How to Lead Sustainable Remote Teams

Remote work has gained increasing traction among law firms in recent years, but the COVID-19 pandemic quite suddenly forced many in the legal industry to work almost entirely remotely. Indeed, law firm associates, partners, and staff—and the teams on which they work—have had to adjust to new ways of collaborating during this time of upheaval.

If your team started working remotely only once the shelter-in-place orders were enacted, it likely took some time to grow accustomed to the new work model. If your team had been working remotely previously, you may have already had effective processes in place. Although some cities are starting to allow businesses to re-open, law firms are developing their own re-entry timelines involving the return to work of staggered groups of people. Since some level of remote work is likely with us for the foreseeable future, now may be a good time for your team to review their practices in order to improve productivity, efficiency, and success. (And if you’d like to improve your own individual remote work practices, take a look at this blog post.)

Below are some suggested practices that teams can use to create a sustainable approach to remote work, along with a note for leaders. Of course, every team is unique—some of these strategies may not immediately work for your circumstances. That said, I have seen that when my clients are open to trying new practices and experimenting with different ideas, they ultimately find solutions that work. By continuing to make ongoing efforts, leaders can ensure their teams build a set of sustainable practices that will help everyone thrive for the long term.

Practices for teams

We all have our unique quirks and ways of working—but to cohere into a team, everyone needs to have a shared understanding of certain practices and expectations. Explicit agreements about how the team functions give individual team members clarity to guide their independent work, while at the same time providing them reassurance that they can count on getting what they need from others.

  • Huddle regularly. Bring your team together for a quick (15 minutes or less) check-in regularly, at intervals that align with the cadence of your work—daily or bi-weekly huddles are beneficial for many teams. In addition to providing accountability, this is an opportunity for everyone to connect, set priorities, ask questions, and get on the same page about the team’s goals. Keep your agenda clear and tight so that everyone on your team leaves knowing exactly what they need to do—and having the tools and information they need to do it.

  • Commit to your regular meetings. When you’re working in the office, it’s easy to let your regular weekly or monthly team meeting slide. But with individuals siloed from one another, there are fewer opportunities for connection and motivation. The consistency of your regular team meeting creates a reliable source of collaboration, information-sharing, and team camaraderie. Your team members will be better able to respond to emergencies and sudden changes when everyone is  grounded and aligned.

  • Save non-urgent questions. Come to a team agreement about what kinds of questions or information must be communicated right away and what can be saved for the next team meeting. In order to reduce day-to-day distractions, each team member can keep a document of non-pressing questions that they save for the next video or phone conference; set aside time on your meeting agenda to get some of those questions answered.

  • Communicate in the right channels. Everyone has their own habits and preferred modes of communication—but that can quickly become chaotic in a remote team environment. Close communication is crucial when working in different locations, but it can also drive distraction and inefficiency. Agree as a team on the communication channels you use and the purpose for each. You might, for instance, use email for information-sharing that requires a minimal number of responses, an online platform like Slack for asynchronous collaboration throughout the day, text for pressing questions that require a quick answer, and phone calls when you need to have an in-depth discussion. With a thoughtful team approach, you can turn constant communication into effective collaboration.

A note for leaders

As a team leader, it is your responsibility to create processes that support collaboration and set the tone for effective communication and workflow. Your words and actions set the example for how everyone else on the team should operate and contribute. But you don’t have to come up with the processes on your own. Listen to what your team members need and how they think the team functions best. From there, set clear expectations, practice what you preach, and be respectful—your team will follow your lead.

  • Enable connection. Solid, trusting relationships are the backbone of effective teams. Without hallway hellos or break-room bonding, building and maintaining those relationships can be tough—and as a leader, you have the opportunity to make space to strengthen team connections. Find what works best for your team: you may wish to have a periodic virtual happy hour, devote five minutes to personal check-ins at your regular team meeting, or include time for a lighthearted ice-breaker question on Friday mornings. However you facilitate connection, it will help your team members collaborate more effectively when they know each other—and you—as human beings.

  • Set the tone intentionally. As a leader, you’re in a position to shape how the entire team functions. Be aware that being in a position of power makes certain practices—like responding to emails at your own pace or setting boundaries on your time—far easier than it is for those who report to you. Ask yourself how you can support those you supervise. Open conversations about team practices and help everyone come to consensus. Hold yourself to the same approaches as the rest of the team. When everyone is treated as an equal in their ability to contribute to the end result of a project, regardless of seniority, you create a confident, collaborative team that succeeds over the long haul.

An exceptionally productive remote team is achievable; as you improve your practices, your team’s effectiveness will gain momentum and drive ongoing optimization. Knowing that you can count on effective collaboration into the future—regardless of how long your team is working remotely—will enable individuals to do their best work. And the skills you hone through these efforts will serve you well, even when you’re all gathered around the same conference table again.