This website uses cookies

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience. By using our website, you agree to our Privacy Policy

Lexis+ AI




Dr Bob Murray provides some coping strategies for those leading their firm from home

I recently spoke to a coachee of mine – a practice leader in a major law firm. Naturally, our interaction was virtual but, for the first time, I saw him in his home environment. 

There were constant interruptions from his young kids demanding Daddy’s attention. He complained that his litigation practice had come to a dead stop; the courts were closed; and his clients weren’t returning his calls.

“I have some residual work for my team to do which will keep them busy for the next month”, he said to me, “but after that, who knows? I worry that my team will become discouraged. They are all anxious about their employment prospects, as am I. Management has already signaled that partner remuneration this year will probably be cut by about 40 per cent. There’s only so much ‘planning for the future’ that I can do.” 

He’s hardly the only one in that position. We’re entering a new era, it seems. Well, maybe not. Working remotely will become the norm as firms strive to cut costs, especially real estate and ancillary costs. The move to working from home was well underway before covid-19 struck; and according to most of the law leaders that I have spoken to, the pace will just quicken when the epidemic has passed.

As a result of both the structural change and the disease, it seems like everyone is giving advice on how to work and lead virtually. As a psychologist and a behavioural neurogeneticist, I specialise in showing people how to motivate others to give their best – even in circumstances which are much less than ideal.

So how are you, as a team or firm leader, going to cope? Priorities Now, just when we most need structure, relational support and a sense of doing things as a tribe, you and your team are working away from the office, mostly at home. And it’s probably not clear in many cases what all of you should be doing and prioritising, since many of your clients and customers are also dispersed; and either cutting back or planning to do so.

It’s tempting to simply shut down and do as little as possible, even when you know this will probably just make you more anxious and even stir-crazy. In times of crisis like this one, that temptation is especially great, since almost all effort not relating to the primal reactions of flight, defensive fight or freezing can be stifled by fear. 

That fear can be of you or your loved ones being victims of the virus, of economic collapse or of job losses. In fear, we either flee from the problem (try and find some place away from it all where the virus won’t get you); or we physically go into fight mode (useless against a virus); or we freeze (we succumb to inertia). Even if you don’t resort to fear and inertia, many of your team might. 

One friend, a leader in a global law firm, has taken the opportunity to decamp to his country retreat with his family. “The internet isn’t perfect, but it works”, he said to me, “but being here has its advantages. The major job I have to do is to stay alive, for my family and for my firm. Having no one within a mile of us is safer.” A partner from a ‘big four’ consultancy says: “I think it’s easier for me and other leaders to work from home because we are used to the responsibility of bringing in work and dealing with ambiguity. For more junior people, who are used to being fed tasks and given clarity of goals, this uncertain time is harder. These are the ones who may have the most difficulty in staying productive and who may need the most support.”

Another leader says: “These are terrifying times, but I get that my team need me more than ever. Working from home is fine but we all miss the tangible interactions. We are inventing ways to stay connected as a team, including a WhatsApp silly group message and a daily Skype catch up, and lots of chats through the day. It’s important not to lose the outward focus on clients though, and they really appreciate support.

One way we’re keeping clients and potential clients engaged and connected is by sharing informational videos and webinars and having video catch ups to discuss them.”

Virtual action

There are five key things virtual team leaders should be doing at the moment:

1. Show you’re still dedicated to supporting your team – This involves such things as being a buffer between them and senior management, who themselves may be in panic mode. You must protect them from unreasonable demands by conveying upward what is and isn’t possible for your team. The research is mixed on the productivity of people working from home. Some research shows that diminishing face-to-face relationships leads to a loss of productivity. This can be up to 30 per cent when compared to an office setting (though the loss is less compared with open plan or, worst of all, hot desking arrangements which have been found to be less productive than the standard layout). Other research has shown a net productivity gain from most home-based employees, at least in the short term. The best idea is to assume some output loss and plan accordingly. How much this will be depends largely on how well you do as a virtual leader.

2. You must maintain the trust of your team – This is partially how well they feel protected by you and willing to work hard for you. But there are other things you must also do to gain and retain trust. First, keep up frequent (at least twice daily) communication with the team as a whole and, only a little less frequently, with all individual team members. This communication must be via Skype, Zoom or similar. Face-to-face contact is vital even if it’s virtual. Second, remember to praise them both for work they’ve done and how they’ve been working. Look for what they’re doing right – particularly for their innovation and for being self-starters. Third, be consistent in the way you interact with your team. The more normal (your usual self) the better.

3. Encourage your team to maintain their contacts at all levels of clients’ businesses – You can reduce their fear by giving them something forward-looking to focus on. Make sure conversations generally are forward-looking – Avoid dwelling on problems without solutions or looking for blame. Focus on what needs to happen; how can we make the most of opportunities; and how do we best support each other? 

4. Exchange needs around relationships as well as tasks – Work out in concrete actionable terms what you need from your team in order for you to lead it effectively while you’re ‘virtual’. Find out from them what they need of you. Maintain your boundaries and don’t agree to do something you may not be able or willing to do. Perhaps share these thoughts with your team and get their ideas. Remember, you need their support as colleagues and friends as much as they need your leadership.  

Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest in legal and professional services.

For the latest on human behaviour and wellness, and how these relate to leadership and strategy, sign up for Dr Murray’s weekly newsletter Today’s Research

Lexis+ AI