Strengthening supervision skills in the time of COVID-19.
November 17, 2020
Seven months ago, COVID-19 upended our lives and brought with it a cascade of personal and professional changes. Many of us found ourselves working from home, and this switch to remote work quickly presented a host of challenges. Many struggled to balance work demands while supporting their families. Others realized they didn’t have spaces at home to dedicate to work or proper equipment to do their work effectively. Some needed to be trained on new software.
In the wake of the pandemic, many supervisory staff in legal services and equal justice organizations quickly realized their organizations did not have policies to accommodate working from home. Yet now more than ever, strong and effective advocacy is needed. Communities most impacted by the COVID-19 crisis need comprehensive relief that moves us toward long overdue systemic change. Disrupted by the pandemic, legal aid and equal justice advocates need effective ways to stay in contact with coworkers, effectively manage, and support their clients.
In adjusting to these realities, supervisors should be mindful of the three roles they fulfill in the supervisory relationship—to provide support, to educate, and to ensure quality and effectiveness—and work to strengthen their effectiveness in each role. Effective supervisors can help their remote workers face numerous challenges, including individual and collective trauma; social isolation; distractions at home; privacy issues; shifting standards of professionalism; technological challenges; and staff not feeling supported.
Regular check-ins with individuals and teams can be an important strategy to support remote workers. These meetings should be conducted at a frequency that works for both parties. Consider posing three questions during check-ins:
The answers to these questions and ensuing discussion give supervisors a window into how their supervisees are coping, and how to help them accomplish their goals. It’s also an opportunity to reinforce the importance of the work and to sustain motivation.
Continuing to provide education and professional development to staff working remotely is critical. Advocates need support to manage remote court hearings and meetings with legislators. Staying connected with clients and communities members has become even more difficult. Look for coaching opportunities on how to work remotely more effectively, and redistribute job responsibilities as necessary. Determine your team members’ immediate needs—for example, to learn new software, run a meeting remotely, or deliver a presentation in a virtual environment—and help them find courses or workshops they can take to address these needs. Identify people in your organization who have these skills and ask them to mentor their coworkers.
To ensure quality work from remote workers, have honest conversations about performance expectations and find ways to respond to the ever-shifting landscape around client needs. Allow for flexible schedules; create contingency plans for prolonged absences; use shared calendars; revise expectations in light of court closures, moratoriums and new or emerging client needs; and prepare for revised funder deliverables. Devise a plan together that addresses these multiple considerations.
Managers should also take a look at their supervisory ecosystem—organizational policies and practices, funding deliverables, staff demographics, and more—and consider changes to better accommodate and support remote workers. Consider issues of difference, equity, and inclusion as you update the ecosystem. For example, acknowledge that not all staff have space for a dedicated home office, adequate computer equipment, or high-speed Internet. Workers should be encouraged and supported to do their best to create a space that is ergonomic and conducive to staying focused, challenging as that might be.
No matter what steps supervisors take, open and effective communication is critical, whether it involves internal issues such as potential layoffs or pay cuts, or external issues such as client projects. Take frequent “temperature checks” of your staff to find out how people are feeling and identify concerns before they become crises. Agree on which technology tools to use for which types of communication. For example, use email for non-urgent messages; use Slack or text messaging when you need a quick response.
Although supervising remote workers can be challenging, many tried and true strategies for effective supervision can help. The Shriver Center’s Supervising for Quality and Impact training helps legal advocates continue to make change within their communities, by nurturing leadership, supporting diversity and inclusion, and rewarding innovation and hard work. Learn more.
Rasheedah Phillips contributed to this post.