Transcript – Episode 43: Chat with André Frenette and HQ Staff

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, and welcome to another conversation about our methods for working during this very difficult time as it concerns this pandemic and the limits that are part of our experience now. I’m very fortunate today to have 3 more colleagues join me, together with André Frenette, for this second conversation around our experiences in terms of a return to work. Some of you, if you listened to the last podcast on this issue, will recall André, our director general who is responsible for the coordination of all work of the DM task force with respect to the return to work and is overseeing all of the efforts that we’re pursuing, both with respect to our mission network and our offices here in Canada. We also have Isabel-Andrée Lavigne, who is director of Corporate Health Programs, Sam Razavi, who is an analyst with our Intelligence Assessments and Reporting Division, and Annik Lemoine, who is deputy director of Permit Operations, Customer Service and Reports.

OK, so, André, we talked last week a bit about the experience of people in the missions, and I’m kind of interested now as to where we’re going to focus this week on the situation here in Ottawa and more generally in Canada. This is all happening in a context where we are seeing numbers begin to increase, but we’re also thinking about how we further roll out the return to the workplace that we had started in pilot form a few months ago. So maybe you could just kind of catch people up on where we’re at right now and kind of the overall plan that we have.

André Frenette: All right. Thanks, John. Hello to you. It is a pleasure to be with you today. So yes, indeed, what we’ve been seeing lately is that the numbers, especially here in the National Capital Region, have increased a bit, especially compared to last month. And that’s creating some anxiety among employees. Several employees have asked me the question: why not put a short pause on the implementation of this phase II and wait for the numbers to start going down? And so on that I would say a couple of things. First of all, where we are today, in terms of the measures we have put in place compared to where we were in March, April, it’s not the same thing at all. We’ve really made a lot of progress in the measures we’ve implemented in the department’s buildings throughout the National Capital Region.

You’ll remember that in July we started with a pilot project, so 4 branches came back to the office for 2 weeks, and we learned a lot. The employees told us about their experience, we learned a lot, we made a lot of adjustments to the approach we had in the buildings and, well, after that, phase II began gradually. We’re now down to 12 bureaus. Today, in fact, we’re down to 15 because L, W and X have started the reintegration, in fact, today, and group 4, the last group, will do it on November 9. It’s really important to repeat that not everyone is coming back to the office. It’s the employees who have been identified by their bureau, by the core functions they perform in the department. In fact, I would also tell you that since the beginning of the crisis, the maximum number of people we’ve had to integrate into the buildings has never exceeded 14% of our workforce. And in that 14%, we’re talking about full-time, part-time and casual people. And the full-time people are a handful of people who return to the buildings. So the measures that we’ve put in place remain very consistent, John, with the guidance and direction we’re getting from public health officials, from the Treasury Board and, of course, from what our staff are telling us. Business continuity plans have been updated, critical lists of staff have been updated. And we continue. We continue to implement phase II because we have a great deal of confidence in the measures that we’ve put in place. And the majority of our employees that have come back to the buildings have told us that there is satisfaction with those measures and they do, in fact, feel safe in the building. So for the time being, phase II continues. A handful of staff are coming in, but the vast majority of our employees will continue to work from home well into, well not well into, but into next year for sure. 

John Hannaford: André, maybe you could just build off one point there. You mentioned that the feedback you’re getting is positive. How are you getting that feedback and how can we make sure that the people who are listening to this are heard? 

André Frenette: So there are two surveys. One is the pulse survey that all employees are filling out, and we encourage you to continue to do that because it’s really quite helpful. As I mentioned in the past task force, I’m sorry, the past town hall meeting, the results we get from the pulse survey are reviewed by task force members every time, and we adjust accordingly. But there’s also a second survey. So we survey managers of employees who are returning to the workplace to see how things are going, right? And so we’re getting a lot of data from some front-line managers. Not always perfect, right? We still have employees who are walking around the building sometimes not wearing your masks. That makes people uncomfortable. But what we are saying is that the vast majority of employees that have returned have reported to us that the measures in place, the handwashing stations, the sanitizers, the wipes, the masks, the signs on the floors, the signs on the wall, make them feel a lot more comfortable about being back.

John Hannaford: Yeah, when I am back in the building, I agree, I take comfort from all those things and I must say, I do feel, anecdotally, that people are wearing masks, that it does feel like, you know, there’s very high compliance, which is also a source of comfort. Perhaps we can turn to Isabel-Andrée regarding the subsidy levels in our human resources system. You’re obviously a manager in this area. What are the strategies now for providing support for people during this difficult time? 

Isabel-Andrée Lavigne: Thank you very much, Mr. Hannaford, one, for our guests of this podcast today, it is very much appreciated. I think that Human Resources is one of many players in the organization right now that are working hard to support both our employees who work at home on a daily basis and the employees who are reintegrating, as André said so well, in the context of the measures that are being put in place in the workplace. We must say, for all those who have quietly reintegrated, or have come to do repairs on their computers, in all forms, in all reservations, they can see that the workplace has changed greatly in recent months. It must be said, in particular, that it is almost completely changed. And I think it’s not only addressing the situation that we’re in now, but it’s having benefits on a number of fronts.

I must say that, first of all, we learned a lot from the international situation on our side, well beyond and well before our downtown colleagues last spring, which obviously allowed us to prepare very quickly and to turn toward, actually, supporting our employees in the context of the reintegration of Global Affairs Canada. André and the team behind the scenes are working together. I must say that the ARRC [All-hazard Response and Recovery Committee] is obviously also one of the platforms that is extremely operational. So many of us at the director level and others meet regularly on a daily basis to talk about the very operational issues in the field and to be able to change our approaches quickly on a daily basis.

So these are things that are put in place, especially on the governance component in the organization, which allow us to change and evolve very quickly because the situation is changing very fast. Let’s talk about wearing a mask, for example. Several months ago, it was a completely impossible, implausible concept. Now, in just a short period of time, the culture of the organization, and of the whole world, is to wear a mask. So we’re changing a lot through this situation right now. And I must say that it’s quite impressive to see the human capacity to be able to, rightly, change and implode, rightly, a culture of health and safety in the workplace.

So that’s very good. In the first wave, we took a lot of time to learn in the context of that wave, as much as science was evolving as the same time as we were evolving. We’re arriving at wave II in a very different way and very better posture, I believe, within the organization, as, not only that, we have a great corporate function that supports the organization policy-wise. Tools, the intranet website that’s completely dedicated to COVID now, was completely reactive in the first wave. Now that we have had the time to settle a little bit during the summertime and with the amazing work that L branch has done to really consolidate all the information and centralize the information on the intranet page, both for the employee, but also for managers, this has been a great, great success. We encourage every hat. I have my employee hat and I also have my manager hat. We all have our different hats. We have to take care of ourselves as well in the context of COVID, but also utilize our ability to support our staff as managers as well. So those tools are available for all of us on that intranet page. That would be it for me. 

John Hannaford: Well, thank you. That’s a lot. And you’re saying that you’re just part of a whole series of players on all this. But Human Resources has obviously borne an extraordinary amount of the brunt of this as we think about how we support our community through what’s an extraordinary time, a unique time. So thank you to you and your colleagues for the work you’ve been doing. We also have an opportunity now to hear from a couple of people who have, sort of, first-hand experience in the re-entry process. And I’ll turn maybe first to Sam. And Sam, you’ve been, given the nature of your job, you have been on and off through the entire period. So you’ve sort of seen the evolution of the workplace over the course of that. I’m just kind of interested in your experiences and any reflections you have on what we’re doing well and where we should be kind of focusing some of our work as this proceeds. 

Sam Razavi: So thank you very much for having us. It’s always exciting to talk about this, because, as you said, our unit was intimately involved in the coming back to the office fairly quickly. So I would say in late April, we were already back part time, and I would say in early May, we were largely there full time. We’re part of the 14% that André was mentioning earlier. I didn’t know it was 14%, so that’s interesting. And I would say that for our unit, I know 2020 was difficult for most, if not all, people, but for our unit, it was arguably a little bit more positive than negative. For multiple reasons, I would say the commute to work has been easier. This is something people forget. For the longest time, until August, I think 125 [Sussex Drive], the parking lot, was empty and it was easier to get to work. I don’t live too far, so it wasn’t too much of an issue for me. But I know for some people who live further away, it was kind of a little bonus. 

John Hannaford: And Sam, did some of your colleagues have experiences with public transit as part of that as well? For the people who are commuting, are they commuting largely in their own cars or by bike or in buses? What was the kind of experience?

Sam Razavi: So I would say most people drove in when they told us that 125 would be free and easy to come, especially some people who live further away. So I don’t know of anyone who took public transport until when we had gone back from stage II to I, kind of thing, earlier, some people started taking the bus again. Some people were able to get the passes of other people at 111 [Sussex Drive]. So I don’t like to say that this is a more positive thing, because from the eco-friendly perspective, I’d rather people take the public transport than each person coming in by car. But [as it was] easier to get to work, it was better, right?

So that was one thing I would say. Maybe at work, I would say the flow of information had decreased, especially the classified information. So that’s one of the reasons why we had to go back to work: because we operate in a classified environment with classified material. So it’s almost impossible to work from home. So that’s why we were allowed to come back earlier. But I would say that the flow of information is more manageable now. So these days have been good. Also, and this is maybe where you can chip in, I think our access to senior clients has been easier. They seem to be more available. I would say since May, we’ve been briefing ADMs and DMs, including yourself, on a weekly basis. Last week, for example, we briefed all 4 DMs, separately, obviously. But from a unit perspective, COVID has been positive in the sense that you guys are in the building, more accessible time, and so on and so forth. So I’m not going to complain about that. And the last thing I’ll say is that it killed the cubicles. A lot of people were in cubicles, and now, each of the analysts got their own offices. So it killed [Workplace] 2.0, COVID killed 2.0. And I’m not going to complain about that: I think 2.0 was an overrated system. So it’s an interesting perspective for us because it’s been largely positive. 

John Hannaford: Okay. Well, that’s good to hear. I always like to hear that it’s nice to brief me, so that’s good. Annik, your experience in this context: what were the challenges, the opportunities in the workplace?

Annik Lemoine: Thanks for having me and thanks for that question. At the moment, most of my division is still working from home. But for those who have to come in to the tower at 111 [Sussex Drive], it’s reassuring to know that the branch reintegration committee has put in place many health measures to best, or as well as possible, ensure employees’ health and avoid spreading the virus. We’ve had a few challenges, of course, since March, but the biggest was in fact to transition a team from working at home to teleworking. In TIA we have a client service team and permit officers who provide essential services but who regularly respond to external phone calls. Before March, the officers didn’t have mobile work phones because until then, they weren’t needed. Given the service standards we have to meet, sometimes 4 hours, it was hard to imagine not being at the office to answer the phone. In a client service environment, we had to think about the operations components and quickly put practices in place without interrupting our client availability. So that was difficult, but we succeeded in quickly putting in place temporary solutions that let us keep communicating with external clients. Then in a few days, which is really incredible, we were able to put together enough mobile phones to equip the staff. There were no negative repercussions on our services. So it’s good to know, but above all, it’s thanks to the flexibility and resilience of our team on the ground.

We had another challenge, which was to transition or integrate a new employee in the team. This was someone who came from another department, so not just new to the team but new to Global Affairs Canada. And of course, onboarding an employee is very important for her to get acclimatized to the culture and everything. And in a context of lockdown and then of telework, we had to review our onboarding practices and adapt them to the new situation. Beginning with—whether it was logistics with work equipment or knowledge transfer—it required rethinking everything. On her first day the region was in red alert, so there was no movement, there was no access to the building, so we really had to think about a new approach to give her the kind of warm welcome we provide in normal conditions. And before she arrived, we had to make sure she had, from her first day—because it’s always difficult when you arrive in the department to have access to SIGNET, to shared files.

Also, we had to make sure her welcome kit was up to date, for one thing—digital too. We rely a lot on paper documents, but for that we had to digitize everything on paper so she could have quick access to it. Her first day, we had to establish and discuss expectations and goals for the week to come. That’s a super-important stage in all situations, but even more so today. Ensure a weekly follow-up so she could feel supported, but also, and above all, to create a connection that doesn’t exist when you’re locked down at home. In fact, we had to introduce her virtually to the team and set up different procedures so she could learn to know her colleagues using Microsoft Teams. I have to say Microsoft Teams has supported us enormously during this transition and is still today an indispensable tool to maintain our operations. So it’s really a preferred tool. Whether it’s screen sharing, document sharing, holding meetings, it’s really... it has been indispensable. And according to the employee’s feedback, her integration into the team was difficult, to a certain extent, as far as getting to know her colleagues. That’s very important, but in general it was a big success and so... it was a big success despite the challenge.

John Hannaford: That’s great. You know, I’ve got to say, I think this is something I’ve been thinking a bit about as well. We went into this period of 6 months online based on a whole series of relationships that we had established over the course of, in many instances, long periods of time prior to that. But now, when you begin to reconstitute teams as new members join, and as people come from outside the organization, how you kind of maintain that sense of community and affinity in team members, it’s absolutely possible with all the tools we have. It’s just something we really need to be very actively doing, because it is so important for people.

Thank you for the example. And I guess I want to just ask all of you, based on your experiences over the last 6 months, do you have, sort of, advice that you would share with people who are now kind of moving into a stage where they may be coming back into the workplace, just any kind of reflection that you think might be something that would be a key takeaway from the experiences that you’ve had? Maybe start with Sam. 

Sam Razavi: I think the measures that André was mentioning earlier have been very good, I have to say. They make me comfortable. For example, earlier, a couple of weeks ago, I was having lunch with one of my colleagues and she was mentioning what’s the difference between being in this cafeteria and being in a restaurant, for instance? And I said, well, it’s a building of like-minded people who are all, I’m not a lawyer, but from a legal perspective, you still say that you admit before coming into the building that you have no symptoms, you haven’t been in contact and you haven’t travelled. So it’s reassuring to be in a building full of people that have accepted to say this publicly. 

And also, I think people, I don’t even need to convince them. I think a lot of people will still want a little bit of human interaction. I think I can see people craving. Even if it’s social distancing, even if you have a mask, it’s still good to go in. And as you were mentioning, integrating people is complicated. The other one I would mention is mentoring people is going to be even complicated. The point of mentoring is “Come to this meeting with me. Even if you don’t say anything, just come and learn.” Those are becoming harder and harder. So I think the measures are good. I would even say they’re sometimes even extreme. Last time I saw an arrow that said you can’t have somebody 2 metres up from you. I didn’t even know what that meant! Going to, looking at the ceiling, I don’t know what’s going to happen. So they’re very good. Everyone is in place. Everyone is respecting the mask. And I think everyone is craving the human interaction.

John Hannaford: Isabel-Andrée, any thoughts? 

Isabel-Andrée Lavigne: Well, I mean, I have different hats, right? So from a corporate perspective, I have my HWH hat. So I guess from a domestic point of view, we’ll still need to keep up with the fact that we have to try as much as possible to remain at home so that we’re good Canadian citizens and we’re trying to do our deeds and we’re trying to collectively find a way to really, as we say in good French, flatten the curve as much as possible. And I think that’s really our great work collectively as Canadians and as citizens. And as André was mentioning, it’s the balance between all of this that is a challenge. But I think that, I mean, we’ve always demonstrated, I think GAC has been one of those departments that have such an ability to manage crises. This is one of our strengths. And I really believe, I mean, I’ve had the chance to manage this particular crisis from the start. And we’ve always found ways to always look at the health and safety of our folks first. This has been from the get-go our priority and we look at solutions to make it happen.

So what does it represent to reintegrate the workplace? It is made with very strong decision points, always in mind that we keep our people safe. I had the chance as well to hybridly work from both home and from the office. As you say, I’m in the office right now. These are our Mondays. Management is coming into the office as we’re integrated in phase II. We do it very differently. We make sure that we are getting this very open communication between each other. Where we’re not comfortable, what to do to be more comfortable as employees reintegrating, it is different from one person to the other. This is what we found.

A lot, a lot, as managers, we also have to adapt our messages. Sometimes we have different employees with different abilities to manage stress, and the current situation, under a personal point, they all have personal situations and how it manifests itself also at work. I had questions like, for example, I have children, should I go back to work? Because, well, schools are a source of conflict right now. I myself have two young children in the primary context. So these are all challenges that we all experience on a regular basis in our personal hats. How does it fit in? But it’s by really keeping the bridges of communication open between managers and employees and finding the situations that are specific to each one. I think that’s really the watchword. And not only can it be something that is suitable for you one day, the next day can finally be a problematic situation for you where you don’t feel well. “What am I doing? I don’t feel well.” So keep the communication bridges with management and employees regularly to we say touch base with your folks, touch base with your employees and really feel how they are. It might be physical, it might be also psychological. This is what we’ve been seeing over the last 8 months in the making of COVID. We’re now entering, we were talking about phase and wave II earlier. This is also the impact of COVID. We’re starting to feel it psychologically. So bear in mind: be really in touch with both your colleagues, your friends, your neighbours, but your employees as well so this is [no audio] my different hats here at Global Affairs.

John Hannaford: That’s super helpful. Thank you. Annik?

Annik Lemoine: I would agree with what was said. Communication is definitely key and finding ways to connect with both your colleagues, your managers, your, you know, with your employees, with everyone. It’s really easy to lose that connection when you’re not together in the office and you lose those habits. So it’s to find ways to communicate, to transfer information, but to also keep that social connection between teams or among teams. And also empathy and patience, because those who are returning to the office, you know, there are definitely new workplace etiquettes that we need to respect in order to be mindful of those who are around us. And, you know, in 111 Sussex, the S tower, you can only go into the elevator one at a time. Some of you remember, the elevators were often out of service. So if we start right now, there is a very limited amount of employees going back to the office, but if we become more frequent, going in in bigger groups, then there is going to definitely have to be patience as we continue to respect the instructions that are established in the building.

John Hannaford: Absolutely. And maybe, finally, this is a pretty difficult time with regard to mental health. And of course there are tools and resources available to us as employees. André, what resources are available to our community in this context?

André Frenette: Thanks for that question, because I think it’s quite, quite relevant, given where we are now. And I want to use maybe the opportunity to pick up on a point that Isabel-Andrée made about reaching out to colleagues and folks that we know, not just in our own organization, but across the public service. You know, we’ve heard some very positive comments today and it makes me very happy to hear those. I think all of us here today have had a positive experience in reintegrating the workplace, but not all of us are experiencing this in the same way, that’s for sure. And, you know, I think a lot about parents who’ve got young kids going to school on a daily basis having to make decisions about does the kid go to school? Do we not go to school? If the kid comes back home with the sniffles, what do we do? How we react? It’s not easy to be a parent right now with children in school. I think a lot about people that I know that live alone, that live in an 800-ft2 apartment alone, and the struggles that they’re going through all the while continuing to produce for this organization. So Isabel-Andrée’s point about continuing to reach out is really important.

You know, we’re putting together some sessions. I mentioned this at the last town hall. We’re very lucky as an organization to have some top-notch professionals in health and well-being in our department. We really do put together a suite of seminars and workshops that are available to employees. I’m not going to go through all of those, of course, but maybe just a couple to point out that some of these are ongoing. Dealing with anxiety, right? We had sessions during the fall to help our employees, to support our employees in dealing with anxiety. And we know that there’s a lot of that right now going on.

The recent pulse surveys indicated to us that workload is an issue, right? And there’s a direct correlation between mental health and workload. And our colleagues in the department have put together, are putting together workshops to help managers and help employees to kind of juggle the whole workload issue with parental issues. And I understand that that doesn’t solve the entire problem. And we need to continue to have those conversations in the department about that.

And also picking up on a point from Annik earlier about how to properly integrate new employees into our teams: it’s a dynamic that is now completely different from what we experienced before. Therefore, as a manager, I will need the tools to manage this new dynamic that exists within my team. So we offer this kind of training, support, if you will, to managers who now have to manage teams in a way that, in fact, allows them to continue managing teams virtually. And this continues, we continue to have challenges in this regard. Even the very positive points raised by Annik, and we say to ourselves every day that there are still challenges that remain. So as we go through this month of October, mental health month, there’s a number of training opportunities that are available for the staff or employees. I encourage all of you to go on the intranet site and find out what’s available. These sessions have been determined based on the needs that we’ve expressed as an organization, find out what’s available, carve out a bit of time and sign up. 

John Hannaford: Great. Look, we should end on that. But thank you so much, all 3 of you, for participating. André, it’s always a pleasure. And this is a conversation that will continue. Thanks very, very much to all of you.

Isabel-Andrée: Thank you, everyone.

Thank you for listening. And we look forward to you joining us for future episodes of the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada. Don’t forget to join the conversation online using #GACfiles.

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