Transcript – Episode 44: Managing a new team at GAC during the pandemic

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 of another conversation about our community and our workplaces and the challenges involved in our work. It's a real pleasure to be able to host this third in a series of podcasts about the situation that we are confronting together in terms of our workplaces.

This time we thought we would draw together a group of people who have joined teams in the middle of the pandemic and some of the implications of that: how you lead a team that you haven't necessarily spent an enormous amount of time with, how you build up your networks, how you take care of yourself in these circumstances. And so it's a real pleasure to have a great group today. I have Daniel Campeau, who is deputy director of our Office of Values, Ethics and Workplace Well-being. Daniel, I think, is 1 of our few repeat attenders here at the GAC Files. So it's a pleasure to see you again, Daniel. We also have Valérie Samaan, who's the director of strategic communications here at foreign affairs. Tom Cumming, who is the deputy director in the high-intensity service in our Toronto regional office. And Anne Mattson-Gauss, who is the deputy head of mission for our embassy in Russia. So thanks very much to all of you for participating; it's a real pleasure to see you on Teams.

Okay, maybe we can start with Daniel. Daniel, we spoke earlier this year about some of the challenges that people were confronting and sort of the earlier phases of the pandemic. This is a predictable new phase in the pandemic where, you know, over the course of time, we're reconstituting teams and, you know, new people are added. And that creates its own sort of stresses and challenges. I'm just interested in your reflections on how we collectively should be thinking about those sorts of challenges and how best we could manage them.

Daniel Campeau: Well, I think, probably, before the pandemic, some people were idealizing working from home, and now that we've worked from home for 8 months, of course, we've learned that there are advantages and disadvantages. And one of the most significant disadvantages, based on what we hear from employees and managers, is the significantly diminished characteristics of what makes up an effective and good team, such as lack of face-to-face supervision; more difficult access to information; isolation; the distractions and the responsibilities of home; the difficulty in creating team cohesion and inclusion when there are new employees coming in, especially at this point in the assignment cycle or as a manager, as you're coming in and you haven't had the opportunity to be in the presence of your team. Now, while this is happening, at the same time, people are still learning to work from home, trial and error, trying to get the proper tools to work effectively. And also trying to find ways to compensate for the remoteness, the distance; many managers tell us about their concern for their staff's well-being. And at the same time how, despite the technology, it's difficult to really assess, because the video won't replace the team being present, being with someone. Or how also to cope with fluctuating motivation in the face of great fatigue or anxiety. So these are the issues currently faced by managers and teams.

John Hannaford: Right, right. Well, maybe we could turn to some of the other folks on our panel. Valérie, what are your experiences? I imagine the considerations Daniel mentioned are relevant for you as director. But what are your reflections and the strategies most effective for you?

Valérie Samaan: Yes, indeed. Thanks very much for this opportunity. For me, it was important that I had already been part of my team a few years ago in another role. And I came back 2 years later and the team had almost all changed. It was new employees. On the other hand, it was to my advantage that the issues were basically the same. I already knew how the department worked. So I had certain advantages. But certain disadvantages—as my colleague mentioned—like cohesion and inclusion of employees. For sure, many of my employees were already working in the team. I started in June and some of them had even started in March, April or February and not really had the chance to establish relationships with their colleagues. So it was important for me when I started really to try to create that sense of belonging.

What I did, in fact, as soon as I arrived, I had a bilateral with each of my employees to ask what was working well; what worked maybe a little less well in the team. To focus really on the issues of working from home. Working from home is an issue for the majority of executives, managers, employees. Really, it has a major impact. So I really wanted to take the team’s pulse so I could create a kind of vision for my team and see how I could improve the way we work. So that’s one of the things that I did at the start. I created a recognition award for the team. It’s an award that... people are nominated by their colleagues and every month we give the award, which we call the Bright Light Award, to 1 of our colleagues who... It can be related to helping another employee. It’s not just about the issues or the big files, but it’s something that I've found has given a lot of value to the team. We meet every morning, we have a little stand-up—well, we can’t have a stand-up any more, because everyone’s sitting—but we still call it the little stand-up every morning. We talk about what we’re working on. In our area, in communications, things move very fast, as you know, so that’s why we do that every day. It lets us see each other and try to laugh a bit, to keep up everyone’s morale.

Another thing that’s important for me is employees’ mental health. So I keep my virtual door always open. And I really try to make sure they know there are resources available for them. And we try as much as possible to help them in this transition, which is not easy but which is probably going to last for a good while.

John Hannaford: Have you found ways to exchange ideas with other managers on best practices to that end?

Valérie Samaan: Yes, in fact, we use Teams a lot in our team, and with my managerial colleagues as well, where we exchange ideas, we exchange interesting articles on mental health or even what’s happening in Ottawa with COVID. How it’s going to impact employees with children, for instance, if the schools close. So we do a lot—a lot of person-to-person, a lot of interaction between us—to try to help each other at the management level. So that’s something I’ve found is very practical, this platform that we have, that’s going to change of course but that’s going to, even so, remain an interesting platform where people can discuss, whether in small groups or with a bigger group. So I’ve found that’s an issue that, at the beginning, we were a bit unsure about using the platform, but I think the more we used it, the more we realized how versatile it is and that has allowed us to have good engagement, too.

John Hannaford: Right. Tom, maybe I could turn to you. You're going through the experience of now integrating into the regional office in Toronto. How is your team and how are you finding that experience?

Tom Cumming: Sure. If I could just take a couple of seconds to give a little bit of background. So I arrived in the RO, fresh from the PPE wars in China. I worked with a phenomenal team there in what was maybe the most pressing issue of the day. Everybody pulled together, even though they were working with a skeleton staff. People were 12 hours’ time difference from their families. And it was an amazing effort on everybody's behalf. But I returned to Canada tired, exhausted, and went directly into quarantine. The great thing is I—even though I was in quarantine, I never really felt isolated. The team here in Toronto is excellent. It's a very efficient machine. I had a laptop and a mobile phone in my hands within what seemed like minutes. This is due to the excellent staff we have, including Elizabeth Madore, our office manager and then the management team, led by John Zimmerman, was extremely welcoming. It's easy to kind of have the everyday motion of the team and the operations take over, but they took the time to kind of help me to feel comfortable, bring me in. And there are challenges, of course, the RO perspective is entirely different from abroad. It's a different set of relationships. It's a different way of networking. It's different concerns. But in the end, the best thing, I think, about our service is that our colleagues and our partners and including—the vast majority of the time—our clients are extremely open, and they want to be helpful. So it's easy to kind of take advantage of that. You have to network a bit more aggressively, and you can't just bump into people at events or around the water cooler. But if I had advice—and I think we'll get to this a little bit more later on in the podcast—is just to try to integrate yourself as much as you can. Pick the opportunities to reach out to people, reconnect with those you might have lost a bit of touch with, being abroad, and really try to get into the swing of things. Listen, learn, try to understand the dynamic of the office. That's probably key. It's harder when you can't actually see anybody or be in physical meetings. But it's possible with some effort and, again, with the understanding of your colleagues.

John Hannaford: Yeah, it's one of those things— I've not changed jobs during this period, but what you do find is you have to, very self-consciously, be doing things that you might not be so mindfully doing in other circumstances. So the whole process of networking—you really have to set up the appointments, and you have to reach out. You have to be doing, you know, you have to be much more active than you might otherwise be if you were just going to bump into people in the hall or you're going to sort of see people at the edges of events. That, in and of itself, just requires you to be a little bit more strategic, I imagine.

Tom Cumming: To be strategic and, as well, the more you make contact with people, you're not only integrating yourself into the network, but you're making yourself comfortable in the new kind of reality. Right? And every person you connect with, you're making sure that they're staying connected as well. What we don't want to do is lose people: people can fade off into the background a little bit because we aren't seeing each other face to face. So it's good to reach out, make sure people aren't feeling remote or isolated, because that leads to a very negative spiral in terms of your work and that can bleed over into your personal life as well. Of course, it's absolutely essential right now that we all concentrate on our mental health and on adapting to what is a COVID environment that isn't going away any time soon.

John Hannaford: Yeah, quite right. So, Anne, you've travelled the furthest. Well I guess that's not true: you travelled from Beijing! But you have gone the other direction: you and your family have moved to Moscow. And what's been your experience and your reflections based on the transition that you've gone through?

Anne Mattson Gauss: So I’ll focus on my remarks, if you don’t mind, Deputy, in regards to how I’ve gone about building a network here, because, as you know, when you are at post, building a network is absolutely critical. In this context, I’ve had to be extremely practical. Today, there were about 6,000 new cases of COVID in Moscow, which is actually good news, in so much as we’re seeing a bit of a plateau in numbers. So for this reason, of course, very pragmatic approach. And also quickly recognizing that in this context, particularly meeting with local contacts, you don’t phone someone up, you don’t ask them for a video chat in this particular environment; it’s not appropriate. And more broadly, it’s quite difficult.

So I’ve embraced 2 strategies. The first, and this sounds quite Cold War era, given where I’m presently posted, but I spent a lot of time meeting people in parks, because it is the safest way to meet people. And Moscow has become an extraordinary city. The first time I lived in Russia was in the 1990s when I was a student, and the ’90s were quite chaotic and crazy. But since then, in the past 20 years, Moscow has become beautiful. The streets and the sidewalks and the parks are impeccable. So it’s a great way to explore Moscow. I ask contacts to take me to a location that they find most inspiring in Moscow, what they love the most. And it’s a great way to learn about their experience, get to know them better and do it in a safe way. The other way, of course, sometimes it’s not always possible—my southern European colleagues aren’t necessarily interested in walking around cold Moscow with me—so, one of the other ways that we do is we take advantage of our official residence. For other reasons I won’t go into here, we can’t be inviting people into our embassy. So we have this beautiful official residence that’s super practical. And we can control the environment; we can control the numbers; we can control everything. And as a first meeting, this is actually very warmly appreciated and helps solidify those relationships at an early point to be able to invite people and have a conversation there. So those are the 2 strategies that I have been embracing. And so far, so good.

John Hannaford: Well, those all sound very sensible and actually applicable here too. You know, going for a walk, I’ve been doing a little bit of that myself with colleagues, and it’s a way to be socially distanced, to get a little bit of fresh air, but it does allow for that connection. So I completely agree. Well, look, you know, all of you now, having gone through these transitions, you’ve already, sort of, given some advice as to what you found useful. But how would you advise other colleagues who are going through this? What are sort of the key takeaway from your experience that you’d want to share with your colleagues in the community more generally? Let me start with you, Tom.

Tom Cumming: Sure. I think the 2 most important things for me anyways in joining a new team in a new environment is, one, you have to be really patient. You really got to understand the kind of the lay of the land, the personal dynamics, try to understand the stresses, try to understand the history before you would even think as a manager to try building something new or to try to change a system that may be working very well. So the most important thing is to seek out conversations, understand that history, and really listen and try to absorb. And then you can kind of try to work your way through if you think changes are needed, do it slowly, make sure people are comfortable with it, and then they tend to be more effective.

The other side of that, I’d say, is you’ve really got to raise your level of empathy right now. It’s incredibly hard for people to understand what kind of stresses that any individual could be under. Personally, I felt, you know, family wise, it’s very hard to manage things right now. You know, my 2 children, they usually would be playing hockey and going to school every day. And that’s not the reality. But I can’t explain that to every person I meet. So you have to really understand that there’s going to be stress behind the scene that you can’t comprehend. So you have to be patient with people as well and understand that whatever you think is really important from a work perspective, you have to really judge that against, is it worthwhile to push on that person right now, or can I be more empathic and try to help a little bit, understand the situation a little bit and, sort of, do some of the heavy lifting as well, if possible. Right?

John Hannaford: A lot of nodding heads on the line. Valérie, any advice for our colleagues?

Valérie Samaan: Yes, well, for my part, what I find interesting is that in my team—I know that there are several teams within Global Affairs Canada that are in the same situation—our employees come from different departments. So they’re not necessarily employees who are already with Global Affairs Canada, so they have to get used to the new reality of not only joining a new department, but joining it remotely.

So, there are 2 things that I think are important for people who are joining the department, who are completely new to the department. One is to be, to have as many resources as possible. So, be resourceful. Use all the platforms we have on the intranet, the information we have on the Internet. There is so much information that is accessible to all employees. And what I would also give as an idea would be to have a buddy system. So when you start in your new team, make sure you have someone who’s going to be your point of contact if you have questions about how the department works, how to request a myKey, how to make sure to log overtime into the system…or whatever. So it’s super important to have that compatibility with one of the people on the team. At the same time, it makes sure that the person can fit into the team and have that belonging, and be flexible.

As Tom said, empathy is important, and it’s important to understand that everyone has different situations at home. Not everyone has children, not everyone has parents who may have an illness or whatever living with them. So you really have to be flexible when making requests. Especially for managers, it is important to understand that we are living a new reality, which does not mean that everything has to be done right away, right away. We have to be a little more empathetic, as Tom said. So I think these are the two things that are important for new managers and new employees in the department.

John Hannaford: Excellent. And Anne, any reflection from you?

Anne Mattson Gauss: So, my advice would be to be careful in, sort of, over-championing different technological platforms because they create their own level of stress, and they just don’t compare with one-on-one, face-to-face communication. And so I think we need to be extremely realistic about the role that they play and not oversell them. And sometimes nothing beats just giving someone a call, have a direct chat, go for a walk if it’s possible. I am very careful about how much I use these platforms with staff because of the fatigue that is related with them. And it’s often quite difficult, I find, to get the quality of engagement from these platforms that you would otherwise. And I fully recognize, I mean, we have to do what we have to do it. We have to be completely realistic. We have what we have, and we have to make the best of it. But it’s just a word of caution from my experience to not be too overzealous.

John Hannaford: Okay. So, Daniel, do you have any thoughts on this conversation?

Daniel Campeau: Yes, yes, of course. I find the conversation very interesting. And then, if I may, I took note of the words that came up a lot. I heard “empathy” often. I heard “belonging.” I often heard words describing interpersonal relationships, either with our colleagues, employees or again with our partners, so…Then I went ahead and created a sequence here, a sequence that reflects what is important to us as managers right now. I read somewhere that the pandemic has essentially distilled management to its essence. And according to this reputable source, the essence is really helping employees, supporting employees so they can do their jobs. So, I would say the basic ingredients are, as Tom said, empathy and compassion. So, this moment we’re living through requires a lot of compassion from us, and then compassion for ourselves as well. It’s imperative, I would say, that we take care of ourselves as managers so that we can be empathetic to our employees. With empathy comes trust. This is how we cultivate trust, despite distance and despite distractions and sources of anxiety. And finally, so that we can create a workplace that is, virtual or not, a psychologically safe workplace so that employees can come to us if they are distressed or feel vulnerable. This is how we could measure, in a way, our success in our goals of maintaining a psychologically healthy workplace.

Then, with security comes belonging. And Valerie, for example, talked a lot about belonging. So how do we cultivate this sense of belonging to enable employees to engage in discussions about new labour standards? Given the pandemic, how are we going to rethink the organization of work? How are we going to rethink our methods of communication so that we can build, and keep, those bonds within our team as tightly as possible? And finally, I would say, this in turn allows for creativity within teams. People often ask me what are the good practices, the best practices? Well, I encourage them to have discussions with their team members, because I believe that every team, at the end of the day, has a reservoir of good ideas or excellent ideas to maintain efficiency and, at the same time, to maintain that health on psychological well-being.

John Hannaford: Well, thanks so much to all 4 of you. I think there was an awful lot of wisdom that was shared over the course of this conversation. So I really appreciate you taking the time. I really do. You know, I take all of the points. I think we need to be kind. We need to be creative. We need to take care of ourselves. We need to take care of our teams, and we need to carry on. We have really important jobs to be doing, and we’re making real contributions that matter. And so it’s critical that we do these jobs well, and in order to do the jobs well, we need to take care of ourselves and our teams.

So thanks very, very much again for taking the time to have this conversation today. It’s a real pleasure to see all of you. And we’ll look forward to getting a chance to chat in the future. All the very best.

Daniel Campeau: Thank you.

Tom Cumming: Thank you.

Daniel Campeau:  Take care, everyone.

John Hannaford: Bye now.

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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