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By the time the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic really began to hit home in Australia, in-house counsel Kelly Xiao was already an old hand at dealing with it.

Xiao is the APAC Employment Counsel for international computer software company VMware. Their team in China has been addressing issues arising from the pandemic since January. As a result, Xiao and the VMware crisis management team are at the COVID-19 coal face, ensuring employees stay safe and sane while keeping the business moving.

Kelly Xiao

Named Young Lawyer Achiever of the Year at the 25th ACC In-House Legal National Conference, Xiao’s experience belies her youth. She provides advice and training to the human resources department and managers across 15 countries, in both English and Mandarin.

Here Xiao shares some lessons she has learned about:

  • managing your business through the COVID-19 crisis;
  • instilling integrity into your work; and
  • being kind to yourself.

Virtual Karaoke and Other Social Opportunities

Working from home is a largely foreign concept for many Chinese workers, with some businesses even setting homework for employees to help them get the hang of it. But as the saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Forced to stay at home for the duration of the pandemic, employees have been finding creative ways to keep the business moving.

“I’ve heard stories of teams doing cloud snacks, cloud karaoke and cloud drinking,” Xiao says. “They literally send snacks to the client, then go online and talk – or sing together!”

For caffeine-loving Australians, virtual coffees might be more par for the course. Some teams in VMware have been encouraging employees who are working from home to have virtual coffee meetings for 15-30 minutes, two or three times a week, to talk about anything but work.

“When you’re not in the office, you miss out on the corridor conversations, the social interaction. While practising social distancing, you need to stay connected,” she said.

Xiao worries that lawyers, already susceptible to depression and anxiety as a profession, might suffer mental health challenges during a drawn out crisis like the pandemic. “General Counsel leaders need to keep mental health at the forefront and make sure their teams are looked after,” she said.

Staying Across Constant Change in a Crisis

Xiao emphasises the important role in-house counsel plays during a crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, in particular:

  • identifying and advising on government-led regulatory changes; and
  • managing compliance without exposing the business.

Many governments have implemented an array of new regulations, from work, health and safety hygiene practices to reporting on employee travel. Staying across these developments and advising the business on how to comply with them has been essential.

My Lighthouse, My Guiding Light

Xiao was born in China, in what she only half-jokingly refers to as a small town of one million people – “small by Chinese standards,” she laughs, in the Guangdong province. Her father moved to Australia when she was very young and with her mother working in another city, Xiao was raised by her grandmother.

“She had a strong sense of integrity,” Xiao said about her grandmother. If she witnessed someone doing something she believed was wrong, she would speak out. Instilling Xiao with this integrity and morality was a gift for which she remains grateful, especially in her work as a lawyer.

“We are not just in-house counsel, we are officers of the court. Reaching a balance between what the business needs and what is socially responsible is more important than ever,” she said.

Sadly, her grandmother passed away from cancer, aged 56, when Xiao was just 10 years old; she then moved to Australia with her parents. But when she received her ACC award, Xiao paid tribute to her grandmother in her acceptance speech.

“She would never have imagined me coming to Australia, let alone becoming a lawyer and receiving this award,” she said. “My grandmother was my lighthouse, my guiding light.”

An Award-Winning Performance

Xiao received her ACC Young Lawyer Achiever award largely in recognition of her work helping VMware to set up a new entity in a new jurisdiction in South East Asia. The award recognises up and coming in-house lawyers who have either practiced law for five years or less or are under age 35.

Xiao was the co-lead lawyer in opening the new office. With no automatic transfer provisions under the relevant law, it was a complex task that took several months. During this time, Xiao drafted offer letters, employment contracts, collateral information, wrote work rules for filing with the government and determined the strategy for addressing employee concern about changes to benefits and programs.

She particularly enjoyed working across a multi-disciplinary team. “As a large business, it can be easy for the many functions like legal, tax and HR to be siloed. But for a project like this, we have to work together,” she said. “I found it most rewarding.”

Kelly Xiao’s 3 Key Takeaways

  1. Be authentic. “Stay true to who you are when you are giving legal advice. Find a balance between managing business risk and doing the right thing. Don’t be afraid to inject authenticity.”
  2. Be curious about the world. “Learn about society and how we function. It will help you to understand why we have certain laws in the first place.”
  3. Be kind to yourself. “As lawyers, we are such perfectionists. We work hard to get where we are. But we are also human beings and make mistakes as well,” Xiao says. This is something she tries to instil into the law students she speaks to. “We mustn’t be too hard on ourselves. Learn from your mistakes and keep them in perspective.”
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