As law firms and companies around the world settle into the prospect of continued weeks of working remotely, what does this mean for legal leaders?  After nearly 10 years as pioneers in providing legal services remotely, here’s our advice on leading a distributed team effectively.

When it comes to times of crisis, most leaders feel the pull to be physically present.  Indeed, not being so can draw criticism, create feelings of uncertainty and leave a vacuum for others to fill. Use these 10 practical steps to shape your leadership practice and make sure your team feel supported and motivated over the weeks to come.

Prioritise conscious leadership effort

You already had a busy team before the rise of the coronavirus.  Now you have a raft of new challenges; deals to push through, contracts to amend, new positions to agree, new policies to enact.  Yet your number one priority at this time has to be providing vision, information, and support to your people. Ringfence the time you need at the start and end of each day to make sure you remain on top of communicating priorities and decisions to your team. Invest time in dialogue with your peers in other functions of the organisation to ensure your messages are aligned.

Articulate a common purpose

At a time of crisis, it’s vital that you and your people pull together, and feel empathy with the demands of clients and colleagues. Think carefully about what your primary objective as a group is over the coming months, put it into the context of your wider business goals and distill it into one sentence. Talk to your team and make sure everyone understands why you are setting the course that you are. Encourage constructive feedback, but also focus. Make sure you consistently refer to actions and decisions in relation to this objective and encourage your team to use it to guide their own decision-making.

Establish your communication rhythm

You need to keep everyone united and operating as close to normal pace as possible. Define a communications pattern and stick to it. For example, Obelisk spoke to the CEO of a business with around 350 employees, mainly based in Italy, who is currently working from his base in London. In order to keep work flowing and teams engaged, he has established the following:

  • Every team across the business meets every Monday morning via video conference and he rotates between them, in order to support his senior managers and answer questions from employees
  • He runs a meeting with his senior management team at 2pm on Mondays
  • After this meeting he records a short video which he shares with the whole business. This contains key news and decisions, plus goals for the week ahead across the group. He starts and ends each video with news from people across the business and messages of solidarity and compassion.

Identify the timings and channels that will work best for your team and stick to exactly the same pattern each week, come what may.

Understand what your different team members need

The better you understand what your team members need in terms of their individual circumstances and preferences, the easier it will be to motivate them. Some particular areas to take into consideration:

  • Who are your introverts and who are your extroverts?  Not everyone likes to shout out in conference calls, so make sure you have ways to stay in touch with people who are naturally more reserved. Solicit feedback after meetings via email or online.
  • Who has responsibilities for child or elder care?  Do you have ways to communicate with them outside of “normal” working hours?  Have you set up a universal policy regarding working flexibly at this time to support them if they need to do more at home? (For example, moving some of their working hours to the evening or engaging some temporary additional support to cover some of their work so they can take some parental leave).
  • Who works flexible hours as standard?  Have you scheduled your regular communications to suit as many people as possible?
  • Who was hoping for or discussing promotions, secondments or new roles before this crisis hit?  If you have to delay these, make sure that you do so with compassion and assure them these will not be forgotten.
  • Who is leaving during the next few weeks?  If you have had to cancel plans to say goodbye, make sure their departure is still recognised in some way – for example on an all-hands team call or with a handwritten card from you.

Use all channels of communication

When you’re not available in person to answer people’s questions, share decisions or just “temperature check” morale, you have to work harder at communicating and make the most of all the tools at your disposal. At the same time, you want to keep your business safe, so encourage people working remotely to engage on your business channels. If you don’t already use a messaging service such as Slack, now is the time to start – it will help reduce email and let people stay connected. Think about how you can use video, not just for meetings but also to share news or to give people an insight into how you are spending your time and what’s on your mind. Remember you also need to listen, not just to broadcast. Find easy ways for people to share how they are feeling each week. At Obelisk, we ask for “Scores on the doors” online, with everyone giving the week a score out of 10 via Google Forms. We discuss the aggregate in our team meeting, so we can keep track of how everyone’s feeling.

Drive for clarity

This is a time of extreme uncertainty, the likes of which many of your team may not have seen in their career so far.  You can’t provide certainty but you can be clear about what is happening in the moment, the decisions you are taking in response and the work involved. Minimise ambiguity in your communication as far as possible. Where there is a question you can’t answer, be honest and tell people you will find an answer as soon as you can. Where it’s appropriate, invite them to suggest solutions to any challenges you are facing.

Embrace new moments of connection

If you’re used to working with most of your people in one building for most of the time, it feels unusual, messy and disconcerting to suddenly find yourself with a team scattered across many miles, brought together over the phone or video conference. You’re all likely to be feeling a bit shocked and possibly lonely, so help each other find new common ground and the humour in the situation. Colleagues’ children or pets are going to pop up on calls – say hello and introduce them to the team. Encourage people to share their tips for coping with the situation or photos of their new routine on email or a dedicated channel on your internal messaging system.

Trust your people

By and large, you have chosen the people who work in your teams because of their skills, their enthusiasm and their commitment.  So trust them at this difficult time to do their best. There are a lot of outdated preconceptions about “shirking at home” that no longer apply in today’s connected world. If Justin Trudeau can run a G7 country from home (albeit with considerable support on both the work and home fronts), you and your people can deliver. If you have people in your team that you don’t trust, then you need to look at the reasons why and address them.

Create opportunities for celebration

As a senior lawyer, particularly in-house, you are going to be privy to just how serious things are right now, for the world and for your business. Your job is to think about what else could go wrong and how to protect your organisation, colleagues and clients. It’s natural to lose sight of the positives so make a conscious decision to look for opportunities to cheer on your team’s successes, however small, and any positives you can find in this situation. Personal notes of thanks and congratulations, shout-outs at team calls and management meetings, and recognition in your regular written or video updates will all help to keep your people feeling motivated and appreciated. Where you can, secure recognition for your team’s efforts from senior leaders of other functions or your boss.

Look after yourself

Leading and looking after your people takes a lot of effort. You can’t do your best job if you don’t find time to replenish your own energy levels. Be a fierce guardian of time for exercise, rest, family, and whatever activities you find recharge you.  Now the physical boundaries between home and work have gone for many of us, it’s more important than ever that you set firm limits around the time you can give to work. Commit to the time you need to switch off and restore your energy so you can stay well and lead your team through this difficult time.

Want more Insights?