Smokeball’s former President, and current CRO, Jane Oxley, shares her perspective about the culture of a business in the United States and Australia.

I work for a software company called Smokeball that makes cloud software for law firms. Smokeball is busy right now with a lot of communication being directed to our client base and to the market at large, around best practices for working remotely, and importantly, engaging staff remotely. Because how much can you really get done if your staff aren’t engaged, right?

When it comes to engaging staff remotely, I have been thinking about writing something practical, a “use these productivity and collaboration tools” piece, to help law firms feeling stuck to get off the starting blocks. However, when it comes to putting it down on paper, I have been struggling to make the fundamental points I want to. I keep stumbling into an uncomfortable truth.

The truth right now, in my opinion. The truth about working well remotely, engaging your staff, keeping everyone on task and accountable, motivated and positive? Well, and you may not be able to handle this (sorry), it’s not something you can fix today with a simple download. That’s because it is really all about the days, weeks, and years leading up to this event. The values you as a leader or leadership team have instilled in your people over these months and years, the rituals you and your teams know inside out.

Smokeball is proudly a values-based company. I know some leaders I interact with quietly think that our focus on culture is nice, feel-good, but fluffy. Not something with tangible benefits to the bottom line. There are more important things to focus on being the underlying theme.

But, boy, is culture showing its muscle now. The businesses who transitioned the most easily to working remotely, they had some cloud software, sure. But many of them did not have perfect software. What they did have was strong company culture, and they hustled! Their team pulled together, they figured it out, and they were working together, albeit in new quarters, within days.

They already had company rituals that gave their team direction and comfort: daily huddles, staff stand-ups, 1-1 meetings to keep everyone on track. Cultures that focused on outcomes not hours, that celebrated their big wins, and importantly, their little wins. They already had transparency and trust, the room to communicate together on the fun stuff during the day, not just the substantive stuff. They often had staff working flexible hours and from home, at least some of the time.

Most importantly, their teams had values that were lived by, not a list of empty statements on a wall. These values have directed their actions, giving them guidance on the right thing to do, the right way to act in a myriad of situations – including when their manager isn’t looking over their shoulder.

None of these things can be replicated by software. Software can make it far easier, sure. Practice management software keeps you productive, on task, and gets the bills out faster. Ensures you don’t overdraw the trust account. Internal chat tools, like Communicate, built into Smokeball’s practice management software for our law firm clients, or Slack, a stand-alone tool, make it easier to communicate with your team. Video conferencing like Zoom helps you maintain face time with your clients and your team.

What can you do now if you feel you have not built the company culture you need to help you through this time? Well, it is never too late. Make it a priority. I would start with a handful of actionable behaviors rather than lofty values. For reference, here are Smokeball’s values and associated behaviors.

list of smokeball's core values and behaviours

This took us years to perfect. I would not try and do this in a week! Find a handful that speak to you, that represent your personal values, then start to entrench them into your business.

How?

Talk about them, all the time! Have team huddles (short meetings) every morning or every afternoon and, as often as possible, call out employees, and get your team to call out co-workers, who have demonstrated these behaviors. If you haven’t “huddled” before, huddles are a great way to ensure your team is working on the most important things, and that any roadblocks they’re facing get removed. A simple structure is to, with everyone on the call, go around each team member and ask them to report any key numbers they are responsible for, their “what’s up” which is the one most important thing they’ve done or are doing that day, and any roadblocks. Roadblocks being anything that is stopping them from moving forward, whether they are stuck on a case, or with their internet at home.

You will need to encourage your team to call each other out for good deeds big and small. As a leader, give them prompts “how about you tell everyone how Suzie calmed that stressed client down so well?” Remember that this is a new muscle for your team and you need to exercise it until this becomes an automatic behavior.

Send an email from leadership every week with a wrap up of who has demonstrated these behaviors, and the situations in which they did it. Show your team what good looks like! Everyone loves positive feedback, positive reinforcement, and getting your whole team on the bus to recognize each other can only result in higher output and more staff engagement.

At Smokeball, we use Slack and have a channel (an internal chat group accessible to the whole business) called “People Love” where teammates recognize each other. We have posts on this channel every single day.

What rituals do you have already? They could be anything, a monthly birthday celebration, a Friday night happy hour. Find ways to keep these rituals alive, even if everyone has to bring their own cake to the call!

When it comes to the technology side of things, ensure you have your matter information in one place, so everyone is singing from the same song sheet, and so you have visibility into the progress of your matters. The easiest way to accomplish this is with an end-to-end practice management software like Smokeball.

Give your team easy ways to communicate. It is critical to have your team on the same page right now to get work done effectively. Also, it is a stressful time on many fronts! Your team needs to connect to blow off steam. Instant chat and video conferencing like Slack, Smokeball’s Communicate, and Zoom are great tools for this.

But it is culture that comes first in my book, that creates the foundation for these software tools to help. If I were to lay my bets on the companies to have most success during these difficult times, I would place my money on the companies with truly great cultures. Because culture is strength, not fluff.