An increasing number of us work in geographically disparate locations often reporting in to a manager based either at a regional or centralised head office. Whilst this is a very familiar scenario, managing staff remotely is far from easy and is often done without too much thought.
Effective organisations understand the importance of building relationships between people. Relationships between people are nurtured by continuous dialogue both of a professional and personal nature for the relationship to be a meaningful one.
Within the legal sector, the challenge for lawyers who first and foremost have revenue targets to achieve is to appreciate that investing time in establishing and maintaining relationships with colleagues who work remotely pays dividends. All too often, time constraints due to client demands can mean that Partners only visit offices outside their base if something is clearly going wrong and targets are not being achieved. This may be understandable but there is actually a longer lead time to managing staff remotely than there is for those who might be located in the same building as you. Some law firms are making greater use of generalist managers e.g. COOs to help with the people management side of things which does make sense given the revenue expectations on Partners. However, whoever it is who has people management responsibility for others in your firm who are not co-located, the same truisms apply.
First and foremost is the necessity of building trust with those who work remotely and are not visible to you on a daily basis. Part of the trust equation is to have a clear understanding of the nature of the environment they work in. At my last firm, we had an office in Iraq and I could visibly see the frustrations amongst some of the Head Office staff when marketing updates or other standard pieces of work were not presented on time. Understandably, none of us ever travelled ourselves to Iraq but by speaking to those on the ground, we soon realised that even a short journey to the office could take 2-3 hours in the morning one way because of checkpoints and ongoing security related activity. Internet and electricity supplies were also far from being consistent and stable. As a firm, we expected all our offices to provide work of the same standard but clearly this is far harder to achieve in a war zone environment than it is if you are working in Central London. This is an extreme example, but if you are managing lawyers across continental divides or even regional divides, it is vital that you understand the dynamics that go with each location. When defining deliverable to clients and setting timeframes, the more you understand about localised variables the easier it will be to create realistic delivery plans.
Building trust is of course about more than just an awareness of the environment in which your reports work in, it is also about “face time”. All manner of online video technology is still no substitute for meeting people every so often in person and not just when you want to remonstrate with them. It is easy for reports in remote offices to become alienated from you if they just see standardised communication coming in with your sign off or possible only hear from you when you are on a team conference call. You need to be able to have face to face conversations with those you manage where you can also talk about their family life, interests and the personal challenges they face. If done with sincerity, it conveys to the individual that you are interested in them as human beings and not just as revenue generating machines. It may also be a good idea to ensure that your reports have mentoring arrangements in place. This will be particularly beneficial for newcomers who may need buddying up and support as they get to grips with the firm’s core processes and procedures. Mentoring and coaching arrangements that involve others can help your reports feel part of a wider support network which is no bad thing if you are working remotely.
Open lines of communication are therefore critical to the success of managing staff remotely. These lines of communication need to include face to face communication as a given but will understandably also take many other forms such as video conference calls etc. given the nature of the geography.
Trust is also linked to equitable treatment. If lawyers in one office feel they are being treated less favourably than others when it comes to targets/goals or even the exposure they have to your face time, individuals can quickly get unsettled. It can be hard enough to be consistent in the way you manage individuals in your line of sight but this gets magnified when dealing with remote locations.
Talking to lawyers at all levels of seniority on a daily basis as we do, you would be surprised about how often these kind of issues come up. As these types of issues drive turnover, it is important that Partners heading up Practice areas which are geographically diverse, recognise that we all basically have the same needs and requirements from those who manage us, and “out of site” should most definitely not equate to “out of mind”. Not everyone will fit with the culture or performance requirements you set out for them but for those of us who manage others be it remotely or not, it is incumbent on us that we do everything we reasonably can to ensure that employment relationships in our Practice areas are fruitful and positive.
Chris Lipscomb is a Director and COO of Blue Pencil Legal and the former HR Director of Al Tamimi, the largest regional law firm in the Middle East. Aside from advising clients on suitable candidates for their opportunities, Blue Pencil provides interview skills training and coaching/development for lawyers in the UK and globally.