On a brisk February morning in 2020, I schlepped my suitcase from my car to the train platform in Champaign, Illinois. The frost scrapings still clung to my windshield as they wouldn’t meet their fate of the morning sun for another hour. Three busy days in Chicago awaited me, filled with talks of innovation, engaging with new friends, and catching up with colleagues from around the country at the Women of Legal Tech Summit and the ABA TECHSHOW.
While we had already begun making plans to work remotely, I couldn’t have comprehended that this was going to be my last train trip to the office for the year. A growing news story about a faraway virus was about to change everything for everyone.
We all anticipated the complications of working from home, as organizations around the world were forced to pivot to remote offices amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It was far more than just bringing your laptop home and figuring out how to Zoom. Many people grappled with the disruption of their professional and personal lives. Nevertheless, we adapted to how we must operate while continuing to integrate new and improved tools to boost our efficiency while working remotely.
Data Supports Increased Productivity
Prodoscore, a productivity intelligence software company, surveyed 30,000 U.S.-based workers from May to August 2020. They found that the productivity and efficiencies of remote work increased by 5% compared to 2019, challenging the assumptions of lost performance.
Coincidentally, the same study found employees were working fewer hours, starting their day later (9:20 a.m. in May-August vs. 8:32 a.m. in March and April) and ending earlier (5 p.m. vs. 5:38 p.m.). So, are we just ditching our commutes and improving our time management skills, or is the shift caused by the fatigue and burnout of additional stressors?
Businesses, and industries, frankly, are still determining where to go from here. Some who have never offered remote work are now embracing it, planning to combine remote and in-office work in the future. While others have even gone to a permanent philosophy of working remotely.
Regardless of where you and your organization land, I want to share some tools that I’ve implemented or have seen others use over the past year to boost efficiency while working remotely. Note that while I might mention a specific vendor, I do not endorse any particular product or service, and always encourage you to explore which best fits your needs.
1. Get a Project Management Tool
Talk to 10 people who use project management tools and you’ll likely find 10 different answers about how their tool is the best. But is what’s best for them best for you? I’m doubtful.
Instead of thinking of project management tools – such as Asana, Monday, or Basecamp – as task managers or even visualization tools, think about how a tool could help you manage your work. What tasks do you do on a regular basis that need organizing and tracking? How could a tool help your team collaborate to manage projects? What integrations are available (at an extra cost or included?) with other essential tools you use such as Outlook or Dropbox?
You’ll likely find several contenders, so don’t be afraid to try one with the caveat that you could still pivot to another. As you settle on a tool that works best for your needs, your measurement of value will come more from your team’s outputs than from antiquated evaluations of time spent.
Collaboration and tracking will transform into habits, focusing efforts on completing productive work. Wasteful multitasking will transform into streamlined, structured tasks and goals, pushing your organization’s service to a whole new level.
The possibilities were always there, you’ve just never used technology to harness them.
2. Get an Instant Messenger Service
In a previous blog post, I shared nine ways to improve email communication within your organization, with your clients, and with outside stakeholders. However, sometimes composing an email isn’t the most efficient way to get a quick response from an intended recipient.
Think of it this way: if your entire team was working in the same room, would you draft an email to say something to Nancy or Fred, who are within earshot? An instant messaging service – such as Slack or Teams – allows for quick, efficient information-sharing and even problem-solving.
Nevertheless, be mindful of the extent to which you utilize the tools in instant messaging services. While they can boost your efficiency while working remotely, IT consultants have joked that Teams is the newest operating system because you can do everything in it. With cybersecurity issues in mind, use instant messaging services for what they are: an enhancement of communication, not a replacement.
3. Get a Writing Assistant Tool
I know, I know, you’re already saying, “But Mark, doesn’t Word check my grammar and spelling, and Outlook check my emails before they’re sent?” Yes, but writing assistant tools like Grammarly do it better and can also be used across platforms. For example, a Grammarly browser plugin can check the spelling in your social media posts on Twitter or Facebook.
Grammarly can do a lot more too. In addition to spotting mistakes in spelling and basic grammar, it can highlight potential errors in style and language best practices. For those wanting a deeper dive into your writing metrics, you can determine the readability score of a draft to better craft your message to the appropriate audience. So, whether it’s a blog for your firm’s website or an appellate brief, your work can consider its audience.
Once you make a writing assistant tool a routine component of your writings, it’s like having a copy editor on staff.
4. Get a Password Manager
First, get a password manager, such as LastPass or 1Password. Then, activate all available two-factor authentication (2FA).
If you learn nothing else from this post, promise me your next stop will be to turn on 2FA or multi-factor authentication everywhere you can, e.g., your bank, Google, Dropbox, Amazon, PayPal, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. It’s better than the best password.
Now that that’s done, get a password manager app that can be used on all your devices. I know a single password for all my accounts: it’s the password to my password manager. It’s more of a sentence than a word and would take a computer about 25 septillion years (that’s 25 with 24 zeros) to hack.
My password manager is my encrypted digital vault that stores secure login information and other form fill-in information so I can access apps and accounts across my computer and mobile devices.
As I create new accounts online, it generates strong, unique passwords for me, never using the same password twice. Now, if one site gets hacked, my stolen password can’t be used on other sites. And even if they did get my password somehow, I’ve added that extra layer of security with 2FA.
5. Get a Time Management App
Now we’ve come to your most valuable and limited resource: time.
If you’ve listened to any of my advice, you already have your computer and phone dinging and buzzing at you with project task reminders and instant messages with silly emojis. What was I thinking, right!? Time to take back control of your time.
One popular time-management practice is the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique forces you to monotask, focusing on one task at a time without outside distractions, so you can break tasks into small goals and get more done. With the Pomodoro Technique, you’re not actually controlling your time, as time is a constant, rather how you apply your work to your time.
There are various apps to help you do just that, such as Forest, which gamifies your focused time to grow a tree. If you stay on track for 25 minutes, you’ve grown a tree and earn a 5-minute break. If you stray from the task, it dies, and you must start again.
Similarly, the Bear Focus Timer features Tom, the friendly bear who quickly becomes less friendly with a growl should you pick up your phone before your focused time is up.
These time management tools can help you break unproductive habits such as checking your inbox upon the arrival of every email, a tremendously inefficient method of multitasking. By working in sprints and breaks, whether writing a report or cleaning the kitchen, you may find your to-do list shrinking faster and your personal time more enjoyable.
You Do You
Regardless of how you utilize my suggestions to boost efficiency while working remotely, remember to personalize the tools and methods based on what works for you. Don’t equate being busy with being productive (having high output) or being efficient (improved output-to-time ratio).
If you’re just spinning your wheels, you’ve got to pivot to what works for you, your team, and your organization. That’s where you must allocate time to evaluate your processes, through data when possible, and to measure the effectiveness of your tools.
You’ve got this!
Want to learn more? We will be discussing how to use technology to boost efficiency in your practice at our virtual The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference. Register today and join us April 27-29! CLE is available.