Regardless of the quality of your work product, how often you’re seen at the office impacts what your superiors and colleagues think of you. With technological advances constantly increasing connectivity, there’s a growing expectation that lawyers are available to work 24/7, with a decreased need to spend time in the office to do so. As early as 2010, an American Bar Association survey found that 71 percent of the respondents sometimes worked from hotels, cafés, their homes, and libraries. At that time, fewer than 1 percent said they never worked on site, however. Of course, during the pandemic, virtually all lawyers worked remotely most, if not all, of the time. And, now, whether or not lawyers must return to the office is a topic of hot debate.
Value of face time
Although you can work just about anywhere and anytime, for career advancement, don’t downplay the importance of face time. These concerns apply to lawyers who periodically work remotely with others in distant offices of a firm, as well as those who sometimes (or almost always) telecommute with a single office.
According to research by K. D. Elsbach, D. M. Cable, and J. W. Sherman reported in the June 19, 2012 MIT Sloan Management Review, employees who work remotely receive lower performance evaluations, smaller raises, and fewer promotions than their colleagues in the office. Even when in-office and remote employees are equally productive, their superiors tend to evaluate them differently because of variations in face time. Recently, some firms have tied Return To Office to associate bonuses and associates who resist in-office work may risk layoff in slower times.
Passive face time
The difference is passive face time – simply being seen at work – regardless of the quality or quantity of work. Elsbach and Cable describe two kinds of passive face time:
- Expected face time – being seen at work during normal business hours; and
- Extracurricular face time – being seen at work outside of normal business hours, such as arriving early, staying late, or coming in on weekends and holidays.
Just observing you at work, without any information about what you’re actually doing, leads people to think more highly of you. Expected face time leads to inferences of responsibility and dependability. Extracurricular face time sends the message that you’re committed and dedicated.
Some attorneys resent the push for face time, arguing that time spent at the office is strictly for show, as opposed to serving any real business purpose, when their value is quantified easily and objectively by their billable hours. That might make sense logically, but it isn’t realistic. You ignore face time at your peril, since the research also showed that inferences based on passive face time often are unintentional and unconscious. Superiors are less likely to be comfortable with employees they don’t actually see on a regular basis. In fact, they may become irritated with personnel they perceive aren’t available at all times, even if those workers indeed are available, albeit remotely. People in charge want to know their staff members are in the office just in case they’re needed. In addition, colleagues tend to resent those who are absent, even if they’re working equally hard, or more so. This is especially true when the business is in any kind of crisis.
Your presence reaffirms you’re part of the office community; thus your absence might mean falling out of the social loop and missing occasions to build relationships and network. You don’t want to be “out of sight, out of mind.” In tight economic times, lawyers who are perceived as being tangential to the organization are prime candidates for downsizing.
Career development impacts
Moreover, remote workers run the risk of missing valuable opportunities and information such as hallway conversations, brainstorming, chances for collaboration, impromptu help from colleagues, or special projects that present themselves in informal settings or office meetings. Often, when a partner has a choice of associates to assign to a matter, it goes to the first of those associates at hand. A heavyweight partner’s office is a locus for significant firm activity, and it behooves you to be nearby in order to gather career-enhancing assignments, as well as to watch, listen, and learn. You want to be around to share the moment of glory when news of an important victory comes in, and to see how crises are handled. You can gain critical insight just by being privy to complaints from staff, or overhearing a partner grumble about management issues. These unplanned tidbits can make a big difference in your career advancement.
Face time also facilitates more complete communication. This is especially important when receiving assignments or feedback. Sometimes voicemails, phone calls and, especially, emails are misleading. In-person communication provides additional information such as facial expression, gestures, body language, tone of voice, and the reactions of others who are present. The message is more complete and clear when all clues are available. Fuller and better information boosts your performance.
Perhaps more important for career development, your presence in the office demonstrates commitment to the organization and that work is a top priority. It shows you want to get ahead. Organizations rarely promote to partnership or other leadership roles people who aren’t seen and measured consistently. In addition to objective criteria, performance appraisals usually include subjective criteria such as whether you’re perceived as a team player and collaborator, or possess leadership skills. Those impressions may be affected by unconscious perceptions of your dedication, depending upon the amount of time you spend in the office. You can’t lead if you’re not there to set an example, supervise, and motivate others. Therefore, you must do your best to increase face time with lawyers in your home office and elsewhere, including those above, at peer-level, and below you in the pecking order. You need to interact personally to build up familiarity and trust.
Maximizing “virtual” face time
If you want to get ahead, you must maintain a high profile, which can be difficult when you’re not constantly face-to-face with the other lawyers on your team. You must communicate your value with every email and phone call. You can utilize “virtual” face time tactics to mitigate your absence from the office or the need to collaborate with far-flung colleagues in a global firm.
- Provide regular phone or e-mail status reports to all coworkers on your projects and matters. This is especially effective if they’re timed late in the evening and early in the morning, to emphasize that you’re working hard and billing long hours.
- Stay top of mind by making sure the powers who assign work and make advancement decisions at least read your name or hear your voice every day, even if they cannot see your face.
- Be extra visible when in the office, making a point to meet with colleagues and partners. At minimum, say hello and a few words about your current matters.
- When working remotely, answer your phone and respond to emails, texts, and voice messages just as quickly as you would if you were physically in the office.
Finally, make the most of high-tech connectivity. Use conference calls, web chats, video conferences, and screen-sharing/multi-user online applications to interact with your co-workers as much as possible. If you make it a habit to use technology regularly, whether you’re in or out of the office, on any given day no one will know if you’re just down the hall or halfway around the world. They just will think you’re working effectively.