When most firms shifted to remote in March, it was all-hands on deck. Leaders rallied to maintain the health and safety of team members, respond to clients, support staff questions, and shift work to meet changing deadlines. Now, firm leaders and team members realize that remote is here to stay and their “next better” will include a blended environment with team members working in the office and remotely. In this new, seemingly permanent way of operating, questions about what we can count on from each other need to be answered.
To be successful in our new blended environment, clear expectations are a must. Expectations about the firm’s “non-negotiables,” such as quality, profitability, client experience and teamwork need to be defined. The more specific you are in defining these and any desired results or outcomes you expect, the more successful your partners and team members will be in achieving them. We also need to specify expectations related to team member availability and accessibility, transparency about when each person is working, and expected response times whether working remotely or in the office. Getting crystal clear on expectations will create trust and confidence in what we can expect and allow for true collaboration no matter where team members are working.
To define expectations, consider these definitions and examples for availability/accessibility and responsiveness:
- Communicating Availability/Accessibility – simply put, we need to know when (availability) and where we can find each other and how to reach each other (accessibility). Some firms put “core hours,” in place and then define them as 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., which are more like traditional “office hours.” Those don’t work for everyone. Inn today’s business climate, we may have team members who are doing “shift work” to balance working full time work, sharing child and school responsibility with a significant other, and managing other responsibilities. Instead, you’ll need to establish one-size-fits-one expectations and be crystal clear about what is needed on both sides – from the team member and the firm.
Agree up front what deliverables, client commitments and other responsibilities are required, and any specific expectations for availability to meet or collaborate with the team or client(s). Then, choose the appropriate tools or modes of communication so others can see when you are accessible to them. Use your Outlook calendar to indicate “available hours,” including any personal meetings and if and how you can be reached. Keeping shared calendars current is a must to create confidence in team members’ and partners’ ability to reach each other when needed. Clients, too, appreciate this transparency by using tools such as Microsoft Outlook’s Bookings links so they can schedule meetings with us. Consider using Teams or other collaboration tools to indicate your status, including signaling your availability, when away, or in a meeting. Agree on “break though” technologies, such as text, when it is an urgent matter and other modes of communication aren’t working or outside agreed upon business hours – but use these sparingly!
- Transparency and trust are required by each person about when they will be working and when they’re not, so we don’t leave others guessing or feeling they’re alone to solve client or team member problems or requests. We also need to have trust that our colleagues have the best intentions for our team and each other, our clients, and firm. This is a two-way street, too, and some of us that work more in the office and work very little remotely can also benefit from these practices to build trust and transparency so others know when and where they can find you, too.
- Agreeing on Expected Response Times – most of us would say we should reply to clients and team members in a “timely” fashion; however, each of us probably has a slightly different definition of what timely means. This often leads to disappointment and even frustration. So instead, agree on expected response times. A general expectation is to respond to emails or voicemails within one business day (to both clients and internal team members). The response may be simply acknowledging the receipt of the email or voicemail and committing to address the request in the future.
Better yet, when making requests or assignments, whether “live” or in email, include a by-when you would like a response or the deliverable to be completed and returned. This will alleviate the conflict that often occurs where the delegator expects the deliverable “as soon as possible” (code for in the next hour) and the recipient of delegation will get to it when they can (code for seeing where it fits based on priority, who is requesting it, and how they feel about the work). When we are explicit in our expectations for response times, we will reduce the conflicts that arise when we perceive a lack of responsiveness by others.
Your firm’s leadership team can ensure a more harmonious and collaborative blended environment by defining expectations for communicating availability, accessibility and responsiveness. Then, service lines and departments can establish specific expectations to fit your peak periods, client work, and workflows. But be careful not to create a culture of haves and have nots: those in one department who have flexibility and transparency in when and where they work and those who don’t have it.
Creating these expectations and guidelines then allows you to tailor them in a one-size-fits-one approach to accommodate the needs of the individual, team, and clients. Your goal is to make your blended work environment a win-win-win for all involved. Consider these simple do’s and don’ts to help you on your journey towards a firm of accessible and responsive team members:
- Over-communicate and communicate updates/status often
- Use the right mode of communication
- Strive to learn and honor others' preferences
- Always keep your calendar current
- Check people’s calendar for availability
- Schedule time with your colleagues – ask for the time you need
- Document expectations/write recaps
- Be afraid to share your true circumstances – speak up if something doesn’t work
- Expect your colleagues to be “on” all the time
- Be vague about when you need things, or make everything seem urgent
- Assume you know why someone isn’t getting back to you – ask instead
- Ignore the communication systems in place (calendars, Teams status, etc.)
What can you do to better define expectations around accessibility/availability and responsiveness? How can you create more transparency about your accessibility/availably and response times? We’d love to hear strategies you’ve employed for yourself to create more transparent, workable collaborations with your team members – please post a comment and share!
We took a survey of our department of 27, asking about the different methods of technology they use, under which circumstances, and when they expect a response given the method (Microsoft Teams Chat, Channel, email, a post on our workflow tool, etc.). We took these survey responses and created general ranges so that we could provide a guide to everyone to centralize our expectations for each other. We didn't seek to mandate anything, just to summarize what people are already doing and then recommend the mid-range we can all get on board with.
That is an excellent idea, K.C., thank you for sharing it! It can hopefully open a dialogue to learn more about the people they're working with, whether at a start of an engagement, on a project, or those we work closest with to learn their preferences. Thanks again for sharing!