Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, most lawyers had not worked exclusively from home. While the newfound family time, flexibility and elimination of long commutes were readily apparent gains of remote work, once the indefinite term of remote work became a reality, it lost its luster for some. Those with space constraints and a less productive work setup at home and those who are compartmentalizers, who like a separate locale for work, were frustrated by the protracted time away from the office.
Regardless of whether you see remote work as a plus, a minus or something in between, many of us will be working remotely or on a hybrid basis well into 2021. For that reason, we need to figure out how to maximize our happiness while doing so. What follows are my top 10 tips to gain both happiness and productivity in a remote and hybrid work world.
- Find your rhythm and routines. Know your most productive time of the day and allocate your work projects so that you’re doing them when you are the least distractible and the most focused. Set up a daily schedule that builds in the necessary breaks for exercise, family time, meals and anything else that you need and want to prioritize each day. Given the monotony of the current work environment, build in more buffers and anticipate more distractions than might be typical in an ordinary workday. And when you are transitioning back from a distraction, choose a less challenging task to get you back into your work. As part of setting up your daily routine, establish a reasonable number of hours you plan to work, and determine your daily start and stop times. Recognize that your routines and expectations may change, so reevaluate if necessary and be sure to create parameters around each aspect of your day.
- Organize and prioritize. Being organized is always important, but when you’re working from home or when you’re only in the office part-time, being systematic in your approach is that much more important. That’s because all of the natural segmenting of your day through commuting, in-person meetings, events and travel is not being imposed. With everyone having more time behind their screens, email traffic is mounting and you need to be organized to manage your output rather than having your productivity dictated solely by your sent emails. Part of that organization requires prioritizing what is important among your work and home responsibilities. Undoubtedly, your priorities have shifted. Taking an inventory of what is on your to do lists – both at work and at home – and reordering and rejiggering will be necessary. Also, it’s critical to ensure that the time you allocate to your responsibilities accurately reflects the importance of each of these tasks.
- Create boundaries and transitions. If you have the luxury of space, make your work space separate from your other living space. For non–time-sensitive communications, avoid weekends and late nights. Create rituals for weekends that are separate from those during the weekdays. Commit to others at the end of your workday, as it often will help you to honor your commitment to stop working. Establish transitions to your day – similar to the ones that were automatic when you worked in a conventional office. Build in breaks in your calendar to recharge, similar to the time you formerly spent commuting or taking breaks at the coffee station or water cooler. If you are able to go outside for breaks, that can help give you a fresh perspective.
- Listen and overcommunicate. These are very challenging times and the difficulties that people are facing vary tremendously. Listen to what people are experiencing and don’t presume that you know or understand or can resolve the issues they are going through. Overcommunicate your support, humility and empathy and be careful not to burden others to educate you in areas where you are less informed.
- Be responsive and accessible. Colleagues and clients who are unaccustomed to working with people remotely are anxious because they worry that if they can’t see you, you are not working. Ease up these concerns by promptly responding and confirming receipt of inquiries, even if it will take you time to identify an answer. This shifts the worry so that the sender knows you have received the request and you’ll be back in touch when you have a more complete response.
- Connect through informality and shared interests. Many people feel isolated, as if they are working in a vacuum. Reach out to colleagues and clients on non-substantive matters to connect informally and invest more in getting to know them as individuals. Through sharing interests and relating in broader contexts, it will help you feel more engaged in your work and the people with whom you’re working. When you have a scheduled call with a colleague or client, be sure to allocate time for casual conversation so that you can connect beyond the agenda items.
- Have fun and prioritize self-care. Be thoughtful about what makes you happy outside of work given the current constraints. Whether it’s socially distant socializing, hobbies, exercise, extra sleeping, reading, movies, community work, games, crafts, meditation, writing, outdoor activities, new skills or new projects, it’s important to know what brings you joy and what revives you. Prioritizing these outlets each day and each week is more important than ever as a means to not only recharge you but also differentiate your work contributions from the rest of your life.
- Invest in your communities. The pandemic has accelerated a lot of decisions and instincts that people have and don’t readily act upon in ordinary circumstances. Many people report having more clarity about who and what is important in their life. If you have gained this clarity, invest in the communities that you care about and that give you purpose. Volunteering to assist those in need is a way to give back and also can give you a greater sense of meaning and control at a time when many things feel out of control.
- Show compassion and adjust expectations. Happiness, at times, requires adjusted expectations. Being able to minimize your demands and show compassion for yourself and others can go a long way.
- Be flexible and agile. Being flexible in how you approach your work and life and being receptive to new ideas, is valuable in today’s work environment. By being creative and open to new practice areas and ways of working, your insights will be valued more and you will be able to make a greater impact with your contributions.
In sum, there are a lot of limits to working in a remote and hybrid environment, but there are also a lot of valuable lessons that we’ve all learned in working under different constraints. As we emerge and evolve into a new way of working, challenge yourself to take the most positive aspect of your work-at-home experience and commit to incorporating it into your future work mode. Even if the most positive experience needs to be modified in its future iteration, be sure you attempt to do so. Bridging the happiness gap from what you developed at home to what you establish going forward will be an important link to ensure you are a happier lawyer in the future.
Debbie Epstein Henry is an expert, consultant, best-selling author, and public speaker on careers, workplaces, women and law. She runs DEH Consulting, Speaking Writing where she consults and speaks internationally. Debbie conceived of Best Law Firms for Women, a benchmarking survey and competition she ran for a decade with Working Mother. She wrote two ABA best-selling books, Law & Reorder (author, 2010) and Finding Bliss (co-author, 2015). In 2011, Debbie co-founded Bliss Lawyers to employ lawyers to work in temporary roles for in-house and law firm clients. In 2020, her company was acquired by Axiom, the global leader in high-caliber, on-demand legal talent, and she now serves as their executive consultant. On October 14, 2020, Debbie will launch her new podcast, Inspiration Loves Company™. Debbie is Vice President of The Forum of Executive Women, a nomination-only, membership organization of the top 500 women in business in the Philadelphia region.