timely and informative presentation on the future of the remote workplace for law firms by best selling author Robert Glazer. His self-described “virtual meeting about virtual work” included a discussion of key considerations for both employees and management as they emerge from a pandemic imposed work-from-home (WFH) environment. This fast-paced, 30-minute presentation covered everything from tools that employers should provide employees to enable them to function effectively from home, to whether they should be allowed to do so in the first place.
Glazer said that it is important for employers to understand that the work world is not returning to its pre-2020 “normal.” In his view, the pandemic simply accelerated pre-existing trends in telecommuting and that the WFH lessons of 2020 are now deeply ingrained in our workforce culture. He warned of the dangers of getting caught up in a “sunk cost fallacy” by making decisions based on the fact that the firm is heavily invested in traditional office space. Rather, the focus should be on the future, which for most will have to include a WFH component. Polling indicates that a substantial majority of workers want such an option, and that they will seek out employers that offer it. Labor market supply and demand will dictate that businesses that want to recruit and retain top talent will have to accommodate these desires to some extent.
The most likely workplace model going forward will be the hybrid (as opposed to a “back to normal” or a “ditch the office”) approach, where employees work from both home and office, depending on the day. Glazer suggested that it will be important for firms to carefully develop and communicate strategies, principles, and operational requirements for a hybrid work environment and to do so as early and as clearly as possible. Leaving the parameters and expectations vague can be a recipe for disaster. Expectations that staff should be generally available during normal business hours, for example, are appropriate and should be clearly expressed. He also warned that a “work from anywhere” policy can have adverse administrative, tax, and insurance consequences that must be researched and addressed in advance.
There are a number of new leadership challenges that come with managing a remote workforce, beginning with the selection of the right people. While not everyone is suited for it, Glazer believes that they will largely self-select. For new hires, onboarding and training will need to be more intentional and comprehensive than in the past to make up for the absence of traditional face-to-face interactions that allow questions to be asked as they arise during the workday.
Meetings also need to be managed more carefully in a remote work setting to avoid “Zoom fatigue” and productivity loss. Meeting time can be cut in half by using written memoranda in place of routine update and report meetings, so that time together can be used for actual debate and discussion rather than, for example, an eye-glazing readout of a financial report. Glazer also suggested the use of short, one- to five-minute asynchronous pre-recorded videos to convey thoughts with appropriate affect, noting that it is often difficult and time-consuming to find the right words to adequately convey contentious or emotional concepts in writing.
When collaborating remotely, delegation becomes more important than when co-workers are in adjacent offices. Glazer often uses an “85% rule,” meaning that if 85% of a delegated task is done as he would have done it, then it is acceptable. He also recommends managing outcomes rather than inputs, adjusting metrics to measure work produced rather than the time it took to get it done. He recommends a “trust but verify” approach to supervision in lieu of technology to monitor or spy on employees. Spying sends the wrong message, and the technology can be easily defeated in any event.
It is equally important to address employee WFH needs and ensure that they have the necessary tools to work safely and effectively from home. Appropriate workspace requires an investment and should include adequate internet connectivity, a comfortable chair, a professional headset and microphone, proper lighting, and even a pop-up background green screen for a professional look and feel when meeting with clients, court personnel, or the public.
Glazer also offered tips to help employees maintain a healthy personal/professional life balance and to encourage self-care. Contrary to the expectation of many, people who worked at home during the pandemic tended to work more rather than less than they did at the office. They also failed to set appropriate boundaries between their work and personal lives. To combat this tendency it is necessary for employees to establish a daily schedule with clearly defined physical boundaries and dedicated workspace to signal to themselves and others when they are working and when they are not. A number of suggestions for time, energy, and inbox management were offered and will be useful for everyone who works from home.
These concepts are more fully explored in Glazer’s recently released How To Thrive In The Virtual Workplace, a Wall Street Journal instant bestseller. Attendees to the live presentation were offered complimentary copies of this new book, and others can find a discount code at the end of the recorded session, available on demand for 90 days to Legal Summit registrants.