By Mary Talley, Senior Court Analyst
In recent years, teleworking has become an increasingly popular trend. Organizations are shrinking office space and dramatically reducing rent budgets. While there will always be jobs that cannot be done remotely – retail work, positions that require direct customer contact, etc. – most are candidates for some degree of telework. But is the position of court clerk a good candidate? I believe the answer is YES (with some parameters, which I’ll discuss in this blog).
A Traditional Environment Doesn’t Have to Be Inflexible
At the start of my career with the courts approximately 20 years ago, I worked in the assignment section of a clerk’s office. There was no opportunity to telework at that time. I was there for five years before accepting my current position as a court planning consultant. I now telework full-time when I am not out visiting courthouses. Since leaving the clerk’s office, teleworking and space reduction have become a prime focus for many organizations, even in some court jurisdictions. Given my experience working in a courthouse and now as a court planning consultant who teleworks, I’m able to consider this issue from several different angles. In this blog, I’ll discuss how certain job functions in a courthouse are well-suited for telework, and how working in a courthouse prepared me for teleworking. I’ll also make some suggestions for court managers looking to transition employees to telework.
Some people may think that there is no way work typically done in a courthouse can be completed from a home office. A courthouse just seems too traditional. A judge, for instance, could not have a remote video hearing from his or her home while wearing fuzzy bunny slippers. I would argue that this is not the case. Telework CAN be successful in a court environment by striking an appropriate balance between time in the office and time out of the office. And with advances in video technology, there are many functions that were traditionally done in person that are now carried out very successfully from remote locations. I’ve visited many courthouses where remote hearings, usually for minor matters, have become commonplace – and who’s to say that the judges aren’t wearing cozy slippers after all?
Why the Clerk’s Office is Well Suited for Telework
I’m not going to tackle the issue of judges and telework in this blog. However, there are certain positions within the clerk’s office that are well suited for telework. Any position in the clerk’s office that does not directly support a judge or that is at the intake counter could be eligible for telework, at least part of the time. In my clerk’s office position, I was in the back answering phones, scheduling cases, and sending out notices. I could have easily done this from home with the right technology.
The very nature of most clerk’s office work requires little collaboration. In my experience, each clerk takes care of his or her own piece of the puzzle. If I had to discuss a case, it was usually with someone from another department and the collaboration was done over the phone. In fact, because I could not leave my phone unattended, I rarely left my desk at all.
I also found that very few materials were required, which makes many positions within the clerk’s office highly conducive to telework. For my job, I needed a computer, telephone, printer, paper, and envelopes. Occasionally, I would need to pull a file to look at paper documents. But in the current age of electronic filing, this is rarely needed.
Another factor that makes teleworking for court clerks even more appealing is the lack of distraction in a remote office. When I work, I like to put my head down and just get my work done. This was especially important when I was working on tedious or repetitive tasks that can be typical in a clerk’s office. At the time, I was in a small area with other people around me and it was sometimes impossible to get my work done because of all the distractions. Coworkers were constantly stopping by to talk (and only sometimes was it work-related) and the noise from other areas of the office was constant. Once I started teleworking, I was amazed at how much more I could get done in the same amount of time without all the distractions.
How Working in a Courthouse Prepared Me for Telework
When I moved on to my current position as a court planning consultant, I quickly realized that certain ways of doing business in a courthouse prepared me for teleworking. For example, maintaining a routine schedule is very important in the courthouse. Our office was open to the public from 9:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. five days a week. I started my workday at 8:30 a.m. to tie up loose ends from the previous workday and to get ready to process the filings that would come across my desk that day. Now that I telework, maintaining a routine schedule is also very important. I need to be available during core business hours to accommodate the court clients that I work with. Just because I telework, I can’t decide, “Hey, I think I am going to start my day at 11 a.m. today.” I need to be available when our clients need me, and that is during their business hours.
Self-directed work habits are also crucial when working for the courts. As a clerk, once I knew my priorities for the day, it was up to me to create the structure to complete that work and to stay on top of the cases. Nobody was looking over my shoulder to direct my workflow. This is exactly how it is in a home office environment. I am assigned deliverables and I need to figure out what needs to be done to complete the assignment by the due date. If you can’t do this, there is no way you can survive as a teleworker.
Finally, when you work in a courthouse, the ability to drown out outside distractions and get your job done is critical. Clearly, there are many distractions in a court environment: the public wandering around the building, sometimes lost; coworkers talking about last night’s game; people getting married down the hall and posing by the fountain outside of your office’s window. You get the point. You need to be able to put your head down and get your work done, regardless of what is happening around you. For as many distractions as there are in the courthouse, there are even more in a home office. The television, UPS delivery guy, your dog. If you are unable to limit the distractions, you will be less likely to succeed as a teleworker.
Recommendations for the Court Teleworker
I’d like to offer several recommendations to help court employees be successful as a teleworker. My first recommendation is that if you spend time on the phone doing court work, you need to work in a private setting. You cannot be at Starbucks taking a phone call from a litigant. Even though many court records are public, court cases deal with sensitive information and it is simply not appropriate as a court employee to discuss a case in a public setting.
Along those lines, if you have to work with paper documents, you should save those tasks for days in the office rather than taking files home. I’m not an attorney, but I can imagine that taking case files out of a secure courthouse environment could cause a whole slew of legal issues. Luckily, many filings are now electronic, so the need to work with actual paper documents is less of an issue.
You also need to stay very organized and have specific places for maintaining your papers, notices, and other related documents. It’s also important to keep personal papers separate from work papers. As a court clerk employee, I needed to make sure every hearing notice I handled got to the mail room to be delivered to the attorneys and litigants. Can you imagine if someone were to miss their trial because their hearing notice got lost under a personal stack of papers in someone’s home office?
Finally, identifying an appropriate ratio of days in the courthouse to days in the home office is important. Most court teleworkers will need some time in the office each week to deliver notices to the mail room and to pull files. An appropriate ratio will depend on the job requirements and even the individual worker.
Not every position in the courthouse is conducive to telework, but some seem ripe for it. I believe my five years working in a clerk’s office provided an excellent training ground for me to become a successful teleworker. If you’re on the fence about whether teleworking may be right for your office, it may be time to give it a trial run!
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