I recently attended the Cowen Cafe, a virtual town hall with 100+ legal innovators and industry leaders hosted by David Cowen, and one consistent theme rang out: In this unprecedented time of change and uncertainty, innovators are being asked to shift their focus to adaptation. The priority now must be to help workforces adapt their processes, technology, and communication styles to remain effective, efficient, and engaged in the mobile and work from home revolution that COVID has inspired.
Organizations and employees are frantically trying to establish a new business as usual in very unusual times today, grappling with an unexpected and immediate need to accommodate social distancing and work from home, and as legal professionals and innovators we have a key role to play. While some organizations may already have digital nomads, many in the legal industry and beyond have found that they are ill-equipped to make this rapid transition to full remote work with the practical and technical challenges that it poses. As innovators or simply employees attempting to adapt to this new normal, we each have an opportunity to become Chief Adaptation Officers or Adaptors in Chief within our organizations.
Virtual is the new normal. Now what?
Over the course of just a few weeks, countless industries and individual employees have been dragged into a full work from home business model with varying degrees of preparedness for the shift. Some organizations have actively been fighting the push for virtual work from home arrangements for over a decade, while others have been stingy with allowing certain functions the ability to work remotely. The next few weeks and months will serve as a massive test for the effectiveness of remote work across the country and the globe.
Why have people historically been so resistant to making a shift to remote or virtual work? Some organizations have highlighted technical limitations related to certain tasks or types of employees as a major hurdle. Some peers have even lamented the growing pains of adopting virtual meetings in Zoom or WebEx and the at-times comical results of Luddites being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. One need only look to viral faux pas like a manager who must conduct a meeting with a potato filter to see an example of how tech-enabled virtual working may cause some headaches.
While the viral video snafu is comical, there are some very real questions and concerns about making a wholesale shift to virtual, from concerns about employee’s home bandwidth and hardware necessary to stream virtual meetings to questions around data security and confidentiality. While these questions and others are certainly valid, the reality is that the new normal of working remotely is not ending anytime soon, and in some instances may remain in place long after the end of this pandemic.
Maintaining efficiency from home
One challenge many are facing in the shift to working from home is balancing the competing needs of family and distractions all around them with the need to remain productive in these challenging times. Forbes had a great article highlighting best practices to remain productive in a virtual environment, some of the tips that resonated included:
- Have a designated space that you go to each day to work in with no housemates allowed;
- Have set hours and put away work tools when the work day is done;
- Video chat or pick up the phone whenever possible; and
- Choose to stay positive.
Staying connected in socially distant times
When the mandate to work from home came down, many employees were excited at the opportunity to work in their PJs. Unfortunately, regardless of the clothes choices, one unexpected result of this new virtual office for many is a sense of isolation — humans are social beings, and for many, this shift to introversion has been a shock to the system. Thankfully, although working from home can be a lonely enterprise in this era of social distancing, it doesn't have to be.
Some ways that I have remained connected despite the physical distancing requirements include:
- Virtual meetups and happy hours with peers;
- Converting in-person meetings to Zoom video conferences;
- FaceTime chats with friends and colleagues;
- Virtual happy hours with peers and or family;
- Finding ways to collaborate instead of handling tasks solo; and
- Staying continually engaged with collaboration tools like Slack.
In many ways, I feel more connected with my peers than I used to because I have made connectivity and engagement a priority.
Supporting multigenerational staff
A challenge many peers have expressed since going remote is the need to accommodate the multigenerational nature of teams given the variance in tech savvy. In some organizations, the younger tech-native employees are more easily making the transition to being remote than their older and often more senior level colleagues. While an EVP in the GenX or Baby Boomer generation may struggle to adapt to Zoom meetings and Slack channels, more junior staff is often thriving and already accustomed to engaging with this more modern technology in both their personal and professional lives.
One way to bridge this gap, beyond simply turning to IT or HR, is to tap into your more tech-native team members to help upskill, mentor, or share best practices with the team at large or those that are struggling. Some organizations are also leveraging the technical fluency of their millennial team members to identify technology to bridge any gaps in their current tech stack, particularly for remote work.
In the Cowen Cafe town hall, colleagues shared that junior members of their team had created WhatsApp conversations to stay connected to global colleagues, established dedicated Zoom office hours to answer questions, and started Slack channels and regular emails to share tips on working from home. Now more than ever, adaptive and innovative ideas can come from all levels of an organization.
Balancing family and work all under one roof
Employees with children are faced with a unique challenge of not only working from home but also balancing childcare and educational needs at the same time. Some families can delegate to a single parent during working hours, but for many dual income homes that isn't an option. One novel approach some families are taking is to split their work days into an early and a late shift, with one partner starting their work day early while the other partner manages the kids and switching midday. Alternatively some families are changing their working hours generally to early morning and later evening with the midday dedicated to family obligations. Thankfully many employers are offering flexibility to help their staff balance these competing needs.
Working with what you’ve got
As the shelter-in-place orders have come down, many organizations making the shift to remote work forces have found that there are tools and technologies they already have in place (but perhaps have been underutilized) are extremely helpful (think: Slack, Microsoft Teams, or that virtual background on videoconferencing technology).
In ediscovery specifically, many of our clients who previously sent us physical media to upload into DISCO are now taking advantage of our high speed uploader and remote managed review capabilities to avoid any risk of physical contamination.
New challenges and new technologies
The rapid and unexpected impact of the pandemic on business has also extended to adopting new technology. Many organizations previously dragging their feet on cloud adoption are suddenly jumping in with both feet, and former Luddites that were naysayers about changing technology from video conferencing to collaboration tools and short form messaging to cloud-based discovery and beyond are rapidly adopting these new tools to adjust to the new business as usual for unusual times.
As Chief Adaptation Officers, our job extends to identifying the people to help bridge our knowledge gaps and technologies to bridge systemic gaps. It is equally important that we shepherd staff through training and sharing of resources to adopt the tools and processes that will enable them to successfully navigate this brave new world that may be here for the long haul. Whether driven by economic need or future pandemics, we may grapple with social distancing and this new business normal to varying degrees more frequently in the future, adapting and applying lessons learned today will ease the future transition and prepare each of us for the next time we are faced with these challenges.