6 Practices for Sustainable Remote Work

While the practice of working remotely has been gaining traction within the law firm world over the last few years, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust thousands of attorneys into the novel position of all-remote work. With the timeline for returning to the office unclear—involving staggered returns under timelines dictated by federal and local requirements, as well as the philosophies of each firm’s leadership—creating a sustainable approach to working remotely is crucial to optimizing productivity for both individual attorneys and the teams on which they work. Whether you’re new to working remotely or have been at it for a while, now is a great time to review your practices to ensure you’re prepared for long-term success, no matter how long you remain in remote-work mode.

Ensuring your success during all-remote work begins with an examination of your own remote work practices. (If you’re interested in how teams and their leaders can work together to develop effective remote work approaches, take a look at this blog post.)

The following approaches can help you thrive as an individual and support the success of your team. It’s important to note that not every strategy will work for everyone—and some techniques take time and experimentation to implement. In my work coaching attorneys, I have seen that when my clients are open to identifying and trying new opportunities and perspectives, they ultimately achieve success. By continuing to make ongoing efforts and taking one small step at a time, you can build a set of sustainable practices that will help you and your remote team thrive over the long haul.

1. Establish or recommit to your morning routine

Starting the day, the same way every morning can help to ground you and make the rest of your day flow more easily. If you didn’t thoughtfully establish a morning routine when you first started working from home, now’s the time to create one. And if you’ve already created a routine in the past few months, take a look at how it’s holding up; if you find it’s started to slip or could be tweaked, refresh your current regimen. Perhaps you can devote the time you used for commuting to doing the things that will set you up for productivity—a short workout, a quiet breakfast, a moment of mindfulness, setting up your to-do list for the day—whatever works best for you.

2. Ditch (or at least limit) distractions 

When work and personal life happen in the same space, the number of things tugging at your attention is multiplied. It’s incumbent upon you to block out work time—and make sure that time is protected. If you have a room all to yourself for your home office, close the door and post a note letting family members know not to disturb you. If you have to share office space with your spouse or do your work from the living room, noise-cancelling headphones and a room divider screen are invaluable. Whatever your setup, have a talk with your family to make clear your needs and expectations for uninterrupted time—even if just in 30- or 60-minute blocks. Creating a shared family calendar with your work time clearly marked could be very useful in protecting your work time as well. The cost of constant interruptions is substantial, exponentially increasing the amount of time it takes to complete a given project. Do what’s feasible within your homework environment to create—and protect—chunks of time for focused work.

3. Stay flexible while remaining aware of the most crucial work 

Even with strong boundaries protecting your work time, life happens. Maybe your child has a meltdown, a family member needs you urgently, or you’ve had just one too many Zoom calls, and you’re exhausted and struggling to focus. In many ways, these disruptions aren’t so different from what you’d encounter when working in the office—they’re just much more persistent and harder to ignore when they happen two feet from your desk. To avoid derailing your productivity, start each day by writing down three to five action items that must be accomplished; focus on the things that are deadline-driven or actions that, if left undone, will cause you to be backed up and overwhelmed in the coming days. Prioritize those tasks first so that you have room for flexibility if your schedule goes off the rails later in the day—and so that you know where to pick up once the latest distraction has been handled.

4. Protect your personal time

Depending on your circumstances, you may find yourself with more personal commitments than ever these days—from helping your kids manage online school to caring for elderly or immunocompromised loved ones. When you add on the heightened stress many people are experiencing during the pandemic, the demands on not just your time but your emotional and mental energy may be overwhelming at times. Just as you block out time for work, schedule time for your personal needs (including family time, personal care, and decompressing). This might take the form of closing the door on work at a certain time each night, committing to screen-free family dinners, or even adding dedicated break times throughout the day. If you protect your personal time, even for just five- or fifteen-minute increments throughout each day, you’re more likely to be less stressed and more productive.

5. Partner with your life partner

If you live with a spouse or partner, making remote work actually work (especially if you’re both working from home right now) calls for coordination and collaboration. Have a frank talk about what you both need, how you’ll equitably divide the labor of household needs, and who will be “on call” at what times to respond to interruptions. (We’ve seen couples take rotating “shifts” with children, for example.) If you have young kids and no childcare, you may need to establish a schedule for which one of you is on parent duty at any given time. And with summer approaching and many children’s activities being cancelled, this conversation may be even more pressing now than in previous weeks. If you approach your family unit as a team, you can support each other in making remote work work for both you and your partner. (A note on single parents: they are shouldering especially challenging burdens during this extended period of remote work. If you fall in this category, as restrictions are lifted, consider whether there are one or more people in your inner, most trusted circle who could help with childcare for certain periods of time—and make sure your colleagues are aware of your 24/7 childcare responsibilities. Now is the time for employers to show heightened compassion toward and awareness of professionals in this situation.)

6. Single with no kids? Balance support with boundaries

Those professionals who are single and don’t have children might find themselves being asked to do more than their fair share these days. If you bristle at the idea of “picking up the slack” for co-workers, start by tapping into your compassion. This is an opportunity to pay it forward and go the extra mile—both to give some relief to colleagues who are struggling with a sudden loss of childcare options and to support the success of your team. But doing some extra work won’t just help your colleagues; it can benefit you greatly too. Keep track of everything you’re doing, see the extra challenges you’re assuming as investments in your professional development, and celebrate your accomplishments. Stepping up now gives you an opportunity to showcase your value—helpful factors when it’s time for your performance review or potential promotion. All that said—know your limits. If your workload is becoming unsustainable, talk to your supervisor about the situation; leaders know that finding the right balance for everyone is key to creating a sustainable approach to work right now.

Whether or not you have a timeline for returning to the office, taking the time to establish and continually improve your remote work practices will serve you well. Experimenting with the strategies above can help you develop an approach to remote work that can support what you need right now, as well as make working from home sustainable if your team remains remote for a longer period of time. And the skills you hone now will serve you well even when you do return to the office, as they support even more effective communication and collaboration with colleagues and family.

Of course, individual practices work within the context of collaboration with colleagues. Explore strategies teams and those who lead them can take to build a sustainable approach to success in this blog post.