Working from Home, eDiscovery, and How to Manage Remotely during COVID
Original questions written by Gillian Glass, Director of Legal Services, Farella Braun + Martel LLP, as part a collaboration for the ILTA Litigation and Practice Support Content Coordinating Team (CCT).
Questions answered by Danny Zambito, Executive Vice President of Global Legal Technologies KL Discovery.
Published earlier this week, some of the below questions were used as a base for a podcast discussion on Working from Home: Episode #3.
Listen to that podcast here!
Gillian Glass for ILTA: Tell me a bit about yourself and your background in eDiscovery.
Danny Zambito: So I think I started in eDiscovery the same way as most people do – accidentally. I started in August of 2002 at our CEO’s first company, On-Site Sourcing. At that time, we were one of the largest copy & scan shops on the east coast and one of the first adopters of “eDiscovery” (we had our own proprietary processing/conversion tool going back to the late nineties). I was basically an entry-level biller at that time spending most of my day plugging numbers in spreadsheets with my earphones on. Not too long after joining, I started to lead our customer service team in addition to billing. About a year after joining, we got this huge scanning job – hundreds of boxes each day – for an Asbestos matter. We had more boxes than we knew what do with and I got a battlefield promotion to “project manager” to coordinate the logistics and execution of this massive scan job. I created a pretty simple method for organizing the materials and soon thereafter had a very effective system for spreading the boxes between our various scan facilities across 6 cities). From that point, I never looked back from project management. I eventually started managing eDiscovery cases at On-site, became the Director of Project Management, and then left On-Site to join Chris at his new company, LDiscovery, in August of 2008. I was the very first project manager LDiscovery ever hired. At that time, we were a very small group…most people shared cubicles, I think my office had Styrofoam walls…we were definitely the “little guy”. But we were a team…and we built a great company brick-by-brick, job-by-job, and have grown to be 1,200 employees strong and one of the largest global providers of eDiscovery and related technologies. And here I am today.
ILTA: Can we talk about the basics about the folks you manage: where are they physically located, how many locations, how many work remotely 95%+ of the time?
Danny Zambito: I manage hundreds of employees globally across KLD’s 43 offices in 20 different countries. Of the employees in the groups I am responsible for, I probably have more people working remotely at any one point in time than I have reporting to an office. Even for the team members who “report” to an office, many of them work from home at least twice a week.
ILTA: Are your employees exempt/nonexempt? What are their schedules like? Do people clock in/clock out?
Danny Zambito: We have a blend, with more exempt than non-exempt. Non-exempt employees do clock in & out via our online systems. Schedules really vary based on role and job function. For example – project managers probably have the most fluid schedules and don’t follow a strict “9-5”…they work around the schedules of their clients and projects. Technical support analysts, billers, and others that do not have personal accountability for a matter tend to work more on a structured schedule. Aside from making sure fundamental boxes are checked off (such as adequate coverage, redundancy of staffing, etc.). where possible, we place a greater focus more on results and have had great success. .
ILTA: Is there a standard tech setup? How do you handle ergonomics issues? Who pays?
Danny Zambito: Absolutely – as a baseline, everyone gets a laptop, 2 monitors, docking station, and an IP Phone. If equipment is needed to satisfy a documented accessibility concern or medical need, then we absolutely provide that; otherwise, we address it on a case-by-case basis. With a remote work force, I’ve found that people set up their home offices to be as comfortable and productive for them as possible. That’s also a topic we cover with prospective remote employees – what their “home office” set-up looks like.
ILTA: Give me some tips for managing productivity. How do you communicate expectations? Is remote working a perk you’ve withdrawn based on performance issues?
Danny Zambito: Another great principle I’ve learned from our CEO is to “Trust and Verify. You should trust that your people are going to get their work done and put appropriate controls in place to verify that they are. Neglecting or going too-far with one-or-the-other will cause problems (You must always check productivity, but if you are too rigid, people will feel that you don’t trust them and will, in turn, not trust you – not good!). You have to balance it out and every employee has a unique personality and style to account for.
As far as communicating expectations, that is the same whether you are remote or in-office. We hold everyone to the same standards regardless of their work environment. The only thing that is different – and this really only applies to new employees OR existing employees who are new to working remotely – is being very candid about what it means to work from home. What I mean by that is being clear nothing changes based on their working environment – we still expect them to <insert job description here>. Likewise, we are going to trust them to be professional and dutiful and we expect them to honor that trust. What I have found is that if you have good hiring practices, have good selection criteria, and run a solid organization with a strong corporate culture, the risk of someone trying to “game” the system is dramatically reduced. At KLD, we’ve been very progressive about working remotely, going back to the early days of the company. In the 12 years I’ve been with the company, there has been exactly one time where I felt like a remote employee was taking advantage of the flexibility afforded to them. In that scenario, we acted very swiftly and appropriately.
We hire and staff good people, we trust them to do their jobs w/o management needing to lurk over their shoulders, and we have good controls in place to measure work product. It’s a good formula for success.
Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators, and that team cohesion can suffer in remote work arrangements. How do keep your work product cohesive and unified? Develop a culture of innovation and sharing ideas? Do people ever wander off on their own tracks and if so, how do you get them back? Any tension between remote/on prem workers? Any examples of exceptional helpfulness?
First, I think it’s important to change the way we define “a room”. With appropriate guidance, putting people in a room and giving them a whiteboard can be very productive. But by using simple tools like SharePoint & Teams, you can virtually recreate that same type of environment and see good results. I will also say that you still need to set some time for people to come together face-to-face periodically, but this is really just the “how”, which in my opinion, is easiest to solve and the least important. You need to focus on the “why” and the “what”. What I mean by that is your organizations culture is going to dictate far more about how productive people can be than where they work or what tools they have.
If your culture fosters creativity, vigilance, teamwork, and communication as we do at KLD, the “how” becomes secondary….creativity & productivity simply finds a way. Likewise, if your culture stifles creativity and only promotes change “from the top”, I don’t care where your people work or how big of a white board you give them – they won’t be nearly as motivated to give you great ideas and, even if they did, your organization won’t know what to do with them.
You have to genuinely encourage creativity and then actually act on it when you get good ideas. If you do that, you go from 1 or 2 people at the top driving innovation to the hundreds or thousands throughout the entire organization. Engagement goes through the roof, regardless of how dispersed your workforce is.
Getting to the what, you do have to be careful that people don’t go down any rabbit holes. It’s OK to wander a little bit (I always tell my teams that collaboration is a “safe place” – I don’t care how many bad ideas you float out, I only care about the good ones that we ultimately operationalize), but you need to keep people centered. Having a great culture and a unifying common purpose helps prevent people from going off track too much (and when they do, if you have a good culture, you can nudge them back on track with absolutely zero negative consequences).
ILTA: How do you make sure your remote employees have a good work/life balance?
Danny Zambito: That’s a great question. For those who don’t work much remotely or don’t manage a remote work force, the natural inclination is to think that you will have to closely manage people to make sure they are meeting our minimum productivity standards. In some scenarios, that is definitely the case. What I actually find more common – and this is particularly true for project managers – is it becomes very easy to work longer hours when you’re remote versus when you report to the office. Look at it like this – your laptop is always there and accessible….it becomes almost as ubiquitous as the mobile device in your pocket. If you aren’t disciplined, you can find yourself tied to it practically 24X7. The good news is you can be productive and still have set some boundaries using certain techniques, such as:
- Establishing a routine – This is probably the most important. Just because you don’t commute into the office doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a daily routine. You should get up at the same time every day, go through a morning ritual (workout, coffee, breakfast, shower, etc.). basically get yourself to the same point as if you would get in your car, but instead of driving, you walk to your laptop. The routine shouldn’t just be for getting the day started, but it should be throughout the day. Give yourself small breaks to get up and walk around. Set a time to eat dinner (with the laptop aside). If your job is one which requires a high amount of connectivity, set times when you need to routinely check it and stick to it.
- Get yourself dressed – As simple as this sounds, it’s important to highlight. It’s just too easy to just get up & start working. It doesn’t have to be a 3 piece suit by any means, but forcing yourself to put on appropriate clothes helps you stick to your routine. It also creates a physiological separation between when you are “on” and when you are “off”. How does the old saying go…”If you look good, you feel good”. Don’t work all day in your pajamas!!
- Stay Active – Beyond exercising, it’s important to get up and make yourself active throughout the day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a “blink and you miss it” 4 hour span of my day disappear. When you report to the office, you find yourself naturally being a bit more active than you would at home (walking to/from breakroom, lunch, restroom, conference rooms, etc.) Personally, I’m a pacer. If you are on a conference call with me, I can guarantee you that I going to be standing or pacing. I rarely sit at my desk while on the phone. This forces me to get up and move around several times throughout the day. Likewise, it’s OK to take 5-10 minutes and go for a brisk walk outside (having a dog will give you a built in excuse). However you do it, just make a concerted effort to not be sedentary for long stretches of time.
- Give yourself your work “space” if you can. Everyone’s living arrangements are different and many simply may not have the luxury of a home office. Wherever you set up camp, have it be a quiet place away from distraction as much as possible.
- Establish Boundaries – This is a high-touch 24X7 business and minutes feels like hours when you have a client or colleague in urgent need of assistance. That doesn’t mean you can’t set some simple boundaries. Absent extenuating circumstances (where “minutes count”), you can put your phone down and eat dinner with your family, read a book to your kid before going to bed, have a cup of coffee with your significant other, etc. This is not an industry where you can slide down the dinosaurs back at 5:00 and clock out to the next day. But you can give yourself those “sacred times” to focus on yourself or your family AND still maintain a high level of responsiveness to the people that depend on you.
- Focus on “Flow” versus “Balance” – I read about this concept years ago and it completely changed the way I look at things. Balance indicates equality and that is simply not achievable in this industry. If you strive for flow, which simply means there will be a natural “give and take”, it becomes easier to manage. I preach this to every prospective employee, especially those who may be new to the industry. There will be times when the company is going to need you to sacrifice your time and we need to count on you to come through in those moments. Likewise, there will be times when you need to focus on yourself or your family. That’s OK too. We operate in a team-based environment and have a tremendous amount of resources in place to provide cover. As long as you don’t simply “go dark” and instead work with your team to get cover in place, everything will work out. The “I watch your back if you watch mine” concept is very effective.
ILTA: How do you train your folks to support their clients remotely? What have you learned managing remote workers that you can share with them supporting far flung case teams, contract attorneys, etc.?
Danny Zambito: For starters, the dynamics of good customer service never change regardless of where you are physically located. We have some fantastic training materials that we provide to everyone outlining basic service expectations.
Aside from that, communication and connectivity is absolutely key. If your clients are geographically or functionally dispersed, you need to assume that you will have to work that much harder to “connect the dots” and communicate. At KLD, we have a concept called “chasing your tail”, which basically means you have to assume that nobody is informed until you take the initiative and inform them. And even then, you have to assume that nothing is done until you verifyit is done. You need to constantly circle back with everyone involved in a particular project, process, or request and constantly communicate until the job is done. That concept applies internally and externally. It’s no surprise that our most effective people are usually our best communicators.
Lastly, I would say being humble enough to know your limits is very important. If you are working on a massive second request, you are going to need help. If you have a case team spread across multiple countries and time-zones, don’t try to “Superman” it. Knowing when you can put a customer, project, or task on your own shoulders versus when you need to team up is critical. Trying to do too much, but failing, isn’t admirable. Know your limits.
ILTA: What tasks can’t be done from home? Is there special help you need on prem if everyone is dispersed?
Danny Zambito: There will always be jobs that can’t go fully remote. For example – At KLD, we need a constant office presence at our operations hubs to ship & receive media, handle evidence, and provide local IT support. Document review facilities (at least before the CoVID-19 threat) were almost exclusively 100% “in-office” work. Accounting and finance needs someone local to receive checks and process paper bills we receive in the mail. There are other odd & ends, but the reality is, at least as a vendor, you can never be 100% remote.
ILTA: What have you tried that hasn’t worked as expected?
Danny Zambito: That’s a tough one. I can’t say we’ve never had a failed experiment, but we legitimately have had a great track record as it relates to remote work.
ILTA: Any tips for those of us doing rapid, unplanned moves to managing remote workers due to coronavirus?
Danny Zambito: First of all, stay calm. This is an industry, that at least for the short term, can largely continue on “business as usual” even with large remote work forces AND even if travel or supply chains get disrupted for a period of time. We all know how to do our jobs, we just need to continue doing them. As an industry, we can endure and bounce back (indeed, when things do bounce back, I would assume we would see a surge of business).
Second, if you, or someone you are responsible for, is not used to working from home, just ask the very plain question of “what do I/you need to do my/your job?”. And whatever you/they need, you make sure they have one-way-or-another. For example, our billing is largely an in-office team. Many had laptops, but they rarely worked from home. They spend a lot of time in spreadsheets and our accounting systems and can’t work effectively on a small laptop screen. No problem – we let them take their docking stations & monitors home. Our collections folks need good connectivity to our phone systems (and may receive inbound calls at the office). Also no problem. We have a virtual phone interface on our laptops that can let you make and receive calls from your laptop as if you were using your physical phone. At the end of the day, you will find it generally comes down to some very basic needs that people have and with a little ingenuity, you can address them all. That said, it is important to address them all – give your workforce what they need!
Next, and this is critical - leaders need to lead! Many of you will be facing their own personal fears & anxieties about what this pandemic will mean for all of us, but, as a leader, your teams are looking up to you for guidance and reassurance….your organization is counting on you! Touch base with your teams regularly, have daily huddles with your team, connect with individuals on your team personally (and this doesn’t necessarily mean a scheduled 1X1 in a virtual conference room…just check in on people and ask how they are doing (and mean it!). The extent which the company (meaning you as a leader) GENUINIELY cares for its/your employees is the extent to which they will care for your customers and each other. Set the example.
Stay connected and visible. With collaboration tools like Teams, there’s no excuse to not stay connected to one another. Daily huddles, video calls, ongoing chats – they are all great vehicles to simulate what you would otherwise have at the office. For leadership, this is even more important. For example – Our CEO, Chris Weiler, is doing a daily video for all employees just updating them on the business. All managers should be visible to their employees at all times.
Be flexible and know we will all have to adapt. The CoVID-19 pandemic is going to impact how we operate for some time. That’s OK as long as we are all flexible and adapt. With mass closures of daycare & school systems, anyone with children now has to figure out how to care for them while working full time jobs. You may have to adapt your work hours, schedule shifts with family, etc. But just know that the changes we will need to make will be broader than just “working from home”.
Lastly, the number one thing I would say is “do your jobs”. Shutting down and staying glued to the news isn’t going to help anyone and certainly won’t get your job done….just keep “chopping wood”.
ILTA: What have you learned about management / leadership from managing a dispersed workforce?
Danny Zambito: This is true for anyone (regardless of where they work), but it seems more magnified when people are remote and isolated: Everyone is a “VIP” – Very Individual Person. Nobody wants to be a number and everyone has a unique situation and personality. Give people personal attention whenever you can, be flexible to peoples work/personal lives as much as possible (especially knowing how invasive working in eDiscovery can be!), and don’t underestimate the value of face-time. CoVID-19 aside, it’s important to plan time for your remote employees to meet face-to-face. Use company events & training as good reasons. If you have clusters of remote employees in a particular geography, coordinate lunches/dinners/happy hours/etc. Rotate remote employees through company offices with some regularity. Those are all great opportunities for your teams to meet their colleagues face-to-face, break bread together, and build personal relationships. Your people are the engine that keeps the machine moving – do everything you can to keep them happy!
ILTA thanks both Gillian and Danny for their time and remote-work advice! #COVID-19