By Timo Matthias Spitzer, LL.M. (Wellington) and Cedric Liesens
Leading a team through the coronavirus crisis
The global COVID-19 crisis is shaking life as we know it right down to its foundations. It has left the relative stability and predictability of the past far behind and will accompany us into a “new normal” for our personal and professional lives. The actions of leaders significantly determine the destiny of their teams and, probably, of their own careers. The present state of emergency requires both effective management and leadership to complement one another. Management should address urgent needs, with fast-paced decision-making and resource allocation. Leadership, on the other hand, should guide the team to the best possible outcome, anticipating obstacles, whilst building up a state of preparation for what is yet to come.
Due to the coronavirus, teams have been physically torn apart, confined to their homes, sometimes across borders. Team members have needed to quickly adapt to remote working, without the usual human interaction, where context and subtext often were equally as important as the spoken word. A team leader should acknowledge this additional hurdle in communication and appreciate that his or her colleagues are human beings with their individual ideas, emotions and insecurities. A leader has to be approachable and listen to all team members, making sure they feel that they have been fully heard. To gain the trust of a team, the leader should be candid and available, and provide the team with timely information and support, reducing potential speculations, suspicions and professional fears. A leader makes sure that the team members not only know but also genuinely feel that we are all in this crisis together, rowing in the same direction.
Working from home without friction
Technological advances enable many of us to work from home. If handled well, remote working can boost employees’ morale by enabling us to save personal time otherwise lost during the usual daily commute. Employees should be empowered to structure workdays to optimize productivity and efficiency. Remote-working sometimes can help teams to better balance domestic and family needs by not having to be in the office during specified hours.
Where physical contact enables the spread of the coronavirus, remote-working often is a practical necessity to keep employees safe and in controlled spaces. By practising social-distancing and by leaving home only for the most significant reasons, we can easily support the real heroes in the health and food supply sector who are fighting on the front line. But working from home leads to a key challenge: how to strike the right balance between office and personal life, now that they are both concentrated in the same space. To avoid friction, all members of a team should, of course, continue to communicate clearly with one another. Equally important, everyone should try to adhere to an availability schedule. Often this means that we need to temper the feeling that we need to be available and online at any and all times. Nonetheless, if things come up regularly that require us to log on outside of our agreed schedules, working hours should be adjusted accordingly.
The elimination of time spent commuting and in office chatter gives people working from home more time to get the work done whilst also attending to domestic needs. At the same time, remote working might induce loneliness. Personal errands or activities should be viewed as breaks throughout the day to keep employees balanced and less prone to burn-out and depression. When working from home, it is imperative that leaders show trust in their team members and continuously express real appreciation and gratitude for their hard work.
Staying on top of relevant legal changes
German legislators promptly reacted to the current crisis by enacting, inter alia, the Law to Mitigate the Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Civil, Insolvency and Criminal Procedure Law. As always, legal teams must stay on top of developments to understand the impact of legislation on business. For example, they should be able to explain in practical terms how to interpret the temporary suspension of the obligation to file for insolvency upon an event of default or a breach of representation.
The new situation also brings contractual “boilerplate” clauses like force majeure to the forefront. These clauses, which previously were rarely negotiated, are now under heavy scrutiny. Whether a party can be excused under a contract for a failure to perform or a delay in performance due to COVID-19 depends on the drafting of the relevant clause, on the specific facts of the underlying situation and on the applicable governing law. Additionally, Material Adverse Change (MAC) clauses addressing COVID-19 are emerging.
Continuing to network with relevant stakeholders
Corporate counsels ideally are ambassadorial networkers and public spokespersons for their organisations. In times of enforced social distancing, the classic form of physical networking with external stakeholders has temporarily come to a halt and has needed to evolve to a virtual level. A continued interaction through telecommunication with peers increases mutual respect and understanding, and also prepares the community to emerge stronger together.
When colleagues are not physically together in an office space, tele-networking with internal stakeholders is equally important. In-house lawyers should be proactive and should ensure that they remain trusted advisors to the business, whose counsel is sought on many levels. The legal team should be a commercial partner whilst maintaining its guardian function. Legal teams must lead by example by advising pragmatically on applicable legal and commercial rules, strongly abiding by ethics and employee values such as honesty, fairness and transparency.
Preparing for the “new normal” of work after the crisis
Leadership means preparing corporations for the “new normal” of work. As the crisis is still raging in large parts of the world and a resurgence of the virus is lurking behind the corner, it is uncertain what the “new normal” will look like. A return to the life we had before the crisis seems highly unlikely. Since office life came to a standstill, employees have proven that remote working functions better than some managers may have anticipated. Most of us are experiencing how practicable working from home can be. COVID-19, as painful as it is, can be a real driver for innovation and digitalisation in corporations. Leaders should come to the conclusion that offering team members the choice to work either fully or to a large extent from home is a great way to motivate employees and also to protect those colleagues who have already returned to the office physically. Corporations might become even more cost-efficient when remote working is more widespread and accepted after the crisis subsides, as office spaces can be transformed to more flexible co-working spaces, thereby facilitating internal networking.
Corporations should embrace technological innovation, enabling employees to be more agile. Throughout this pandemic, employees have shown that that are highly resilient. They protect and advance the interests of their companies whilst at the same time dealing with personal matters, creating tomorrow through actions taken today. This crisis can function as a real turning point in the evolution of a healthy work-life balance, especially when managers learn to appreciate that the way forward often begins at home.