Senior in-house lawyers logged into Microsoft Teams on 1 October to discuss the implications of coronavirus on legal teams. Tuning in from different parts of the world – including The Hague, Brazil and Finland – the discussion centred around the effects the pandemic is having on in-house legal teams and how companies will deal with the aftermath of the pandemic.

Facilitated by three Travers Smith partners, this roundtable session – part of The Lawyer’s revamped General Counsel Strategy Summit – worked through a case study built on Travers’ work with in-house peers to navigate the myriad of complex issues that have arisen over the past six months.

The case study centred around compliance with established coronavirus policies, “speak up” grievances and how companies have managed their workforces within the restrictions they have set themselves and was designed to elicit responses from delegates around the key issues.

One delegate emphasised the importance of a multi-pronged approach and that it was necessary to look at any scenario from different perspectives.  She says: “You have a complaint/grievance, which you have to respond to. There needs to be an environment which protects employees from health and safety risks.

“The rules have to be enforced or senior staff have to look at them to make sure they are practical. There are also issue around culture – this is the new normal and what does that mean? We have to adapt. This impacts the company’s culture and socialisation of people.”

Another delegate was more worried about the deeper cultural issues within a company that can be highlighted by non-compliance with coronavirus protocols. She said these cultural issues can be highlighted by the way a complainant has approached the situation and the fact that he needed to go down the whistleblowing route.

One of the delegates looked at the practical steps they would take to address a complaint. He said that a privileged call with the chief executive, general counsel and external lawyers would be the best way to address an issue raised in this way. “The health and safety stuff would scare me the most,” he says.

All the delegates agreed that they would not force any complainant to come into work if they had raised an issue with coronavirus compliance given the associated health and safety issues. One of the delegates noted that, if there are serious and immediate dangers, someone doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be asked to come in. However, they added that if a business is following the coronavirus guidelines it has set and those guidelines are compliant with government guidance, “it is hard to not tell someone to come in.”

Looking at their own companies, the delegates discussed their return to work plans. One of the delegates, who is a senior lawyer at a leading bank, stated that they were gearing up to go back to the office in bigger numbers, but this has since pivoted due to the Prime Minister’s recent announcements. She stated that no one is being forced to come back unless there is a business or wellbeing need.

Another delegate stated that their company has stopped business travel and they have some staff living in Europe for part of their time – so part of her function requires her to ensure these members of staff self-isolate after travelling.

She added that her company has issued a new protocol in the staff handbook, that makes it a requirement to self-isolate after travelling and it would be treated as a gross dismissal type incident if staff were not self-isolating as they should be.

One of the delegates says: “From a financial services company, which is office-based work, we will be working this way for many more months, possibly for a year. Employers will want staff to come in, but employees will be saying they can work effectively form home and they are not happy travelling on the tube. That could be the big thing for next year. Is there a storm coming?

“This is something we have started looking at from the employee flexibility point of view. Certainly, in the past, it has been easy to say to staff that we don’t have the IT or infrastructure to work from home in such a way, but that argument has fallen away. We have introduced a formal flexible working policy that sets very clear guidelines right upfront, otherwise, HR will be bombarded with flexible working queries.”

Sponsor’s comment: Jon Reddington, Partner, Travers Smith

Travers Smith has been hosting roundtable sessions at The Lawyer GC Strategy Summit for some years and we always find it incredibly interesting and useful to talk with senior in-house lawyers about the wide variety of issues they face in their everyday roles and to discuss the steps that they take to overcome them.

Although the ongoing pandemic resulted in this year’s Summit being delivered virtually, I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to chair our session, accompanied by Travers Smith Operational Regulatory Partner, Doug Bryden, and Employment Partner, Ed Mills, and to work through our case study with delegates and gather the insight of so many impressive in-house experts.

Our sessions showed that, although there was a wide variety in the types of organisations our roundtable participants represented, very often the issues that they have faced and are facing as a result of Covid are similar; businesses are continually having to navigate their way through a constantly changing landscape presenting a variety of practical and legal challenges.

At Travers Smith, after an initial period of helping clients deal with urgent liquidity issues or contractual problems, over the summer we have assisted clients to set up Covid-safe workplaces. We continue to advise them on keeping those workplaces safe as case numbers begin to rise again, and on managing potential outbreaks at work.

Whistleblowing reports and health and safety complaints are on the increase, and we have been working with clients to help them investigate and address these issues, including where necessary flexing their processes to fit the remote working environment.

The need for more remote working has required businesses to adapt in a number of ways, and we have advised both on the health and safety implications of remote working (including for employees’ mental health) as well as wider considerations such as employees wishing to work remotely on a permanent basis, sometimes from abroad.