The lockdown prevents us from having physical meetings and consultations. However, postponing requests for advice is not always an option. What is the best way of digitally handling an advisory procedure as a Works Council or Director (‘Bestuurder’)?
In various organisations that we support, the complex requests for advice have been postponed or delayed. These procedures require trust and the ability to talk to each other. And that is not easy to establish digitally.
However, the lockdown is taking much longer than anyone could have foreseen. Further postponement is not possible in certain cases. Reorganisations have to go ahead now. Divestments and cut-backs have to take place now. How do you handle this? We have set out some tips and points of interest.
from ‘request for advice’ to ‘advice’
Under ‘normal’ conditions, the advisory process goes through a number of steps, from the Director’s request for advice to the Works Council’s final advice. Some steps are laid down in the Works Councils Act (WOR) (Dutch). Other steps stem from case law. And some of the other steps are recommended for careful completion of the process.
We know that after the request for advice has been submitted with the proposed decision of the management board, the Works Council should be able to examine the request for advice. After that, the request for advice requires at least one consultation meeting between the Works Council and the Director. The Works Council can then issue a piece of advice, and the Director will respond to it with an implementing decision (‘what will I do with the advice of the Works Council?’).
In practice, this often means there are several meetings. The parties will send each other letters/emails containing information, answers to questions and documents. The series of consultations and exchanges lead to the Works Council’s advice and sometimes even to the adjustment of the opinion of the board of directors.
advisory process without COVID-19: consultations with confidence
The entire advisory process consists of very diverse consultation moments: consultation in the working group, consultation in the management (team), consultation between the ‘Bestuurder’ and the Works Council, and various consultations within the Works Council team.
the purpose of consultation
The purpose of all these consultations is to understand the subject, understand each other and make decisions together. Much of the basis of understanding and making decisions has to do with trust. Trusting each other and trusting the subject matter knowledge and the research that is being done.
trust makes it quick and easy
Very simple: if there is much confidence, a decision will be taken quickly. This makes the way from problem to solution relatively easy.
no trust? more facts and more consultation
If there is any doubt, and therefore no trust, there is only one solution: to unearth more facts and convince (each other) using those facts. Another way is to apply debating techniques and, without additional facts, try to convince the other party with words.
But in practice, debate often proves unsuccessful. Even worse, usually when a Director uses these techniques/tactics, the sense of distrust increases (even further). Just as I’ve often noticed that debating does not work, but equal discussion does, during Works Council meetings.
from ‘facts’ back to ‘trust’
When people increasingly use (collected) facts, there is a great chance that more and more attention will be paid to the ‘official procedure’: the WOR (Works Council Act) and related case law. There is a high risk of a ’tis-tisn’t’ argument because, in the context of rendering facts (documents, excel lists, financial information, agreements), this could lead to a discussion about how the facts should be read or interpreted. And before you know it, lawyers are telling you who is right (according to the lawyers). In short, before you know it, you are caught up in legal proceedings or even a court case.
It is better (but by no means easier) to go back to basics: where is the trust lacking, and how can we get this problem solved?
the difference between digital and physical meetings
People are social beings. We need more than just hearing the words and seeing people. It seems as though we need to be able to ‘smell’ each other, feel each other’s energy and emotions, or at least be exposed to all the nuances of the non-verbal messages that the other person does not verbalise, but conveys in other ways.
During an advisory process meeting, there will always be someone (e.g., the Director) who says: “Yes, that’s what I am going to do.” If you want to be very precise, you need loads of pages to describe what everyone takes those words to mean. What do you mean by ‘yes’? What does ‘that’s what’ mean? How should we interpret ‘going to do’?
But if the one who says “Yes, that’s what I am going to do” is sitting right across from you, there’s a chance (maybe even a big chance) that you are immediately convinced that that person is actually going to do it the way you like it. Call it intuition, call it ‘smelling’, call it trust. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but you’re convinced. And on that basis, you will continue your discussions or negotiations.
During digital meetings, you miss a lot of these nuances of mutual communication. It does not give you a ‘feel’ for the room. You cannot rely on your intuition. In those cases, you go looking for ‘the next best thing’: you start gathering facts and evidence.
The better you knew each other before the digital encounters, the less you suffer from this problem. If you have never met physically before, this can become a problem very early on.
the consultation process during COVID-19: conduct many frequent meetings
While we deal with the pandemic, we depend on digital meetings and consultations. There is no alternative. This will have to do. And in some cases, postponing (large) requests for advice until we are allowed to meet physically again is no real option. How do you handle this?
After having facilitated several advisory processes during the pandemic, we have two basic conclusions:
- conduct more meetings, and keep them short
- ensure clear (and fast) documentation of the facts and what has been discussed/agreed
Due to the larger number of facts and the recording of them, there is a risk that conclusions are drawn more quickly, and are not always correct. We, therefore, recommend that you have more (short) meetings, where you get together to gain a clear view of the value of and the relationships between the facts. This is to avoid misunderstandings and assumptions.
What also plays a (sometimes large) role in the difference between digital and physical meetings is that the Works Council is a group of employees with no one actually in charge. However, the Works Council must make a joint decision, which all Works Council members must agree with (or at least willingly accept the decision of the majority of the Works Council).
All the obstacles mentioned in this article between the Works Council group and the Director/management team can also apply within the Works Council group.
8 practical tips
- make sure the facts that are included in the request for advice (with justification and arguments) are present
- plan consultation times (for Work Council members among themselves and between the Work Council and the Director) in rapid succession and plan them several weeks ahead
- ensure that the report concept is readily available, ensuring (fast) agreement by all those present
- answer questions and counter questions immediately
- not only share final documents (request for advice, reports, research, Works Council advice), but also (and perhaps even especially) the concepts as soon as they are ready
- prevent information gaps (ensure everyone has the same information)
- involve all stakeholders in all steps (consultations, emails, documents), such as research agencies, specific managers with content expertise, experience experts and Works Council experts
- try to arrange an actual physical meeting with (some of) the Works Council members, especially at the most critical moments
Despite these recommendations, there is still a significant risk that misunderstandings may arise, and people do not (correctly) understand each other. This is evident from the emotional outbursts that often occur, usually at the end of the advisory process during the digital consultation. In other cases, when implementing the decision, misunderstandings can happen when things don’t go the way people thought they were agreed.
Can you postpone a large or essential request for advice?
If so, we recommend that you do. Waiting for a time when you can meet in person increases the chance that everyone understands the final decision, that everyone can explain the decision and that everyone can also implement the decision carefully and adequately.
Is it not possible to postpone this request?
When making digital decisions, make sure that you can clearly explain the facts to the other parties without misunderstandings. Conduct many (short) digital meetings of 30–60-minutes in at least weekly rotations.
Note: Please note that we are a Dutch organisation and that all our information is originally composed in Dutch. For the benefit of our English-speaking customers we have translated some of our online information. We are still in the process of translating even more of our information. It could therefore be that you will come across Dutch pages on CT2.nl. Please contact us if you would like more information.