nurturing virtual relationships
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The Friday Five

Five Tips for Nurturing Virtual Relationships With Your Employees

By Camille Stell

The first step in nurturing virtual relationships? Don’t assume everyone is OK.

Work relationships are important. Maintaining them can be challenging — especially now in our remote work world. Here are five ways to show you value the people who make your practice possible: your employees.

1. Show Empathy

It’s no surprise that remaining engaged with your firm may be a challenge as you experience a remote work environment for the first time. Your employees need to know that you understand what they are going through.

A 2021 survey by Businessolver found that only 1 in 4 employees think empathy in their organizations is sufficient. Yet 84% of CEOs believe empathy drives better business outcomes.

Showing your employees you care may be difficult in the best of circumstances, and it’s made even more challenging when we factor in remote work. So, the first thing to keep in mind for nurturing virtual relationships is: Don’t assume everyone is OK.

Employees who are struggling may be hesitant to reach out for fear of being seen as needy, dependent or unable to do the work they were hired to do. To overcome this challenge, emotionally intelligent leaders make the extra effort to solicit feedback and maintain strong relationships.

You can show empathy through active listening, recognizing emotions, and showing curiosity and concern. Expressing empathy doesn’t necessarily mean solving problems, though sometimes as the boss, you are able to do so.

Showing empathy means your employees know that you are listening, and you care.

2. Understand the Role and the Resources Needed

In an office, the lawyers don’t necessarily understand how everything happens; they rest easy knowing that their team does understand and implement. But when the office is spread out remotely, lawyers must make sure they understand the roles and resources needed to perform the duties.

In the office, if you ask your assistant for help with graphics for a trial exhibit, he may walk down the hall to get help from the IT team member who has the Adobe license. When everyone is working from home, this might not happen with the same ease.

This is a great opportunity to update job descriptions for your employees and to determine that everyone has the resources they need to do their jobs.

3. Reimagine Your Workday

Examine your working hours. Traditional law firms rely on an 8-to-5 schedule. Even with the option of remote work, most employers have expected people to be on their computers during these hours. This is one of many reasons nearly 3 million American women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, left the workforce; remote school and remote work were happening at the same time.

A high-functioning remote workplace should be receptive to schedules that work for both the employees and the employer. People work in different ways and have unique life circumstances. Now that we know we can work from everywhere, it should be easier, not harder, for firms to recruit and retain the best talent.

While some law firms are busier than ever, I’ve talked with a few employers who are experimenting with changes in hours. A small firm in North Carolina used to work half-days on Fridays during the summer months. During the pandemic, they changed the schedule to half-days on Friday year-round. The firm anticipates keeping this schedule in place even after the pandemic ends. Another firm has opted to close the firm all day on Fridays. The increased morale and the well-rested team mean more focus and efficiency during the four-day workweek.

4. Increase Contact With the Team

Make sure the team is communicating. Troy Crawford, President of LM Title, tells me that his team keeps the Microsoft Teams video chat feature open all day. All employees are remote, yet the director of operations needs to know what is happening in marketing, and the title coordinator may have questions for the title underwriter. Today’s tech tools make it easier than ever to communicate seamlessly, as though we were just across the hall from each other.

Nurturing virtual relationships means making time for one-on-one connections. It’s fine to talk about work projects during the call, but this is primarily the time for you to check in. Observe your employees’ body language and their remote work environment. Do they seem as upbeat as they are in the office or is their appearance exhausted? Dig a little deeper to make sure they have everything they need to do their job well. Remind them about the firm’s employee health benefits, counseling services that are available, or free bar association resources that might be an option.

5. Respect Boundaries When Nurturing Virtual Relationships

Respect boundaries with your employees. I hear horror stories from paralegals of getting text messages from their supervising attorneys at all hours of the day and night. One told me it was not uncommon to get a Saturday text (“I picked up the mail from the Post Office”) or a 2 a.m. text (“Remind me to discuss the Jones trial notebook with you tomorrow”).

This is unacceptable. How can your employees decompress and have a life outside the workday if their manager talks to them 24 hours a day? As the owner, you may need to think about your business all the time (though I doubt it’s healthy for you either!), but your team members need clear boundaries.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

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Camille Stell Camille Stell

Camille Stell is President of Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services and co-author of “Designing A Succession Plan for Your Law Practice: A Step-by-Step Guide for Preparing and Packaging Your Firm for Maximum Value.” Camille is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, a member of the inaugural Pro Bono Resource Center Advisory Board, and has been recognized by North Carolina Lawyers Weekly as a member of the inaugural class of “Leaders in the Law.” Follow her @camillestell.

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