Transcript – Episode 42: Chat with André Frenette and missions abroad

Welcome to the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada.

And now introducing your host, Global Affairs Canada’s Deputy Minister of International Trade, John Hannaford.

John Hannaford: Hello everyone, it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to have another conversation about our community within Global Affairs. This is a continuation of the series of chats that we have been having in this format, but also in town halls that have been led by my colleagues concerning our reaction to the pandemic and how that affects the way that we do our work. I have with me today four members of our community—first of all, André Frenette, who is Director General and coordinator of our task force on COVID-19. I also have Yulia Koba and Drew Evans, both of whom are at our mission in Ukraine, and Ana Cecilia Burnham, who is at our mission in Panama. So maybe we can get started. André, maybe this is an opportunity to talk a little bit about our work together on this subject and maybe you can describe our approach in general regarding our missions and our strategy in this rather difficult context.

André Frenette: OK, well, thank you. Thank you, Deputy. And good morning to the three of you. It’s a pleasure to be with you. And of course, I have a very special place in my heart for Latin America and the Caribbean, having spent years working there. So Ana Cecilia, hola. Mucho gusto.

To start, I would first say that for the department’s approach in its reintegration plan, whether it’s here at headquarters or in the missions, we’ve taken a very, very cautious approach. A cautious approach that is adhering to strict guidelines from our public health officials, from our employer, which is the Treasury Board Secretariat, and of course from our employees who respond to surveys and provide us guidance and direction on how we may adjust our approach. So this is true for HQ and it is true as well for our missions. Missions have been provided with some guidance on how to proceed based on the approach that we’ve taken in Canada. But of course, we recognize that things are very different in the different regions of the world and, of course, in our missions. So we are working with, you know, Ambassador Galadza, Ambassador Nicholls and our ambassadors across the network so that we may better respond to specific needs that arise. The department has also put in place some special provisions so that missions can procure PPE [personal protective equipment] and other supplies that are of equal quality to the PPE and supplies that we are procuring here in Canada as well as on our intranet sites. There’s a special page there for missions where there’s a lot of information, there’s a lot of guidance and tools available for missions, as is the case on platform branches and a Wiki page on business resumption. We’ve provided also some direction to missions on things like a medevac, on quarantining when returning to missions, when you’re returning from abroad. And I’m providing regular updates on health information. I know, for example, in Ukraine, we’ve seen a rise in infections quite significantly over the past little while. And I know that the ambassador and her team are constantly revisiting the risks associated to this and the restrictions and making the appropriate adjustments to the protocols of the mission. That is true in Ukraine and that is true in many other missions abroad. And HQ continues to support our missions in that way. I think I’ll stop there, Deputy.

John Hannaford: Thanks, André. Yeah, I mean, it is one of the features of this experience that, of course, it’s a pandemic. So it is affecting all parts of the world, but it’s affecting all parts of the world in unique ways. And maybe could you just elaborate a little bit? Part of that is also change. We see kind of a rise in numbers in various places and drops in numbers in various places. You know, unlike most departments in Ottawa, we are affected by all of those rises and falls just because we have people in and around the world. Literally. So what are our strategies regarding the effects of change?

André Frenette: So I’ll just continue on the Ukraine example, if I may, for a moment, because Ukraine is a good example of what we’re seeing in other parts of the world. So at the mission, we have a duty of care for over 100 CBS [Canada-based staff] families and LES [locally engaged staff]. So that’s pretty significant. It’s a fair-sized mission. And if we go back to March, so exactly on March 26, when we started evacuating CBS from Kyiv—on that day, there were 34 cases reported on that case. Just this past Tuesday, there’s approximately 355 new cases reported. We’re seeing an evolution here in the pandemic, not just in Ukraine, of course, but in other parts of the world. And while in some countries the reliability of official numbers is sometimes questionable, this does, however, paint a picture of a concerning trend with respect to where this pandemic is going. So missions have no choice but to adapt to a very, kind of, dynamic, a very fluid situation, by adjusting their posture, by revising their movement protocols, by revising access to the chancery and others. Here at HQ, we continue to monitor the evolution of the pandemic around the world. And we continue to work with our colleagues at mission, especially MCOs [management consular officers], in terms of providing the support that they need in making those adjustments.

I want to say as well that as this change occurs and as missions are adapting to this new environment that is the world, we are aware that this is having an impact on our staff—on our CBS, on our LES—and we’re seeing that through responses, through our responses of the public surveys. The third round of the public survey just ended a couple of days ago, and we received about 37.6% of responses from missions. We encourage you to continue to do that. This is really important. This has allowed us to make some adjustments as well. For example, our CBS who are coming back to Canada or travelling back to Canada for vacation, for whatever reason or not, are now allowed to telework during their quarantine period. And they also know for CBS that the issue of FSD [Foreign Service Directive] 50 has been a concern lately. It’s important to remember that the application of FSDs is the result of a negotiation between the bargaining agents and the employer. But I do understand, though, that the parameters around the application of FSD 50 is currently being reviewed and without knowing what the outcomes will be, I certainly hope that we’ll be able to share some information with our CBS colleagues very soon.

John Hannaford: Thanks, André. Perhaps, Ana Cecilia, you can give us a sense of your current life. What are the strategies for dealing with this type of experience, and for dealing with your psychological well-being? And, you know, your sense of general well-being in the workplace? How are you finding this?

Ana Cecilia Burnham: Good morning. Buenos días to everyone, thank you for having me today. For myself, on a personal note, I’ve been baking a lot since the beginning of quarantine. Therefore, I’ve been exercising, too, to make up for all the food I’ve been baking. I’ve been trying to keep busy doing my regular work as much as possible, but also every time there’s new projects in the office or when we have had the CFLI [Canada Fund for Local Initiatives] projects or activities, I’ve been trying to join in because, as you know, in Panama, our lockdown was very strict since the beginning. We were only able to go out two and a half hours a day, three days a week. So it was overwhelming to start with. So I find that, just keeping busy, doing work, talking to my colleagues... We had virtual lunches at the embassy. We kept calling each other. What do you need? Ambassador Lilly [Nicholls] was always calling everybody. How’s your well-being? How are you feeling? How do you feel about work? Do you feel that you’re progressing? So all those things help. Also, the involvement of the embassy helping in the pandemic in Panama has been great. And seeing that the work has been very rewarding, actually, and seeing Canada participating and putting a footprint into that.

John Hannaford: How do you find work? Like, you’re working from your home, I guess, or are you in the mission largely, or is it a combination of the two?

Ana Cecilia Burnham: It’s a combination of the two. I go to the mission twice a week. I find that the work evolves from day to day because I look after the properties of the CBS. So, many, many of them are in Canada right now. And the humidity in Panama is crazy, it’s like 90% on one day. So that deteriorates the homes, and nobody is there. So we’ve been keeping an eye on that, visiting and trying to continue doing maintenance and working very close together with the administrators of the building and at the office because they were even regulating how many people could go in to do work. Making sure that they were wearing masks, that they were wearing suits. You see gel dispensers everywhere and mats to clean the shoes. And it’s been a life change that happened overnight. It was drastic, but also it has been a learning experience, I must say.

John Hannaford: Yeah. I’ll turn maybe to Drew and your experience in Kyiv. How are you finding things? I’m sure that much of what Ana Cecilia just said resonates in the mission generally, but obviously Kyiv is having its own experience of this pandemic. What’s your situation?

Drew Evans: Yeah. Thanks for—like Ana Cecilia—thanks for having me on the podcast. And a chance to sort of try and tell a bit of our story. I mean, we care deeply about our staff. And so it’s a big part of our job. Like what they face in Panama, is trying to find the best mix of Canadian and Ukrainian health guidance to keep our staff safe. The Ukrainian guidance in particular is in a constant state of flux. So we have a lot of staff who are allowed into the chancery. They’re actually all allowed, but most actually work from home. I’ll get back to that in a minute. We don’t have a hard limit, but we do have a couple of layers. So we’ve been trying to keep—the first layer is education. Staff have to…people keep their guards up at work, but they don’t necessarily keep their guards up in their personal lives. And so a lot of what we’re trying to do is keep people as educated as possible so they can make the right decisions in their personal lives. That’s where infection at the workplace starts in someone’s personal life.

We also have—the second is how we control who gets to come into the chancery and Ana Cecilia alluded to this. We came into the pandemic pretty lucky as missions go, with backup laptops for almost all staff. So we have no hard limit, but we’re encouraging teleworking. And so about 75% of our staff do just choose to work from home. And we find that this, giving them agency like that, is, I think—and Yulia might be able to build on it—is helping both their work-life balance and their mental well-being in these trying times. It also means that if someone develops symptoms, they’re probably going to be at home when that happens.  

We’ve also realized, like André mentioned, that COVID comes in waves. So our plan is, let’s just go forwards and backwards, depending on what’s happening out there. So our city’s rates, as André was saying, are pretty high. They’re actually neck and neck per capita with where the Americans are right now. And our host country doesn’t necessarily want the music to stop. So we have to make up our own minds these days about what we’re turning on and off ourselves, and making up our own minds independent of health authorities is now 80% of my job. So we have to understand the rationale behind every piece of health guidance we get from Canada or Ukraine to try and figure out which one is the best one to follow in our particular situation. And so we’re looking at everything. There’s different rules on quarantine, testing and contact tracing, the use of masks. And we have to figure it all out and find the right balance. Because the official numbers, as André said, don’t tell the whole story; I’ve even had to start working with Western epidemiologists who are based in Ukraine to try and figure out in-house projections that—so we can actually kind of figure out the true risk for staff. We have a couple other layers that Headquarters has. You know how you use common spaces and personal protection, distancing and all that. But we also have a couple of rules for individual staff who do critical services. So we try and make sure that staff—no one infection event takes all of our staff out. So for someone like me, a security guy, I have a deputy. And the rule is we have to avoid each other. One infection cannot take both of us out. Our kids go to the same school and as luck would have it, they’re in the same class. So we’ve actually trained other CBS to fill in for us entirely for two weeks. But for every one of our 30 or so critical tasks, we’ve either figured out prevention rules or recovery strategies as a last resort.

The one other point I want to mention on return to work and what it looks like from a mission side is, what the work looks like outside the chancery and what return to work means outside the chancery, because our relationships with our local contacts are core to what we do. And most of our meetings with local contacts are taking place virtually, but some topics are just too sensitive to talk about on an open line. So for those, we have to go in person. But that sometimes puts us in situations where we’re meeting with people on their turf who are not taking anywhere near the same level of precautions as we do. Not wearing masks, getting too close, bad ventilation, you name it. So for us, a core part of the business now is negotiating the terms of every single meeting we do. We’ve also done things like turn our back patio—it used to be a social space, it’s now a meeting space. It’s where we can set the rules, and it’s control on our turf.

John Hannaford: Sorry, on that last point, what will you do, Drew, once you get into the winter season? Because you’ve got a similar situation to here in Ottawa and Kyiv where you’re going to get some cold months. How are you going to manage that in terms of outdoor meetings?

Drew Evans: We are, right now, just starting to explore the use of heaters and so forth. We have a three-seasons patio. We actually have pub nights in mid-January on our back patio using these space heaters. So now we’re just looking to augment that so that we can have an all-seasons meeting space. Not sure if it’s going to work out yet, but we’re doing the exploratory work now.

John Hannaford: Well look. You know, I think you’ve covered a lot of really important points. I think I was struck by your referring to the importance of agency and managing stress, because I do think it’s a general matter of people feel like they have some control over their lives. That is, in and of itself, a way of kind of abating some of the stress that’s associated with situations. And it seems particularly true here where these are very, very personal decisions people need to be making about their own health. But we’re making that obviously within the context of the mandate that we need to be delivering. And so there’s a series of conversations that we need to be having both inside and outside in order to reach an appropriate balance with respect to the set of issues. Let me turn to Yulia. What’s your experience been as to managing within this situation? What do you find particularly helpful in, kind of, achieving that balance in your own life and, both professionally and personally, feeling that you’re in the best position you can be?

Yulia Koba: Good morning. I’m happy to be here today and thank you for your question. I would also like to start with the routine that you mentioned earlier. For me, I’ve been working in the embassy for 10 years. So the quarantine and the self-isolation due to lockdown that happened in Ukraine in mid-March, it meant falling out of that huge routine. And a lot of challenges coming was bad. So when the embassy operations shifted to working from home for most of us at the same time, the schools and kindergartens got closed. I have two kids and one is in Grade 7, and this one was, during his classes online, quite independent. He was even very kind to share his desk with me when I was working on my computer. But my youngest son is six and he has autistic spectrum disorder. He attends a private kindergarten with a full array of special classes to help him develop his skills and deal with many behavioural and sensory issues. For autistic kids, any disruption in classes is a serious issue. So our kindergarten came up with a distance learning program that required my full engagement as a tutor for two hours every morning to make sure my son continues to receive the support he needed. And this was ongoing for three months almost. I was lucky that my management supported me in working flexible hours so I could dedicate much-needed time to my youngest son. So I would start my working day later and I would work well beyond the working hours as the workload was not decreasing at all.

On the contrary, I must say that shift into online work from home meant more team meetings, more calls with partners, new networks, more coordination of the donor support to Ukraine to respond to COVID-19, more online briefings and all the preparation that was required for that. We had to become IT-savvy. All of us learning new platforms: Zoom and then turning to Webex and then Teams and a lot of IT skills developed during that time, for sure.

In June, when schools and kindergarten re-opened, I started to appreciate the format of working from home because I was able to sleep a bit longer in the morning and not having to make a long commute to work, which takes me over an hour. I’ve been to the office a couple of times and I must say that with rigorous rules put in place by Drew and his team, it is very quiet and a very calm atmosphere to work in right now in the embassy. But when you work from home, the work-life balance becomes challenging. It is too tempting not to turn off your computer after you work your hours if your to-do list is ever growing. The time difference with the need to catch up with HQ colleagues also contributes to this and we have seven hours’ difference. We have recently discussed this issue of extensive workload when working from home and all the stress that comes with it at one of our team meetings. And now, I must say that at the end of each day, our deputy director sends a very positive message to the whole team, saying things like, “at the end of each day before you log off, be content with what you have done. Be grateful for what you have and be proud of who you are.” It really helps to realize that we are all working hard, but there’s only as much as one can do in one day. So I’m really grateful to my team and to people like Drew who make sure we are safe and we are equipped to work at home and to do everything we can to work well. Thank you.

John Hannaford: Well, I should say, you know, just, as of the deputies in this organization, and I know I speak for all four of us—we’re deeply proud of the work that is being done in the mission network. We’re very proud of all of you. You’re working in very difficult circumstances. And I think the department has done some really extraordinary things over the course of the last six weeks—or six months, rather—and that’s as a result of this extraordinary team efforts across the network, but at individual missions as well. So please know that.

Maybe I can ask a question for all of you. What are the lessons for other missions in terms of networks? What would you say from your experience, what are the sort of the key things that you would like your colleagues in other missions to know? And what have you learned from other missions? How are you finding this sort of compares and contrasts in this situation? Maybe start with Drew.

Drew Evans: OK. Thanks for the question. In some ways, though, I’m the wrong guy to ask because I make the rules. I made the rules, and I sincerely believe they’re going to keep our people safe. So just by default, I’m going to feel less anxious than almost anyone else in my embassy because I have the most control over the situation. I’d say that the workplace is going to be one of the few places in your life where everyone is going to be following the same strict rules with their guards up and with the compliance enforced. The employer like us—I have a big stake in making sure nothing goes wrong at work. But in your personal life, that’s not true. And I just—so, to keep your colleague safe, you’ve got to keep focused on staying safe in your personal life. And if we’re all doing that right, the workplace is suddenly not that scary a place to be. For the part about other embassies, the readiness program managers are constantly talking with each other and sharing best practices and experiences and guidance. I’d say that what I have put in place in my embassy isn’t the product of just us. It’s the product of a dozen or so readiness program managers having cobbled together best practices at various points. And I’ve been able to put it all into my one document for Kyiv, but it’s the product of a lot of group think across a lot of different embassies. So the network for me has been extremely useful for getting it right here in Ukraine.

John Hannaford: Ana Cecilia, do you have any thoughts?

Ana Cecilia Burnham: I think for us, what has really worked is communication. I was part of the emergency group since the beginning. And everything we apply for the embassy, we let everybody know right away. So any security measurements that we take at the office now that we’re starting slowly to go back, we let people know we’re doing, for example, we are having the embassy clean and having the stations clean every Monday. So you go for the rest of the week when you go. Everything is cleaned. And letting our colleagues know we’re taking these safety measures so you feel safe if you go to the office. But at the same way, something that I felt that has been really good from the managing team is that we go when we’re comfortable. We can telework and we decide if we want to go in and do work from the office or if we do it from home. Because, for example, for myself, like Yulia said, I have a toddler. So when I go to the office, I have found peace and quiet to do work. So I really appreciate those two days that I do go to the office. And at the same time, I feel that I’m in an environment and an environment that is safe. That the embassy is taking the measurements to keep us safe within the area.

John Hannaford: Yulia?

Yulia Koba: I’m not sure how it is in other countries, but in Ukraine, the traffic is crazy in Kyiv because everyone who is even from time to time using public transportation is now in taxis or in personal vehicles. So my suggestions to colleagues who will be coming back to work—plan well in advance how you’re going to get there. And flexible arrangements for timings to avoid traffic jams on the streets are also very useful. And this is something that we enjoy in Kyiv. And this is something that I think other missions could also adopt to make sure that the time on the roads, the time in public transport for those who do have to take public transport, is limited and as less dangerous as possible.

But I would also like to thank Drew, who thinks he makes all these rules. But I would also you use this—like, to use this opportunity to thank him for all these rules, for keeping us safe, because they are really gold. It’s not only about the rules, it’s about the rigorous information on how the COVID is being transmitted. What are the things that you should not do in the first place? So all this information is equipping us to stay safe in our work life, in our personal lives, and to help us take care of our families. So this is very important what you do, Drew. Thank you.

John Hannaford: Can I just pick up on that last point? This would be my last question to all of you. You know, you’ve all mentioned your families, which is a very obvious thing to be concerned about in this situation. And, you know, each of us have our own family situations and the challenges that that does present. But just any kind of reflections you have on how to, kind of, manage the anxiety that they may be feeling and to, kind of, make sure that you feel you are supporting them to the best extent. Any particular reflections you think could be shared with colleagues that you may be experiencing similar sorts of challenges?

Drew Evans: I’ll jump in there. So I have two kids and my wife is working and going through school. And then we also have these kids home every second day. Distance learning and then in person the other half. So home can get quite hectic. So the flexibility of being able to work from home and set—you know, with my team—set stuff around so I can be home when I’m useful is particularly useful. But I think the other thing we found is that, I mean, we’re not alone. Every single one of us is going through the exact same situation and putting up a—you know, I’m here in a suit, but I’m taking this call from my bedroom while, you know, there’s a bit of chaos out there.

John Hannaford: And I presume you’re wearing shorts.

Drew Evans: That came up before the call, so, I mean, there’s the face there. But we’re not—no one’s alone in that regard. So that’s all I’d point out on that.

John Hannaford: Cecilia, Yulia, any reflections? 

Ana Cecilia Burnham: Something that I, for me, that marked the quarantine is that my MCO at the time—I would be working from home, and my toddler will say that I was doing homework because he sees his older sister doing homework. So he refers that when I’m sitting in the computer that I’m doing tareas, doing homework, and he will get upset because I will be there just hours and come in and turn off the computer on me and I will get upset because I was in the middle of something. And my MCO, we have weekly bilat meetings over the phone and we’ll talk about work and how things are going and everything. And I told her that was happening and she told me, “Ana Cecilia, when that happens, that means that your son needs attention. You need to stop what you’re doing and give him at least 10, 15 minutes so he calms down. And then later you can continue to do what you need to do. But you need to give them attention. You’re at home now and he doesn’t understand that, you know, that you’re doing work.” And for me, that was something great to feel that support and also to manage things at work and learn that, at home, learn that I have to be able to do both with some flexibility.

John Hannaford: Yulia?

Yulia Koba: Yes, I would like to support what Ana Cecilia just said that management support is critical in this regard because when we are working from home, it’s a very unusual scene for our children and for our partners who are not used to seeing us so dedicated to something else when we are at home. And that can become challenging for our relationships as well. So it is very important to have the flexibility, to have the opportunity to take a break and to give that much-needed attention to our close ones.

And one more thing that I would like to say, that it is also great that we are equipped with all the guidance and that we can share it with our relatives because, honestly, in Ukraine, not every organization takes such good care of their employees as the embassy does for us. So I am gladly sharing some of the guidance that we’ve been provided with my parents, with my parents-in-law, even with my husband. And this is really important and this proved to be very useful and appreciated.

John Hannaford: OK. André, do you have any final thoughts concerning this important issue?

André Frenette: I have to say that this, for me, it’s been a really informative 30 minutes. And if I can say, you know, inspiring as well—to get, on the one hand, a real sense of the challenges that you guys face out there in our missions. But also, I’m getting this very positive vibe from you on how you’re coping with the situation—not just you, but your families as well. It was a real pleasure for me to be able to hear you on these issues this morning. So, thank you. Thank you for this opportunity.

John Hannaford: OK. A big, big thank you from me; it was really quite an important conversation, I think, and I really am very grateful for all the work you’re doing, and I’m very grateful that you joined us this morning. So thank you. Take good care of yourselves. Take good care of your families. And we’ll continue these conversations in a number of different formats. But I really appreciate you taking the time this morning. All the best.

Drew Evans: Thank you.

Ana Cecilia Burnham: Thank you.

Yulia Koba: Thank you. Bye. Have a good day.

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