Managing distributed legal project teams is not, in my view, that different compared to managing…
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many more people than usual in the legal services industry are working from home right now.
I have been a home-based worker in the legal services industry for almost twenty years and I enjoy it.
My wife, Jude, has very recently started to work from home for the first time in response to Covid-19. She is unused to home working and she tells me she is ‘discombobulated’ by it.
So I thought it might be useful to pass on some tips for productive home-working. I don’t claim to be an expert in the field, but after nearly twenty years I have learned what works well for me. Perhaps you will find some of the points discussed below work for you too.
Working from home: adopt a structured approach
When I first started home-working lots of people used to tell me they could never work from home, as they would be tempted to do things other than work. In and around our own homes we have lots of things, hopefully pleasant things, to distract us from work.
I have found that creating a structure for each day helps promote the feeling that it’s a working day which just happens to be at home.
My preference for a structured day may also reflect the fact that I am a project manager who likes supporting structures and processes. But if you think about it, in all walks of life nearly everything we do well is done within some sort of structured framework.
Here is the outline of my structured approach to home working and the things I have learned which work well for me.
1. Create a high level work (project) plan
I like to review each month’s work activity and then create a high level work plan for each coming month. The plan rarely exceeds one side of A4 paper. I list work-related things I must do and work-related things I want to do during the coming month.
I list objectives and then tasks I need to do to achieve the objectives. In effect, what I do is create a high-level project plan and work breakdown structure for each month.
I like the Association for Project Management’s (APM) definition of Work Breakdown Structure:
[A] Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) provides a hierarchical structure of project activity. If you like it represents the project ‘to do list.’ Its focus is on ‘work’ not ‘things.’
Clearly you do not need to work from home to create structured to-do lists. I find the monthly WBS / to-do list helps me focus on the work I need to do. I just happen to be at home doing it.
2. Create a daily task list
Similarly, I write up objectives and a task list for each day. I spend a few minutes at the end and at the start of each day on the list.
For each day I try to progress no more than two relatively large or important monthly objectives. If I can progress more, then fine, but I’ve learned to be realistic about what I can achieve in a typical working day.
Having said that there is no doubt in my mind that, done properly, home working can be much more productive than working full time in an office.
As you might expect the tasks for each day are quite specific. I also like to assign tasks to a start time. Things like phone calls and video-conferences most obviously lend themselves well to this, but I schedule times for other tasks too.
The daily task list is further re-enforcement supporting the idea that the day is a working day, even though it is being spent at home.
Regardless where we are located, it’s a great feeling to be able to cross completed tasks off the list, which is why I always encourage everyone to create to-do lists in any event.
I prefer to write my lists by hand. Writing things down (I also keep a hard copy pocket diary) makes them seem more real to me. I also find it easier to make ad hoc notes alongside tasks during the day if they are written down on a hard copy page rather than if they were typed up in a computer.
3. Have a daily set-up routine
I have a morning routine, the aim of which is to get me starting work fresh and reasonably early each day.
This is the first part of my structured day. I work out most mornings either by running or using our home gym. During Summer I will go to my golf club (which is literally five minutes’ drive away) and play 9-holes of golf. Whatever form of exercise I take, it sets me up for the day.
The main point I want to make is that it’s important you establish a morning routine which gets you focused and ready for work. I’d recommend physical exercise, but I appreciate this may be possible, or desirable, for everyone. (At the time of writing this, outdoor exercise is still permitted in the U.K, provided sensible social distancing rules are observed). Whatever you find works for you, do that to set you up for the day and ready to start by your target start time.
My target start time is 9am. I find that having a definite start time also helps focus on the working day from home.
4. Establish a home-office focal point
Working from home means that in theory work can be done from any room in the house. I have found it best to create my own home-office space which is where I spend most of my home working day. I find this provides a physical anchor for working. When I arrive at the home-office workspace this is where I ‘switch-on’ and start working.
Apart from adding to the mental re-enforcement of another working day at home, the location also acts as a signal to other family members that I am indeed working and would much prefer not to be disturbed. In hindsight this was also a useful signifier to our children when they were younger; they too associated the home-office space with me working (or, perhaps, with me doing what they believed was some boring stuff which did not affect them!).
Since Jude started home working last week we have set-up office in two different rooms. Jude is a line manager, which means she is on the phone or skype a lot to her team and others. I need a quieter workspace. In contrast to Jude I spend more time on email, LinkedIn and doing various tasks related to business and training course development such as updating my website and creating new training materials etc. Hence rather than split the home-office into two, I have moved to a spare room upstairs where it is quieter.
When working from home you have greater scope to create an environment which works best for you. Think about how you work, what you need to work effectively and how you can set-up your work environment which suits you and other members of your family. Clearly some discussion and negotiation is likely to be required to make sure any new arrangements suit everyone.
5. Deal with constraints
The main constraint in the room I am working from at present is space. I tend to prefer working from this room during Winter anyway so a few years ago I bought a school exam folding desk – remember those? I find it works a treat. Plenty of space to put the laptop and notepad on, but not too big. It can be quickly folded away when not needed and it was pretty cheap too, compared to other office desks. You can find one for sale here, but I’m sure this is not the only seller of these desks.
I also have a stand-up desk. I must confess that I do not use this so much. I like the idea of stand-up desks as they are meant to be a healthier option compared to conventional sitting desks (although how much healthier is still being debated).
The general recommendation when moving to a standing desk is to start with 30 minute intervals and then build up usage from there. Standing up for prolonged periods on the same spot (more or less) takes quite some time getting used to! Use of the stand-up desk is still a work in progress for me, although I am using more for video-conferences.
The stand-up desk I use stands on top of my usual work desk (the school exam desk). Its flexible enough to be raised to different heights and angles and its sturdy enough to hold a reasonably sized laptop with a side shelf for a mouse too. If you are considering a reasonably priced stand-up desk I can recommend this one.
6. Mornings are best for more demanding work
Like most people I have more energy in the mornings, and this is when I try to get the more difficult of the day’s tasks done.
I run my own business which means that generally I have greater freedom about which tasks should be done than if I were working for someone else. It’s a freedom I appreciate but I like to think I exercise it responsibly: some tasks have definite deadlines and even those that don’t should always be done within a reasonable time in any event.
7. Make sure you take some breaks
Regardless where we are physically located when working, its important to take regular breaks during the day.
Also, when working from home, give yourself permission to spoil yourself a little, especially in these challenging times.
Visiting Florence a few years ago my wife and I discovered the delights of coffee made with an Italian coffee stove / Moka pot. We brought one home and get fresh grounded coffee from Bettys in Harrogate. A cup of freshly grounded coffee about 11am is my way of spoiling myself a little.
Right now, I also like to think it’s a small act of solidarity with the people of Italy, who seem to have borne the brunt of Covid-19 in Europe. We are looking forward to visiting that wonderful country again when the pandemic is over.
8. Days end
It can be tempting when working from home to simply continue working…and working, especially when you enjoy what you do.
There are several issues with this, but perhaps most relevant is I find that extra hours do not equate to improved productivity and effectiveness. Quite the opposite in fact.
Beware of the home based version of Parkinson’s Law
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion
Especially now, when many people are effectively in lockdown, we seem to have a lot of time available to complete work as we are at home with our work tools at our disposal 24/7.
I do think it important when working from home that work does not take over the rest of your life.
I have a target time of 6pm to signify the end of the home-working day.
Normally most of us have social events or activities to do in the evening, and these provide a natural break away from work mode. Unfortunately, most things like this have stopped now as a result of Covid-19 and the need for social distancing, if not outright lockdown.
Those of you with school age children will have plenty of alternative things to do I am sure, especially with schools in countries now closed for the foreseeable future.
As for the rest of us one thing we can do is to check up on, and help, neighbours (observing social distancing recommendations) who are elderly or are otherwise at high risk from Covid-19. Jude and I have done this for a few of our neighbours. Its only a small thing, but in times like these every little helps.
In my next post I will discuss some technology used for home working and provide some tips about how to manage projects remotely.