I have worked exclusively from home, in my own business, as a solo lawyer and a productivity coach since October 2014. Previously, I had flextime and did some remote work during my last two years as a managing attorney at another law firm. Because this was an exception, and not a core part of the team culture, I did not fully embrace remote work until I went independent.
With intentional practice, I’ve developed habits and skills to work successfully from my home office. With no daily commute and the freedom to design my work day, I am better able to synch with my natural rhythm, focus on the top priority, get into the zone, and take deliberate breaks. Remote work also cuts overhead expenses and allows me to be more selective with my clientele and projects. But this setup also has productivity obstacles, especially when you’re new to it.
The first obstacle to overcome is Asynchronous Communication. For the seasoned remote worker, an asynchronous approach to collaboration or teamwork is preferred because it reduces interruptions, protects focus, and improves decision-making. When you send an email, for example, you don’t expect an immediate response. You allow the person to reflect on the information and reply with more thought. The response can take a few hours, a day or two, or several weeks, unless there is a strict deadline or time-sensitive opportunity that needs more urgent action.
But for those who like to get impromptu reactions to an idea, drop in on a colleague to ask quick questions, or engage in spontaneous chats in the lunchroom, the loss of synchronous communication is hard to take. Real-time communication is less common when you’re not co-located with your team.
Remote work can feel isolating, especially in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, when physical distancing is being mandated or encouraged. To maintain social connections and increase accountability, you can start your day or end your day by checking in with a work-from-home buddy. A telephone call in which you share your setbacks and wins can bring a sense of calm and joy in a virtual workplace.
Employers might also worry about not being able to keep a pulse on their remote teams. To combat this problem, companies often try to recreate the traditional workplace by requiring remote workers to be online and available during normal business hours, such as 9 am to 5 pm. They might expect the employee to respond immediately to emails, messages and telephone calls, irrespective of what they are doing in the moment. They might also use productivity-monitoring and screen-logging software or have employees turn in minute-by-minute accounts of their work day.
Such tactics reduce the sense of agency that a remote worker would otherwise have. In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink points out that autonomy is a key component of intrinsic motivation. It affects your ability to control what you do and when you do it. More autonomy builds trust, improves innovation, and encourages creative thinking.
Having the team in one office doesn’t necessarily amount to higher productivity. Sure, a manager can walk around workstations and ask employees what they’re working on and check on their mood and energy levels. But it’s also possible for a person to escape real work by showing up for meetings, responding quickly to emails, and looking busy at the office. Remote workers, on the other hand, have their output and results to show productivity.
In-person meetings are frequently overused and many serve no real purpose. They tend to force people to make decisions, react to information, and share their perspectives on the spot. Outgoing, talkative or higher-paid team members also tend to dominate the discussion. So in-person meetings and other forms of synchronous communication lead to quicker but not always better solutions.
With today’s technology, it is possible to have synchronous communication when this is truly needed. You can use video conferencing either for one-on-one meetings or group discussions to build rapport, connection and engagement. Some popular software tools for this purpose include Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout Meet (G-Suite), GotoMeeting and WebEx.
You can also use communication apps like Slack and old-fashioned email exchanges and telephone calls to get real-time communication or have urgent and important conversations.
In remote work, there is less oversight and more autonomy. While you can have set hours for synchronous communication and collaboration, be flexible with work schedules rather than attempt to recreate traditional office hours remotely. If you have important milestones and delivery dates to meet, schedule check-ins to confirm progress.
You don’t need real-time communication to share knowledge and provide status updates. For instance, there is a wide variety of project management software like Asana, Trello and Basecamp for team-based work. There are also industry-specific document case management programs, such as Clio, MyCase and RocketMatter for lawyers.
You can write things down, disseminate the information, ask for what you need and when, and provide time for review and reflection. Written communication or records on your processes, procedures, policies and action items allow others to access the information without needing to be at a specific meeting at a specific time and place.
While real-time communication and in-person meetings help with relationship building and team bonding, they are unnecessary to do real work, make great things, and meet big objectives. Asynchronous communication is really a benefit when you know how to use it to your advantage.
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For more information on overcoming obstacles to thriving in remote work, read part 2 (Blurred Lines) and part 3 (Competing Priorities) of this multipart article.
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Dyan Williams is a productivity coach who helps lawyers, small business owners and other busy people reduce overwhelm and focus on what truly matters. She is also a solo lawyer who practices U.S. immigration law and legal ethics at Dyan Williams Law PLLC. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.