Managing Hybrid Teams: 7 Tips for Law Firm Supervisors
Hybrid work is here to stay. And for partners and any law firm professional supervising others (collectively referred to here as “leaders”), hybrid work comes with a particular set of challenges: managing both remote and in-office work, blending remote and in-person meetings and harmonizing the needs of each team member, regardless of location.
That said, leaders’ experience with remote work during the pandemic contains valuable insights that they can leverage to improve their management of hybrid teams while fostering excellence in hybrid work environments. With a systematic and thoughtful approach, every leader can facilitate effective collaboration and drive productivity.
Here are seven approaches to increase your effectiveness in managing remotely:
1. Measure results, not activity
The most fundamental tenet of excellent leadership is to think of management as not checking up on people, but as enabling their success. Few attorneys receive meaningful management training when they rise through the supervisory ranks. The fact is that the skills required to excel as an attorney are very different from those needed for highly effective people management.
Without management training, many partners and other leaders may default to unconsciously measuring performance based on visible activity. Seeing people at their desks reassures supervisors — at least supervisors who work in-office — that their team members must be working hard.
Yet measuring activity alone, much like “face time” in the office, is a poor indicator of actual productivity — it eats up a lot of your time and mental energy to boot. Just because team members have managed to “suit up and show up” or appear very busy doesn’t mean they’re performing well.
Truly effective management means shifting how you measure success from activity to results. Measure what matters — whether your team members are meeting deadlines, responding to emails, proactively communicating with you and enacting other effective strategies — to tell you how those you’re supervising are performing.
Managing remotely, when you can’t monitor activity itself, is an excellent opportunity to shift to a more effective means of measuring results: the production of excellent work product.
2. Curb the micromanaging urge
Measuring performance based on results can also help you curb any tendency to micromanage. Even leaders prone to a hands-off approach can feel the urge to scrutinize team members’ activities more closely when working remotely. And yet, the fastest way to kill productivity — for you and your team — is to watch people like a hawk.
People feel demoralized when they sense that their supervisors don’t trust them. It will undermine their motivation and the sense of autonomy that drives high performance. While more junior team members may need a more hands-on approach, it’s more effective when that management takes the form of guidance and fulsome feedback, not monitoring activity. More seasoned team members who have earned your trust will perform better when they know you have confidence in their ability to work autonomously regardless of physical location.
Plus, micromanaging is a huge time suck — both for you and those you supervise. If you feel pulled to scrutinize those who report to you, ask yourself this: Would you rather people spend time telling you about their work or actually doing their work?
3. Up your delegation game
Clear and efficient delegation of work is a key management skill, and its importance is magnified exponentially when a team member can’t grab you in the hall for quick questions. With hybrid teams, the opportunities for misunderstanding or misalignment between those in-office and remote team members only grow.
At the start of any matter or project, organize your thoughts and communicate to all team members an overview of the project, the relevant timeline and important milestones, key deliverables and your expectations. The old reporting principle of “Five Ws and How” is an excellent guide for delegating effectively:
- Who. Assign certain tasks to specific team members. If you’re emailing a request to a group, specify who needs to do what — it will save everyone time and confusion.
- What. Communicate the specific deliverable, work product or action item required, and describe it in as much detail as possible.
- When. Set a clear and reasonable deadline for the work you delegate, and take care not to set random or unnecessarily tight deadlines.
- Where. Ensure you address the channel by which the work should be delivered (e.g., via email or a shared document system) and with whom it should be shared.
- Why. Provide enough context for everyone to understand how a given task fits into the larger picture — it will help team members produce better work and reduce their need to ask follow-up questions.
- How. Let your team members know your expectations for how they perform the work, including the quality standard, any specific processes they should use and the timeline for your review.
4. Err on the side of over-communication
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us didn’t realize the importance of the little bits of communication that occur in physical spaces: quick chats in the kitchen, reading body language in the hall, making eye contact in a meeting. We navigated the shift to fully remote work, and now we face a hybrid environment that, in some ways, is even more complex.
So even if you consider yourself a master communicator, lean toward communicating more frequently and more clearly than ever — with your team as a whole and with each individual.
- Update everyone regularly. A weekly meeting with your whole team can help create a stable, consistent cadence of communication about issues of concern to everyone, regardless of their work location — the progress of matters, firm activities and any changes in client matters and work processes. (See approach #5 for tips on making such meetings run smoothly.)
- Add interaction opportunities. Camaraderie and personal sharing boost energy and strengthen collaboration among teams, and hybrid teams must be proactive in creating time for such interactions. Add 10 minutes to the beginning of your meeting agenda for a quick round-the-table check-in. A short icebreaker question with a positive bent can facilitate better connections and help keep the team in sync.
- Get one-on-one. Schedule a short (10- to 15-minute) one-on-one check-in with each person you supervise. Try to connect weekly with each individual, if your schedule allows it. In addition to any necessary updates on work in progress, use these sessions to problem-solve, share resources and give feedback to help your team members do their best work.
- Choose the right channel. We’re lucky to live in an age with a plethora of communication options — email, text, instant message, phone calls, video chats. Be thoughtful about which channel is most effective for your communication. A topic that requires back-and-forth discussion works well in a phone call (for discussion among three or fewer people) or video chat when one or more participants work remotely. Quick questions with clear answers are easier to handle over text or instant messenger. Try to reserve email for longer, one-way dissemination of information. And always look for opportunities to communicate via phone or video to increase interpersonal connection.
5. Conduct productive video meetings
Running meetings well is a perennial management challenge. What makes the issue different for hybrid teams is that there are more chances for attendees to be distracted or to get out of alignment on the subject matter. Increased planning and structure can make a big difference.
- Create an agenda. You may think the point of an agenda is to keep a meeting on topic — and certainly that is one purpose. But as a supervisor, creating an agenda has an essential use for you: it clarifies your purpose and identifies your goals. Before you schedule a meeting, determine what outcome you want to achieve (e.g., make a group decision, clarify a complex topic, brainstorm solutions). Don’t be afraid to not have a meeting; if you can’t articulate exactly what you want to get out of the meeting, it won’t be a good use of time. And if the reason for the meeting is for you to communicate simple updates with no discussion, opt for an email.
- Help everyone come prepared. Send the agenda to all attendees before the meeting and ask that they read it. Consider what actions team members could take before the meeting to make it more productive.Clearly communicate what you want them to do and bring with them before you convene.
- Establish an opening ritual. While most of us are now accustomed to the technical issues inherent in videoconferencing, sometimes a bit of pre-meeting problem-solving is inevitable. Establish an opening procedure to let everyone know that the meeting has truly begun, such as stating the meeting’s purpose and intended outcome.
- End with action. The purpose of a meeting is never the meeting itself — it’s what people do after the meeting. Spend the final five minutes of your time together recapping any decisions made in the meeting, specifying action items and responsible parties and outlining the next steps (including the sharing of meeting minutes and scheduling follow-ups as needed). This is where you ensure that the outcome you intended has been achieved.
6. Praise and share input proactively
Supervisors who give regular, ongoing feedback — both praise and constructive input — drive better collaboration and higher performance. Without easy opportunities for ad hoc feedback in the office, it’s incumbent on leaders to proactively deliver feedback at regular intervals.
Letting team members know when they’ve done a good job (or just that you appreciate their hard work) is even more crucial, especially important when you or members of your team are working remotely. Just as you might feel a bit of anxiety when you can’t physically see people in the office, your team members may also be concerned that you won’t be able to see their achievements. And if much of your communication is now via email or text, team members can’t see your face or hear the tone of your voice, further deepening uncertainty.
The few moments it takes to send a quick “great work!” message (when deserved) will pay huge dividends in heightened morale, connection and productivity among those you lead.
7. Model flexibility and creativity
Hybrid/remote work environments and lingering impacts of the pandemic pose fresh challenges for leaders — while offering incredible potential for improved productivity, well-being and work-life balance. As law firms forge a “new normal,” your team will take their cues from you.
Excellent leadership calls for a balance of authentically acknowledging the challenges inherent in hybrid work while inspiring others to embrace change and seize new opportunities for success. With your support, the team can become more flexible, creative and resilient.
Leading others isn’t about telling them what to do — it’s about giving them the tools and support they need to take ownership of their work and achieve their full potential. One of the most gratifying aspects of working in BigLaw is that you’re surrounded by smart, capable and motivated high achievers. As a supervisor, you have a team of colleagues eager to support you and your firm. By taking a thoughtful and proactive approach to management, you may find that the challenges of hybrid work help you become an even stronger leader and help your team achieve even higher performance in the long run.