Remote working has been pushed and pulled by small, medium and large sized law firms. It's been claimed as the future of working and also criticised as the destroyer of efficiency and culture.
A great many elements need to be considered, as it doesn’t work for every individual, every work-type, or department. The question is: can it work for a law firm in general, if implemented correctly? Almost certainly. It does however need strategic focus and top-level support. It's just not as simple as pushing out a technology and saying ‘go ahead and be productive’.
Typically the main elements to focus on are technology, personality, communication, organisation and culture. It's not easy to get it right, but with analysis you can understand what will and what will not work. So, let's look at the core elements.
Don't spend time worrying about the technology side of things. Any IT department should be able to enable your staff to work in the same manner that they do in the office, without hindrance, without effort and without huge costs. The sums will stack up if the business case does. You should focus on your firm’s real strategic requirements first, then look at technology to support it.
Some lawyers work best in a team or around other people, some work better alone, and some work best in a mix. You will find lawyers need some flexibility and giving them the option of flexible and remote working could certainly deliver positive results. Dependant on their areas, they can adapt well to total remote working, or with the odd day in the office per week or per month. This also helps the social animals that need an office environment to work productively. Always think of the people and the teams when planning your strategy around remote working.
There are a plethora of solutions to support communications, but they take consideration and planning. If you don't have face to face communication within teams then issues can occur from people missing visual clues. Now it’s pretty straight forward to chat face-to-face (virtually) and to collaborate via screen and application sharing. You do obviously miss some of the dynamics, but there are some virtual presence (telepresence) systems at the top end of the market which are impressive. Obviously the price points vary hugely, so mapping technologies to their correct application is crucial.
Frequency of communications is also key when managing or working in a remote working environment. It's too easy over time for people to drift into a virtual cave. When they get to this place it's hard to get them out of it and this can damage productivity and loyalty.
Whatever route you go down, make sure it becomes 'just the way you do things', else staff make up their own ways of communicating, often incurring additional costs or impacting productivity.
Implementing a poorly planned remote working strategy can leave people feeling disconnected and frustrated as you don't get some of the natural corrections that occur between people located in the same office.
Technology helps with some of the organising and holding together of teams but only if it's mapped to the operations effectively. It's also crucial the firm’s policies and processes are clearly documented, understood and accessible. Typically IT systems will assist in the organisation of teams, as long as information is quick to access, view, edit and collaborate on. It's all about giving people vision and a central anchor point to their day to day working.
Culture is critical to the success of a modern law firm, but it needs specific thought when managing and working with remote workers and teams. It needs in-depth planning and careful nurturing to really work.
You can build trust from a capability perspective without meeting physically, but the bonding and softer side of relationships, the part that will give a team an edge needs investment. Outside of the get-together it's possible to enhance the culture by creating virtual collaboration and social environments. These tools really can develop the general culture, not just for the remote working teams.
Regular scheduled team and one-to-one calls do help, but they shouldn’t be just focused around work. Facilitating discussions around people's personal lives is equally important to be build bonds and understanding.
If you really think and plan your remote working strategy and operations it can work just as well, or arguably better than an ‘everyone in the office’ scenario. As you can see there are so many factors to consider, not giving them due time will give you little or no gain, perhaps even causing your firm damage. If you do it right you will certainly grow a better firm with happier employees, whilst increasing productivity and reducing costs. The potentials are too big to ignore, and we are most certainly operating in a new age.
Robert Rutherford is CEO of QuoStar, a specialist business and IT consultancy to the legal sector