It has only been a few months since the thought of working anywhere was a fantasy reserved mostly for freelancers. We have all seen those ads showing lucky people working on the beach with their laptop, no stress, and a perfect work/life balance. No one could have imagined we would be faced with a global pandemic and, ultimately, the necessity to find a way to work remotely or not work at all.
For those law firms that have found a way to continue to work remotely, there may be a fear of what might happen without the physical connection and "normal" interactions to hold the culture of the firm together.
Firm culture is not really about a physical location or a mission statement displayed on the wall, though. Firm culture embodies the beliefs and values of the firm and those who are working on behalf of the organization. Kunal Chandiramani captures the essence of organizational culture: "Maintaining a culture is like maintaining the soul of your organization - a cumulation of all its beliefs and practices and those of its people."
Culture could be the most important asset a firm possesses. It is difficult or impossible to steal it or make an exact copy. It fortifies the brand that the firm represents and clients have come to trust. With that level of importance, shouldn't it be the first asset to receive care and feeding as circumstances change? With our new remote working reality, what can firm leaders do to assure they preserve and evolve the firm’s culture?
Leverage the Situation
Impact on Culture: Continuous Improvement and Innovation
Remote working in a firm may be entirely new or not, but all employees working remotely is most likely a different situation than usual. It is a rare chance to capture feedback from all levels of the organization on what is working and what is not. Firms can use this insight as input into business and technology roadmaps to continually improve their business continuity and resilience.
Another way to begin assessing how working remotely can influence the evolution of the firm's culture is to look at the resulting opportunities. David Dorion shares several positives of remote work, including increasing billable hours, less stress, more focus and more talent options. Even though this might be good news from a business outcome perspective, how does a firm ensure business benefits do not negatively impact culture? For example, increasing billable hours sounds like a wonderful outcome but, at the same time, a firm may want to be proactive in assuring its culture does not evolve on its own to become all about working all the time with no regard for personal pursuits.
Set Clear Expectations
Impact on Culture: Increased Trust
Most organizations have an employee handbook that sets expectations for appropriate behavior in the office and during work hours. Incorporating remote working into the norm requires the same thoughtfulness but possibly different expectations. Firms can set these guidelines by adopting a remote work policy.
Teresa Matich suggests a good remote work policy should include several points:
- When it is okay to work remotely
- What is expected when working remotely (video presence, availability, collaboration via specific channels, etc.)
- Which access methods are permitted to ensure security
Setting and documenting expectations is essential for a remote work environment, since many of the normal work conventions do not apply. Work schedules shift without commuting and with personal commitments resulting from at home demands. Setting goals and business outcomes with discrete measurements allows organizations to continue to monitor results as the true indicator of performance.
Impact on Culture: Improved Transparency and Wellness
There is a saying that a person can never communicate too much. Even though we believe we communicate better in person, a remote working situation forces us to revisit how and when we are communicating as an organization and as individuals.
With the global pandemic, many workers have found themselves suddenly isolated from the office and from other outside contact. The firm, in many ways, has become a lifeline for team members. Communications now need empathy and inclusion at levels never seen before. This could be the best thing for organizational culture that has happened in recent history. It is taking firms to new levels of transparency, vulnerability and a sense of community.
In an American Lawyer article discussing a March survey regarding remote working, Patrick Smith cites many ways that a firm can create a culture of community. The obvious technologies such as video, IM, phone and email channels should be vetted and made available. Smith also highlights a firm that has implemented a lifestyle newsletter that shares the personal side of team members and how they are dealing with working remotely. The firm representative says, "Every time we send one, we get a couple of personal notes thanking us for emphasizing that we are not 150 disconnected people."
Workforce mobility means different things to different firms. It can be the complete freedom to do a job anywhere, or it can simply be the ability to do certain functions on the go, such as logging billable hours between client meetings. Regardless of the breadth of the definition, we live in a time where solutions and approaches to worker mobility are available that minimize risks and optimize business value. Our bigger concerns now are culture based. If we can leverage what we are learning, set expectations to increase trust and communicate with empathy to create a sense of community, we position ourselves to evolve organizational culture in a meaningful and sustainable way long after the current crisis.
HBR assists firms with a variety of mobility-related services, ranging from assessments of your firm’s IT strategy and technology to IT managed services, allowing a firm to outsource some or all of its critical technology infrastructure and IT operations. If you want to learn more about using technology to enhance culture in legal services organizations, please do not hesitate to contact me or one of my colleagues.