Six Tips for Managing Virtual and Telecommuting Employees
The hiring of telecommuting and virtual employees is increasing in all sorts of organizations, because technology now enables employees to work anywhere and at any time. According to a 2016 survey from GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com, 50% of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with telecommuting, 20-25% of the workforce telecommutes at some frequency, and 80–90% of the workforce would like to telecommute at least part-time.
Law firm managers face the challenge of not only developing telecommuting policies for effectively managing their off-site employees, but also ensuring that confidential client and employee information is protected. Law firm managers who aspire to be champion managers know that it is their responsibility—not somebody else’s—to implement and oversee virtual and telecommuting policies so that they benefit their firm, their employees, and their clients. These champion managers have dropped the outdated belief that attorneys are optimally productive only when they are at their firm’s offices or with a client, and have instead embraced the mindset that employees can be productive and accountable even when they are mobile and virtual. Better still, they know the keys to accomplishing this.
Here are six tips to help you become a champion manager when supervising and working with your virtual and telecommuting personnel.
- Advance planning is necessary before you adopt a telecommuting policy. Start by identifying which positions are best suited to telecommuting, then determine how work will get done and how meetings and team projects will be handled. Figure out how often telecommuters will work remotely and how often they will be required to spend time in the office. Be clear about how telecommuters will communicate with co-workers and managers during business hours, who will supply the necessary technology and support, and how telecommuters will be supervised and evaluated to ensure they are treated fairly.
- The next step is to decide which of your employees are the best candidates to telecommute and work virtually. Identify those employees who work well with minimal supervision and enjoy (or at least tolerate) working alone and without much in-person social interaction. You will want to select employees who have good time management skills and effective communication skills for interacting with other employees while they are working remotely (i.e., virtual communication skills). Some of your better choices may be employees who have sufficient technical skills and job responsibilities that are more conducive to virtual work such as computer tasks, writing and document review, and telephone work. Check too to make sure that employees will have appropriate space and limited distractions at their home office.
- Once you decide who good candidates for telecommuting might be, you also need to consider whether your policy should be limited to exempt attorneys and staff. Oversight of non-exempt employees is more difficult due to wage and hour laws that govern overtime, meal and rest periods. Some firms take a hard line that no non-exempt employees can work remotely at any time. With the right policies and procedures in place, there may be exceptions made for certain non-exempt employees whose positions and job duties are more independent than others, such as an accounts receivable coordinator.
- As a champion manager, you should establish an approval process so that lawyers and staff are not allowed to grant special telecommuting arrangements on an ad hoc basis. Employees should complete a written application form to request permission to telecommute, and for consistency and fairness the Managing Partner, Human Resources Director, Office Administrator or someone else in management (or some combination thereof) should be charged with reviewing and approving requests. There needs to be clear approval criteria established for determining who can telecommute so no favoritism is allowed and no ADA or EEOC protected categories are inadvertently denied permission to telecommute. Include a section on telecommuting in your Employee Handbook and have each employee execute a written telecommuting agreement that sets forth the terms of his or her individual agreement.
- Communication with remote workers can be tricky unless you establish a system for how to best communicate with them, and make them part of the process of determining that system. Include virtual workers in team meetings through the use of video conferencing like Skype, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts or more sophisticated video conferencing systems. Meetings and conversations become more personal when you can see someone, rather than just hearing them over the phone or communicating by email.
- Finally, it is important to minimize or completely restrict remote employees’ use of personal devices, personal servers or personal email while performing firm work to reduce the risk ofiliy security breaches. If your firm has a Bring Your Own Device policy and allows employees to use personal devices, make certain that adequate controls, software, and procedures are in place to protect the firm’s online security. Require telecommuters to follow the same password protection and encryption procedures that are used when they work in the office. Remind them that they must follow the same firm policies and procedures with respect to client confidentiality as though they were working in the firm’s office.
For more on what it means to be a “champion manager” and how to become one, please take a look at the ABA Law Practice Division’s newly released book,
Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion For Your Firm and Employees.