How To Work From Home Better and Stay Mentally Fit

By Brandon Vogel

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Legal professionals undoubtedly need to work from home now. But they need to learn how to do it a little bit better.

This was the key assessment delivered by Paul J. Unger of the Affinity Consulting Group during “Skills in Remote Lawyering: Working from Home During COVID-19” held during NYSBA’s Virtual Tech Summit.

In 2019, just 3% to 5% of the workforce worked from home full time, while 60% of people had a job that could be handled remotely. Between 80% to 90% percent of people wanted to work from home at least part-time. It is estimated that more than 20% of employees will work from home post-COVID-19. Unger sees this number being about 25% to 30%.

There is value in having the ability to switch from working in the office maybe three days a week to at home two days a week,  Unger said. “If there’s anything good that has come of this, it is that it educates everybody and our leadership in our own organizations that it can be done and people can be very productive.”

Having good processes is essential for productivity.

“There is a process problem and a people problem,”  Unger said. “Almost every technology involves a people problem. And it’s about process. I always tell people if it’s process versus technology, process always wins. If you have bad processes and good technology, you are flushing money down the toilet. You need to invest in the process to make it better.”

Legal professionals are interrupted every two to three minutes, twice as much as most business professionals. Without colleagues down the hallway, Unger noted that emails and instant messages have increased exponentially during the pandemic.

Some 80% of employees keep Outlook maximized on one screen, if using multiple screens.

“We need to be more deliberate about how we check email,” said Unger. “Email is not a daily plan.”

Unger batch processes his emails at 7:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. with designated amounts of time for each period.

He recommended that lawyers employ a formal electronic task management system. He explored Microsoft To Do, a free app and Microsoft 365 system, which will eventually replace Outlook Tasks per the Microsoft Roadmap.

“It is very good and it is very easy; the interface is incredibly simple.” He can easily translate Outlook emails into To Do tasks.

Sarah Gold, of the Gold Law Firm, a solo business law practitioner, said, “It has always been a huge issue for me to stay on top of my tasks.” She has explored several task management systems throughout her career such as ToDoIst and Clio Tasks. More recently, she has used Asana, “probably the most robust version of a task management software that I have ever used.” It allows her to move tasks seamlessly across boards and work in multiple formats. Unger also praised Asana’s functionality and interface.

Pre-pandemic, Unger frequently traveled across the country to meet with clients or present at CLE programs. In his conversations, he learned that creating a daily roadmap has helped his clients with their time management and productivity. Even having a paper list or journal can keep attorneys focused and less likely to check Facebook. He uses the Best Self Journal where he can identify his top daily priorities, defined blocks of time, personal notes, as well as grateful thoughts.

Gold has been “dabbling with the Pomodoro Technique,” a time management approach to work within the amount of time people have, not against it.

“Keep it simple and designate five minutes each day to your plan. That’s all it takes,” advised Unger.

Likewise, he devotes one hour a week each Friday morning from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. to determine his weekly roadmap. He recommends that lawyers treat the weekly meeting like going to the gym, “which is half the battle.” Even if you can only stretch and walk one mile today, that’s key, said Unger. During this meeting, Unger looks two weeks back and then two weeks forward to see where he was successful and where to make improvements. He then makes a project list and goes through emails, deciding whether to delete, delegate or delay. After finishing the task, he goes through any loose papers and finalizes his weekly time report.

Buffer’s State of Remote Report 2020 revealed that 20% of respondents equally found decreased collaboration and loneliness were the biggest struggles with remote work.

Not far behind with 18% of responses was the inability to unplug. He said the key for “digital detox” is setting simple and healthy boundaries. Examples include no devices after 9 p.m., not checking email after 7 p.m. and “phone free meals.” He personally deactivated his social media feeds during the election to improve his mental health.

He acknowledged that the pandemic has decreased sleep for most people, which can lead to anxiety, depression and weight gain.

He recommended that law firms should have laptops for their entire staff, not just lawyers. He noted that paralegals and legal assistants attend meetings and conferences. Having the ability to take notes digitally increases everyone’s productivity.

Gold and Unger both suggested purchasing multiple monitors for increased efficiency.

“You will never go back,” said Gold.

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