Remote Work Strategies in Public Defense

Like many of you, I am suddenly working remotely a large portion of the time. I didn’t choose it and I don’t much like it. I’m on zoom instead of in court, on zoom instead of at live staff meetings, on zoom instead of brainstorming cases in the halls with colleagues. It’s hard to keep any home/life boundaries for my time or in my house.

Luckily, many people who are more skilled and experienced in remote work have flooded my inbox with suggestions and webinar invites. Now I can be on zoom learning how to be on zoom. Perfect.

It’s actually pretty helpful. The suggestions below are compiled from several articles and webinars I have found particularly helpful. Please comment with your feedback and suggestions as we navigate remote work together.

Strategies for remote team management

  1. Goal: build trust and commitment to shared mission.
  2. Tie everything to mission/vision.
  3. Use mission/vision to prioritize.
  4. Communicate about expectations: communication channels, platform, core work hours, and response times.
  5. Be an inclusive leader—watch for people who become disengaged; make people feel included, feel useful, feel needed, feel valued; develop processes for everyone to be heard; set expectations (ex: show face in meetings). Create opportunities for all voices to be heard. Acknowledge contributions (across job categories, large and small).
  6. Accept that there are new challenges to building trust and rapport. Model good communication (respectful, not interrupting); address problematic communication in team members directly and promptly.
  7. Communicate with curiosity (about new schedules, family/circumstances). Spend more time asking and learning, because we’re not psychic and we don’t know if we don’t ask.
  8. Create a variety of communication channels, some for more informal interaction that is lost in passing the halls, talking at the water cooler, etc. Break down social distance. Examples: start the meeting with sharing on a topic or showing a photo with a specific prompt, schedule virtual coffee break or virtual happy hour.
  9. Asynchronistic v synchronistic tools. Choose the right tool: updates vs. brainstorms. Save meetings for brainstorms and collaboration, not “updates” that can be sent out consistently.
  10. Sufficient communication will feel like over-communication: narration of goals, status, how each action ties to mission/vision.
  11. Model self-care: use schedule/routine, take breaks, build community. Be willing to say: these are my non-work hours so only send urgent communications and I can’t have a meeting during that time because I’m going for a run.
  12. Be transparent about (some) obstacles and vulnerability. (The dog might bark, the baby might wake up, the task did not get completed for __ reason, I have __ individual challenge/circumstance right now.)
  13. Reach out often for 1:1 check in (5-15 min) and to offer support: How are you? How are you feeling about your work this week? What are you excited/apprehensive about? Is there anything you need? What are you finding the most challenging? How can we help?
  14. Develop channels for honest feedback: what could we be doing better right now?

Challenges for Managers

  1. Be very clear about tasks, timelines and what is “success.”
  2. Be deliberate in choices and priorities: Only make promises you can keep, keep promises, be transparent about changes and updates.
  3. Remote management is very taxing to managers. It requires very frequent, consistent and clear communication. Agile teams have frequent updates, check-ins (task management, do you have what you need?), follow up and follow through on projects and timelines.
  4. Find the right shared document tool and project management tool: slack, basecamp, etc. Using email only becomes very unwieldy. Communicate clearly about expectations and tools to use.
  5. Avoid “micromanaging.” Focus on impact, results, benchmarks and project timelines, not things like time tracking.
  6. Make sure that work feels evenly distributed across teams.
  7. Signs of trouble: negative communication, side conversation, excessive jokes/sarcasm, drift from topic/mission, expressions of distrust of accuracy/reliability/transparency/commitment to values.
  8. Silence = red flag. Management responsibility to determine if conflict, task-related, disengaged.
  9. Group maturation cycle: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing.

Logistics of Remote Meetings

  1. Designate a timekeeper and a note-taker.
  2. Have a note-taker to distribute summary after meeting. Have a clear system to distribute notes and document decision making.
  3. Have the right people at each meeting, so people don’t feel their time is wasted.
  4. Set an agenda, send it out in advance, use it.
  5. Empower people to suggest agenda topics.
  6. Be clear about what is an update and what is a collaborative discussion.
  7. Be consistent with meeting times, establish and commit to a schedule, keep to time limits, avoid last minute changes.
  8. Prep with presenters, so they are clear on topic, time limits, and have content prepared to share efficiently.
  9. Ensure that everyone is visible: helps with community, connection, eye-contact, less interrupting. (Set expectation that no once cares about the laundry in the background.)
  10. Have clear expectations around muting and background noise.
  11. Keep the team focused: built clear expectations to avoid side conversations.

Systemic: Tools and Training needs

  1. Infrastructure: high-speed internet, microphone, camera.
  2. Training in platforms and technology.
  3. Assistance with work spaces, ergonomic set ups.

Individual Challenges

  1. Establishing work/home boundaries: space, time.
  2. Negotiate shared spaces in household: work hours, noise,
  3. Manage communications: phone forward, out of office message tools, hours for normal and urgent communications.
  4. Maintain a routine-“coming to work” time in the morning.
  5. Separate spaces/tasks—can you close a door or clear a workspace at “quitting time.”

Strategies for everyone

  1. Assume good intentions of others—misperception/miscommunication is easy without in person time.
  2. Approach communications with more curiosity than judgment.
  3. Address challenges/misunderstanding as early as possible.

COVID-19 Specific Challenges

  1. Adjust productivity expectations. Stress/anxiety/circumstance has real impact on productivity and engagement right now. It is a constant distraction.
  2. Check-ins with people.

Comment with your feedback and suggestions for effective remote work as a public defender.




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