We at BarkerGilmore sincerely hope you, your family, and your team are well despite the health crisis upon us. After speaking with many General Counsel across the country this past week, we have gained a clear understanding and appreciation for the tireless efforts and pragmatic decisions being made to keep employees safe and businesses moving forward. Below is a summary of these conversations, offering up best practices, lessons learned, and direct insights on how these unprecedented times have impacted the legal and business communities.
I began every conversation with a “noise caveat” to excuse the inevitable sounds of my 9-year-old and sub-2 year- old in the background, so a hearty “thank you” to those who found the time – while dealing firsthand with the specific issues discussed below – to talk with me to shed light on what’s going on inside their business and how we can all be best prepared to move forward.
What is the General Counsel doing, or what should they be doing?
It should come as no surprise that every single GC reiterated staying on top of regulatory changes and guidance. Though like drinking from a firehose, this is so critical for keeping your workforce up to date and feeling like the company knows what it’s doing. It is also particularly important because of constant media coverage. So many people are grabbing onto tweets and social media posts regarding closures, benefits, and personal freedom to move about and interpreting that information in their own way. Stay up to date on what affects your business and disseminate this information to your workforce. If you have managers reacting based on soundbites, there is a good chance they are missing a core component of what their obligations are, leading to more risk. Work closely with your compliance team and government affairs team to ensure operations conform to any new, and existing, standards. Establish an emergency response team at a very high level within the organization and set a cadence on a daily basis to review the current status of events, assess planned decisions, and make sure everyone still feels confident that those actions are the right ones to take. Make sure the executive team is on the same page and, more importantly, communicate the same message across the workforce regardless of business unit and level. Ensure every leader has the tools and knowledge to communicate a consistent message in a way that is relevant and makes sense for their team. Cascade communication plans work wonderfully here.
Another commonality is labor and employment policies and regulations, along with employee benefits. This includes how you approach time away/time off, layoffs or furloughs, FMLA, HIPAA/PII/PHI, union issues, work from home policies, workplace safety, and more. You need to know what your policies are and how they are implemented. Explore implications associated with alternative ways to address the possibility of quick and massive workforce changes, such as excused leave for vulnerable employee populations as that term is defined by the CDC, exploration of how to implement employee welfare benefit plan changes to comply with ERISA and DOL regulations, workers compensation, and unemployment insurance to name a few. You also need to be aware and prepared if any or all of your workforce is exempt from any lockdown or stay-at-home precautions. Provide a letter to those exempt employees for not only their own comfort but for their safety as well. If they are stopped by law enforcement on the way to or from work, they will have this note that identifies their name and employer and their exemption. Think about the effects on the workforce in the mid-range term and not just short term. Consider the potential of exposure in the workplace leading to increased workers compensation claims. Explore opportunities to leverage your relationships with organized labor leaders and government agencies to manage these issues directly and influence policy decisions.
Many GCs expressed that they felt well prepared from a business continuity standpoint, but that their pandemic preparedness was basically non-existent (except in the case of a few healthcare GCs who have lived through this before with the last SARS and H1N1 outbreaks). “It can’t happen here” is no longer true. Preparation for any emergency is recognizing you never have as much time as you think you do to plan and prepare. Everyone wishes they had twice as much time to move to a work from home environment. One organization discovered that their phone tree had only about 50% accuracy. This was an important discovery because many of the associates don’t have a work email address and thus there was no way to contact them outside of business hours. For those sitting within a decentralized organization, make sure your business continuity plans support this structure. Put a decentralized component into an otherwise centralized business continuity plan if your business is fragmented.
What do you see as your most important role during this time, on a personal level?
Being a thoughtful and effective communicator is at the top of what General Counsel currently deem their most important role. GCs are doing their best to keep their teams and businesses calm, rational, and “expediently deliberate.” You want to be thoughtful, but you also need to move fast, planning for short-term implications as well as for the long term. Be a compassionate leader. Be cognizant of those on your team who need extra support. Now is the time to show empathy and offer flexibility. When you have a team of great lawyers who never want to stop working and want to be A++, redefine what A++ looks like. Right now, A++ is about achieving balance, ensuring you are not burning yourself out, and simply managing the best you can. Make sure the actions you take today are actions your associates will remember in a positive way so when we come out of this, we come out in a more competitive position.
How has your daily life changed?
All GCs commented that their daily life has morphed into primarily COVID-19 incident response: reacting to crises, constantly changing rules, making sure communications happen on time, and all the things mentioned above. With organizations working entirely from home, it challenges you to reevaluate the most effective communication strategies, from written emails to meeting management to ensure everyone is still getting the information they need, understanding what to do with it, and feeling they are a respected part of the team. Ensure you are not losing touch with anyone. While it is easy to stay in constant communication with those who are most heavily immersed, remember every member of your team deserves regular touchpoints. Make a point to fit in one-on-one time, even if it is an informal check-in. And remember, while you and your direct reports may be underwater, there are likely others within the workforce who aren’t. Make time to identify half-utilized departments whose team members are captive to their laptops and take advantage of this. Use this unique opportunity to accelerate trainings and initiatives that were scheduled for later in the year. One GC amped up their internal compliance program and enabled employees who have bandwidth to complete the trainings while working from home. When we come back to work, it’s likely no one will have an appetite for these things; check the box now so you don’t have to worry about it later.
You may find yourself spending more time talking to your international affiliates. If you are not already, start. For GCs of international companies who have a presence in places like Italy, France, and China, you can collect data on how each of those countries has fought their fight. Stay ahead of this as best you can. Do not forget to leverage your network. Pick up the phone and talk to GCs across industries; ask what they are doing and share what you’re doing. Different industries manifest things differently. You are likely to gain several unique perspectives and help your colleagues out while doing so.
You will remember my 9- and 2-year-old warning at the beginning. To no surprise, those I spoke with were working under the same not-so-ideal conditions and one GC even raised me a large breed puppy to add to his child-conducted symphony. And yet we all arrived at the same conclusion when discussing how daily life has changed; if nothing more, this crisis has afforded us an incredibly rare opportunity to get to know our families better. Further, it shows that no matter where we are sitting, we are all experiencing and acclimating to our own version of this new normal and there is something comforting in the acknowledgement that we’re all in this together.
While many companies are currently facing enormous economic challenges as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, we are aware that those in certain industries are forging ahead and continuing to hire based on the unprecedented demands of the marketplace. We at BarkerGilmore are attentive to each of our client’s business culture and leadership needs, and we pride ourselves on being able to provide the highest standard of service. To partner with us for an executive search or to learn more about our coaching and mentoring services for legal counsel, contact our team today.