Thousands of legal professionals, including legal support staff, now find themselves working remotely. Any new situation is bound to make you feel uncomfortable, particularly if you now find yourselves with your partner and children an additional five days per week. What would be tricky enough is compounded if you have children who are young and require constant supervision and home-schooling, and gets more complicated again if you are a single parent.
At Obelisk Support, the core of our business is built on flexible legal services – we’ve delivered thousands of jobs this way for clients big and small. Here, we have compiled some top tips and suggestions for those experiencing working from home for the first time, as this is such a new situation for many people.
#1 Stay confident and adjust your expectations
Obelisk CEO Dana Denis-Smith set up the company from her home office at the same time as she had her first child: “It was very hard,” she says. In the beginning, she had to work nights, from 11pm through to when her daughter woke up at 4am. Her husband would bring her a coffee in bed; she would catch an hour’s sleep. The baby and her business grew in tandem – more business each year meant she could get more childcare – until 2014 when she finally went full-time and took an office. The whole undertaking has been a constant balancing act between giving her all and giving herself a break, as well as not being shy to ask for help.
“It’s about staying confident,” says Denis-Smith, “and not letting it feel like you’re failing in any way.”
Self-confidence is key to successful home-based working of any stripe, as is knowing how to communicate clearly (so your distant bosses and colleagues know what you are up to), learning to work consistently (in the absence of feedback you might otherwise receive in an office environment) and, crucially, recognising when you need to go for a walk, work out or otherwise just take a break.
“Assume this to be a marathon rather than a sprint”, recommends Kate Gaskell, Solicitor and Director of Transformation at LexisNexis, “so take things one step at a time”.
If you are used to working eight-hour days or longer, you will find that sort of schedule hard to maintain if you are working from home with children in the house, even if your partner is not working. Understand you cannot just shut yourself away for the hours that you used to be out of the house without it having significant repercussions.
If you have a partner, particularly if they also need to work, we recommend setting up a joint diary and working out how things can be moved around to accommodate any priority or essential meetings/ calls. Blocking out the day in spaces of three hours can provide a basic structure. Kate says that she and her partner are “trying to do minimum three-hour shifts where we can, rather than flit backwards and forwards too much” as that gives each person a good amount of time to get into work.
Using that logic, you should be able to take one three-hour daytime segment each and then both use a further three hours in the evening when the children have gone to bed. That gives you six working hours. You may be able to factor in one or two more hours late at night or early in the morning depending on how much sleep you are able to survive on.
If you are on your own, you will need to adjust expectations further of what is possible – both your own and also with your manager / teams. Using screens, pre-set activities and early bedtimes will help free up some working hours but it clearly is not going to be the same.
What’s key now more than ever is “communication with clients (and bosses where necessary) around competing time pressures. People are generally more understanding now than they might have been in the past,” says Dan Meadon-Bower, Commercial & Corporate Partner at Royds Withy King.
#2 We are all in the same boat
This is an unprecedented situation. Try to remember that everyone is now in the same position and trying to make it work. As Dan Meadon-Bower says, “some of the stigmas of working from home, such as having background noise, needing to work diaries around domestic commitments and working extended days to compensate for not being around as much during the day, are falling away”.
#3 Find a space to work
We have seen some truly innovative work spaces cropping up on social media over the past couple of weeks as office workers try and find a place in their house or flat to balance a laptop or even set up the screen and various IT equipment that their workplaces are getting delivered to them.
If you live in a small flat or house, you are going to need to be creative. Jon Miles, Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist EMEA at ICIS, shared a snap using his ironing board as a workstation as his partner was using the dining room table. We’ve also seen people using a shelf and brackets, piles of books on their kitchen counters and the top of the washing machine but whatever you pick remember it won’t be as ergonomic on your back as your regular office set up, so you’ll need to move regularly.
If you have the luxury of a spare room, spare table or even a room you can use as a temporary office, you will find it easier but whatever your situation, try and clear away or shut the door on your work outside of your agreed working hours. If you are on the child-shift, try and concentrate on that, likewise at weekends focus on family time or indulging in past-times you wouldn’t previously have had time for.
#4 Keep to the same schedule
Obviously you won’t have the same time pressures as you had before, as there is no school run or commute, but if you can try and have everyone up, dressed and breakfasted, the familiarity of the old routines can help things ticking.
Work-wise, try and keep to the same routine too. If you started the day with allocating emails, or creating to-do lists or checking in on your team, try and keep doing similar things. Of course, your work day is not going to look the same at all, but it all helps.
#5 Set boundaries
Karen Beddow, Senior Consultant Solicitor – Property Litigation at Ortolan Legal, said that her children “know that my policy is that if the office door is shut they have to be very quiet when they come in, or really they just shouldn’t. It means I’m on the phone. I promise them I’ll open it if I’m just generally working. I can’t promise that I always open it immediately after the call finishes, but it’s a system that seems to work for us”.
If you don’t have the luxury of a door (and to be honest, even if you do), agree boundaries with the other members of your household. If you need to make calls, try and keep to your working area or outside – if you like to walk and talk, perhaps combine this with your allocated daily exercise and get some headphones – but don’t wander in and out of the area where others are trying to get on with other tasks (a bit like being in the office really).
#6 Treat your partner with the same respect you would a colleague
Obviously as also happens at work in the office, meetings and calls will overrun but don’t treat your partner any differently than you would a colleague. If you’ve agreed on swapping after three hours, stick to that. Try and agree to any changes to the schedule in advance – it will pay dividends if you both manage to get what you need done on any given day.
Expect to negotiate and be willing to give and take. Everyone’s agenda seems more important than the other person, so you’ll need to flex on some things to get your non-negotiable meetings done.
#7 Managing your team from home
If you are general counsel, partner or in any other legal leadership position, you will also need to consider the needs of your team. Dan Meadon-Bower recommends that it is essential you trust your team. “Parent-lawyers are grown ups and will work doubly hard to get the work done and meet client needs. Create a safe environment for those struggling with dealing with children at home to manage their day how they need to”.
#8 Take a break
Working from home on an ordinary basis often means less reason to get up and move. The new self-isolation rules mean that there is even more risk you might just sit there all day – so you need to schedule your breaks. As you would any other meeting – put them in your calendar and actually take them. Make the most of your allocated out of the house exercise and facilitate everyone doing this to keep morale high over the long run.
Try and remember that if your children are at home and your partner is looking after them solo that they are also doing a job and will need breaks and support. If you are doing the childcare in shifts, build in some exercise and stretching into your portion of the childcare and make your children do it with you. If they end up doing it with both of you, just think of it as helping them sleep better.
#9 Logistical practical tips
- Ofcom recommends you make sure your home broadband is working at its optimum.
- For video calls: (a) try getting a headset with a microphone that plugs into your computer – you’ll be able to hear more of your call and you’ll disturb the rest of the house less, and (b) don’t be afraid of video calls. Everyone feels self-conscious for the first few video calls and everyone looks weird (strange angles, headsets and screen-freeze) but it does help maintain team morale and makes you feel a little less isolated, particularly if this is a new experience for you.
- If you are able, have your back to a plain surface, particularly if you’re in a shared space. It’s less distracting for the other people on the call and also helps maintain your professional image, but don’t worry if you can’t do this.
- Likewise, get dressed. Maybe you wore a suit or other formal attire to the office. In all likelihood, suits are not required when working from home, but staying in your pyjamas doesn’t help with your mindset and nor will your colleagues take you as seriously. Do dress professionally if possible. And if you do the old trick of only looking presentable from the waist up, don’t stand up!
All of the people we spoke to referenced the fact that many lawyers have spent most of their working lives only seeing their children at weekends. As Dan Meadon-Bower put it, “this is a great opportunity to spend some quality time with our children. Let’s make the most of it before it’s back to ‘business as usual’.”
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