During a time when most of us are under work-from-home orders, remote collaboration is likely a necessary part of our workday. As many law firms adopt full-scale remote work for the first time, they’re evaluating new tools and processes while also navigating the stresses on their team in this uncertain environment.

On a recent episode of “The Geek in Review,” hosts Greg Lambert and Marlene Gebauer interview Heidi Gardner, distinguished Fellow and Lecturer at Harvard Law School, and Workstorm’s own chief commercial officer, Brian Stearns, regarding the transition from office to home environments for the legal industry – and what’s next for collaboration after COVID-19.

Gardner is recognized for her expertise in leadership and collaboration in professional services firms and other knowledge-based organizations, connecting field-based research with her consulting experience to provide new insights and practical recommendations. A former leader in the legal and consulting industries, Stearns now leads business development for Workstorm, a digital collaboration platform built to enable law firms and other organizations to work efficiently and securely from anywhere.

Here are some key insights from their conversation.

What is the immediate toll on the legal industry from COVID-19? 

There are immediate impacts from the abrupt shift from office life to working at home, according to Gardner, which can range from anything from mild inconveniences to severe stress and anxiety. Everyone will experience this psychological toll differently.

“We’re going to be dealing with people grappling with grief. As a result, there are going to be unexpected, unintended consequences that this type of anxiety has on our group working dynamics,” Gardner says.

When we’re stressed, Gardner adds, we tend to revert to what are known as “central tendencies,” or subconscious reactions, and trust people who we view as similar to us. In a time of crisis, this can impede our ability to ensure diversity and inclusion in our working spaces, which means it’s imperative to keep these initiatives at the forefront of our minds, despite the circumstances.

What unique concerns are arising for the legal industry in light of COVID-19? 

The spread of COVID-19 prompted worry in many legal industry leaders about the gap between those who are accustomed to working at home, and those who are not. In a sense, remote work seems to be a massive culture shock for law firms, and Stearns pointed to a few reasons why.

“Currently, 60% of the personnel of large law firms are office-based support staff tethered to desks and workstations. How are they adapting to this situation?” Stearns asks. “This ranges from HR implications to dealing with a reliance on paper. Do they have printing stations at home? What about secure scanning solutions? I think these are the kinds of things that most companies that had previously embraced digital work for longer periods of time aren’t even thinking about.”

He and Gardner agreed that digital tools like collaboration hubs can not only assuage many of these concerns, especially for firm leadership, but can also open up new points of contact because of the efficiency and resources they provide. Developed by a fully remote team, Workstorm is designed to help address challenges like maintaining relationships beyond the immediate team. The platform provides tools like videoconferencing and secure messaging to stay connected with clients and other practice groups, empowering attorneys to maintain and even enhance client service at a time when it’s needed most.

“You want to be reaching out to your clients to offer help, especially during a time like this. There’s a lot of tools out there, including our own, that firms can offer to their customers as a service, which allows an opportunity to drive ‘stickiness’ in those relationships,” Stearns notes. “It’s not just email-based or in-person. You can offer insights and knowledge, and you can have real-time dialogue with your customers. You can strengthen those relationships.”

What needs to change within the legal industry to address the challenges of COVID-19? 

With these new changes causing a real culture shock, it’s important to understand the underlying issues that are causing the shock. Gardner cited Stanford University research that highlighted a major issue within the legal industry: What happens psychologically when you have to think about the economic value of your time?

“When people are primed to think about their work strictly as a function of the time they put in, they tend to look at the world around them in a similar fashion, and they start to put opportunity costs on everything,” Gardner says. “I want to see a legal arena where we capture value commensurate with actual value delivered.”

“When you’re not in the same room, it’s almost impossible to manage by input, or time invested. You have to manage by the outputs, and that requires good goal-setting and expectation-setting by managers. It’s critical for remote working,” Stearns adds.

What are some of the key considerations that firms need to address about remote collaboration as they work from home for an extended period of time? 

As the legal industry shifts to working remotely, it’s crucial to replicate the in-person human experience as best you can. It’s about putting the proper tools in place that connect you with your colleagues, like videoconferencing. Integrated messaging platforms can help you build channels and platforms around projects and work responsibilities to stay connected with your coworkers and clients, despite the distance. But it’s not just about the tools, according to Stearns.

“Having a realistic long-term view of the situation will be appropriate, and this current situation is a great training ground for setting yourself up for success long-term,” Stearns says.

In addition, he noted that the most successful firms will be the ones who recognize that as COVID-19 plays out, the ability to transition seamlessly from office-based to home-based work will become an integral part of business continuity planning. In addition to the efficiency and environmental benefits of less travel, many people may now see the health benefits of avoiding congregating in conference rooms or meeting at the clients’ offices. There will be a new “normal” to consider once everyone returns to the office.

What are some secondary implications of transitioning to digital collaboration? 

Both Stearns and Gardner agreed that overall, legal professionals can stand to benefit from this kind of working style. With more firms reporting higher engagement from a wider variety of attorneys, the transition to digital solutions provides more opportunities to be human in the midst of uncertainty.

“There’s research about videoconferencing that tells us that people who are introverts can be more vocal and greater contributors on video calls, because the pressure of sitting around a conference table with colleagues can cause them to be silent,” Stearns says.

“Quite a number of lawyers are reporting that they’re hearing from people who weren’t quite as participative in prior settings. They’re also understanding that people have similar handicaps when they’re operating remotely. For example, we can pay more attention to people’s faces on videoconferencing,” Gardner adds. “I also think that individuals willing to experiment will thrive in an environment like this. Do we allow this kind of setting to humanize us? I hope to see people step outside their own comfort zone.”

Are there any concrete lessons that firms can take from this current environment and apply them going forward? 

Stearns and Gardner concurred that there’s a current fear that if you’re not in the office, you’re not getting work done. They’re both hopeful that these new circumstances will provide a new opportunity to increase trust and confidence between leadership and employees.

“There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to work from home,” Gardner says. “This should hopefully prove that presenteeism is not needed to show that you’re being productive at your job.”

Stearns also views the current crisis as an opportunity for firms to embrace the digital tools and resources that can not only make them more resilient in the face of future disruptions, but also adapt to growing demands for remote work from their teams.  Getting remote collaboration right can ultimately improve team performance and individual skills, like time management and communication.

“You’re expected to be a better manager of your own time, and to set and communicate goals and expectations better, when you’re working remotely,” Stearns says. “My hope is that this increases interpersonal trust.”

Want more insights on managing remote work today and in the months to come?

Visit The Geek in Review to hear the full conversation. 

To help firms transition to remote work, Workstorm is offering a 60-day free trial of our digital collaboration platform, which includes videoconferencing, messaging, email and more in a secure, unified solution. Get started here.