Immigration Practice News

October 2013 (Vol. 5, No. 1)

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How to Effectively Manage Your Staff Remotely by Ruby L. Powers N ecessity is the mother of invention, so said Plato. Little did I know I would be running my immigration law firm remotely between my new home in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and my Houston, Texas office for 14 months and getting a crash course in managing staff remotely. Remote working arrangements, such as telecommuting and telework, are becoming more of a norm. As of 2012, 3 million people in the U.S. workforce (not including self-employed or unpaid volunteers) consider home their primary place of work.  Based on current trends, it is estimated that regular telecommuters will total four million by 2016. For employers and employees there are several benefits to telecommuting, these include affordable cost of labor and expertise, an expanded talent pool, boost in employee morale, reduction of carbon footprint, and an improvement in work-life balance. Despite these benefits, disadvantages such as distrust from employers and disconnectedness from employees can pose a major problem in managing remotely. The perception that people who are working from home are not working as hard as they should be can further fuel the disconnectedness between both parties. Creating a detailed work-plan and micro-managing employees initially is one way to build and maintain productive working relationships. Before I relocated halfway around the world, I found it necessary to compile a list of employees and contractors to help me run and grow my immigration practice. I found that some skills and services were more convenient to outsource such as phone answering, marketing, search engine optimization, blog and article writing, website development and maintenance, accounting and payroll, certain paralegal work, and brief writing.  In addition, I realized that different types of arrangements could be made depending on the project, service and the level of expertise needed. For example, basic and repetitive tasks such as data entry, scheduling, and answering phones can be easier to manage remotely and do not require as much upfront training, investment of resources, and management. Additionally, a combination of skilled expertise and cost management lends itself to a good arrangement for remote work with services such as accounting, website design, and search engine optimization.  Lastly, I learned that complex, firm-specific tasks can be accomplished remotely when staff and employer have had previous successful experience working together and the employer is able to delegate complicated tasks and communicate effectively. Trust is a key element to any remote work relationship and like traditional settings, trust does not automatically exist but must be developed over time. Here are my rules of managing remotely: 1. Be flexible in the beginning when the relationship and trust are being established.   2. Set clear goals, guidelines and deadlines. These metrics can be used to determine if this arrangement and the staff member are working out effectively. 3. Over-communicate, especially in the beginning stages.  Whatever communication was needed in a traditional setting, you must communicate over and beyond in a remote setting because of the lack of non-verbal communication and a tendency for miscommunication to occur. 4. Have an "open-door policy." Being available to talk helps establish trust and connectedness even though it also be time-consuming and draining. 5. Periodic "check-ins" to gauge progress, ability to work remotely, and quality of work. Just like an employer could pop in an employee's office for a chat or status update, periodic check-ins help establish if the arrangement is productive and viable. 6. Regularly evaluate if the remote work arrangement is the best practice for the firm. Sometimes, the reasons for working remotely no longer exist and there is no need to continue in such a manner.  Over time, it might become apparent that productivity levels decrease and or it could be more efficient to hire in-house and relinquish the remote setup. However, I would suggest that you try the remote working arrangement for a minimum of two weeks before you decide to end it. Ruby L. Powers of the Law Office of Ruby L. Powers, P.C., located in Houston, Texas. She has spoken at several AILA conferences on management. Her law firm practices all areas of immigration law with a focus on family-based immigration and waivers of inadmissibility. She is on the AILA Practice Management committee and Texas Chapter DMV Liaison. 4

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