“How are we going to keep our riders safe?” - As one of the largest food delivery platforms in the world, how did Deliveroo cope with soaring demand, while keeping drivers and customers safe?
Chantelle Zemba is the General Counsel at Deliveroo. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'.
Do you remember when you first heard the word ‘coronavirus’?
I was in the office. Our team sits near the communication team - the TVs were playing the news in the background and there was a mention of coronavirus. We were in the middle of phase one of our CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) investigation regarding Amazon’s investment in Deliveroo, so coronavirus wasn’t really on the radar. This was around November 2019 - then word started making its way around
When things started to escalate before the first lockdown, what were your initial concerns and priorities as a GC?
We were in the throes of this investigation, so that was my primary focus. But when we really understood that coronavirus was going to have an impact on the business, my concern was always the three sides of our marketplace: what is this going to mean for consumers, riders, and restaurants, and how do we support all of them through this?
We weren’t yet aware of lockdowns, nor the extent of these restrictions, but our focus was: how are we going to get food safely to our consumers? How are we going to keep our riders safe? And how will we keep our restaurants operating during this time?
On top of that, we wondered what complications the CMA investigation would have on all of us. It was a complex situation where we had to focus on how to balance a range of priorities.
“It was scary, but also extremely rewarding. Looking back, we were able to get food to NHS key workers, the vulnerable, and look after the community”
What were your main priorities in supporting the business? How did they differ from what you’d planned to be doing in 2020?
As a business and as a legal team, the priority was to support the three sides of the marketplace - restaurants, customers and riders. We had many initiatives from the business to do that, whether that be rolling out PPE to all of our riders, or helping our restaurants set up as online delivery for the first time, or making sure there’s contactless delivery and enabling it through the tech we have.
When it came to keeping people safe, our focuses were: how do we get food to the vulnerable and those who were self-isolating? How do we make sure our app is accessible? How do we participate on a community level and deliver food to key workers? How do we make sure we have a hardship fund for riders?
What added complication was the moving landscape of restrictions and constantly-changing information on a global level. We had to make sure that, whatever the business wanted to implement, they were aware of the new rules coming in, they understood them and we were helping them formulate innovations that didn’t breach any rules. That was our focus, and it completely changed our priorities for 2020! No-one could’ve anticipated the pandemic, and we had to get through a raft of issues and tasks, on top of the sizeable CMA task we already had.
It was scary at first, but it was also extremely rewarding. Looking back at how we were able to get involved, getting food to NHS key workers, the vulnerable, and looking after the community, and having our riders be seen as national heroes - that was really great to see. We want to keep that feeling going and ensure that, in a post-COVID world, our riders feel that
they are playing a really important role in society.
Deliveroo was in a fairly unique position as the demand for food delivery skyrocketed overnight. How did you cope with the huge increased task volume for legal?
In a weird way, Deliveroo legal is set up well to deal with it. Our bread and butter is these fast-developing situations - we’re definitely used to dealing with complex problems happening all at once, figuring out what’s important, and responding quickly. Granted, this pandemic was on another level but we went into our usual mode of handling it. We’re also lucky to have a large legal team to deal with volume, and with hard work under an immense amount of pressure we held up well.
“It felt like a state of national emergency, and we had a service that could help people, and so we were going to do everything that we could to do it”
How did legal support that social component of helping key workers and high-risk people?
It’s a huge part of our business - it’s genuinely at the heart of everything Deliveroo does. We take our role seriously and we’re conscious that riders are the backbone of our business. We’re always thinking about what’s best for riders and what’s best for customers.
During this time it was a great privilege to figure out how we could get food to people who needed it most, during an environment of severe restrictions in place, where so many people didn’t have access to food. As well as ensuring riders were safe, there was also financial support if they needed it - with the same for our restaurants, too.
That was a real, human thing, and for the legal team, if we could help facilitate those ideas coming to life, then we were committed to doing it. It felt like a state of national emergency, and we had a service that could help people, and so we were going to do everything that we could to do it.
How did you handle the comms and planning?
Legal was involved in multiple stand-ups a day, making sure that we were executing on different initiatives. We were lucky to have such a large legal team, so I could delegate projects and make sure we were covering all the work and aligning in daily check-ins with other teams.
We needed all hands on deck to make sure we were rolling everything out. Comms and legal collaborated to make sure we were updating the business with regular COVID updates - sometimes daily, multiple times a day, or weekly, depending on the status of the pandemic at the time.
Did working remotely over a lengthy period of time impact how you had to manage the team, as a GC?
Yes. I think you have to be a lot more mindful of how people are feeling, and proactively check in more. If you’re in the office, surrounded by people, you might be able to pick up on cues, but you’re not having that day-to-day context of seeing people when everyone is working from home.
You don’t have the benefit of walking by someone’s desk and sensing that something could be wrong. You also have to make an extra effort to ensure people are informed about what’s going on, and that everyone feels connected in the team - we spend a lot more time talking about what’s happening in the wider business, and keeping everyone informed.
Did you have to make changes in terms of how you worked as a legal team, both with each other and with the business?
The work became more intense, if anything, and often we were working longer hours. People aren’t commuting anymore, they get up and get straight on the computer, and work till later. The change was really the intensity, and you don’t have those natural breaks where you walk with someone to the coffee shop.
“I don’t think we’ll be going back to ‘normal’; it will never be quite the same as before, and it will fall on the legal team to enable the business to succeed”
What do you think are your key takeaways (no pun intended) and learnings from the past year?
I think the pandemic really shows the importance of being agile and being able to flip into different tasks and roll out different projects. Being resilient is also important for a legal team. I don’t think it’s a new learning but we’ve definitely felt it now as more than just a theoretical quality - agility and resilience make all the difference, and define a business that is going to survive.
I’m also really proud of the fact that Deliveroo stood up and decided to support the community, and we should always keep that in the forefront of our minds, no matter what is going on. Putting our community first is so important, and I’m so proud that we did that. It really highlights why I love Deliveroo.
The company’s growth trajectory continues to be super impressive - does this change your focus as GC? How do you balance strategy with day-to-day?
No - I think what I focus on is deeply understanding our business, and what’s important to the business at the time, as well as making sure I have a highly skilled legal team and that they’re enabled and have what they need from me, or in their surroundings, to execute on their jobs. Those are the things I’ll always be focused on, no matter how successful we are - and I don’t think those responsibilities change.
It seems that the exit from this pandemic isn’t going to be overnight, but rather with small steps - how do you see legal’s role in being ready for the bounceback?
During 2020 we spent most of our time reacting to a tricky situation. But now we need to think about how Deliveroo s going to help the three areas of our marketplace - but in particular, restaurants - in a post-COVID world. That means we need to look at how the pandemic has changed both restaurant and consumer behaviour. What role will legal play in this going forward?
I don’t think we’ll be going back to “normal”; it will never be quite the same as before, and some of the changes we implement may be permanent. Whatever the answers to those questions may be, it will fall on the legal team to focus on the right things and enable the business to succeed.
Chantelle Zemba is the General Counsel at Deliveroo. This interview is an excerpt from our eBook, 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'. Download now!