Staying engaged in a dispersed work environment—especially with the many disruptions of at-home work set-ups—is a challenge countless employees have faced in the past few months. Seeing that obstacle on the horizon, the Dallas office of international law firm Foley & Lardner LLP was both proactive and creative in its approach, launching a multi-faceted program that taps into virtual networks to promote engagement.
Michael Newman, managing partner of the Dallas office, says the company transitioned to work-from-home March 17. The Dallas office employs 200 people and, Newman says, it quickly became clear that “our close-knit law firm community was missing the daily office interactions that come from working in a large and busy law firm. As an extrovert myself, I was among those in need of some social interaction beyond the confines of my home.”
Newman conceived of the Virtual Engagement Task Force to tackle this challenge. He recruited event manager Mary Gall and adjusted her title to chief engagement officer, also bringing in executive assistant Haley Ramsay and firm partner Rachel O’Neil. Starting in early April, the group put together a proposed six-week program, based on projections on work-from-home protocols, of activities to be conducted via Skype.
They launched Fitness Friday in partnership with local fitness expert Doug Rice, who leads employees (virtually) though 30-minute boot-camp trainings. On top of the sessions, employees are asked to send “Fitness Selfies” to win prizes. On Mondays, the focus is on meditation, as wellness coach Melissa Marks offers guidance on staying focused during challenging times.
Teamwork has been a cornerstone of the project, as employees were encouraged to join self-selected teams to compete on weekly challenges.
“It goes without saying that people who choose to work at law firms have a strong competitive spirit, which showed throughout each week,” Newman says.
For instance, the Mystery Photo challenge had colleagues working together to identify baby photos of employees, while the Jeopardy challenge, hosted by Newman, included trivia about the organization, pop culture and even Newman himself.
On a virtual scavenger hunt, teams checked off to-dos like sending birthday notes to employees and sharing photos of family activities.
“The answers were so thoughtful and creative, so we had the office vote on their favorite answer sheet to determine the winner,” Newman says.
For a Pictionary challenge, organizers held a practice session to go over rules. “You could cut the virtual intensity with a knife—have you ever created Pictionary rules with lawyers?” Neman joked.
After each weekly challenge, employees were invited to a Happiness Hour each Thursday.
“We really wanted to encourage collaboration and creativity amongst our colleagues and knew that coming up with a series of challenges with various activities would tap into the teamwork we were hoping for,” Newman says.
Technology has been vital to the success of the program and, while there were some hiccups, the company’s IT department stepped up to provide assistance whenever needed, Newman says, and the chat feature built into Skype was effective at engaging and encouraging conversation.
Those aims have also been supported by a new weekly newsletter published by office administrator Tammy Cowser, which have featured everything from photos of the Blue Angels flying over employees’ houses to recipes and home-office photos.
“The photos have been so fun to see,” Newman says, “and have served as another touch point to engage with our colleagues.”
The office is aiming for a staggered re-entry to the office starting in early June. Until then, Fitness Fridays will continue, and the office plans to launch some “giving back” initiatives, particularly for employees who live alone.
“By continuing to connect with our colleagues, even at a distance, we, in many ways, feel like a closer-knit unit than we ever have,” Newman says. “We will have survived this and we’ve learned that we’re #StrongerTogether.”
Tapping into the company’s values has been key to creating a continuous employee experience, despite the disruption.
“Our culture is very collegial, competitive, collaborative and energetic,” he says. “All of those traits carried over working from home and will remain intact when we head back to the office.”