Harvard Business Review’s mailing include a link to a cool article by Jeanne C. Meister about what HR people will be doing in the future, or doing “more of” in the future, given the impact of COVID-19 and the likely enduring switch to working from home. It’s based on a think piece from one of the thousands of organizations looking at the “future of work”, and there are tons of these reports coming out, as they have for the last five years. Most of them are, quite frankly, wrong. They’re pie-in-the-sky visions of “what could be”, not very practically tied to the current environment. In order for most of the predictions to come true, we would need to see a massive disruption in the workplace and workforce.
Like COVID-19 has now done, which makes some of the more recent predictions more closely tied to reality.
The report outlines 21 different job functions that HR people expect to see in the next 10 years and plots them on a 2×2 grid of how “techy” the companies are and time. It’s an interesting idea, but my take on it is that most of the 21 functions are “options” and not necessarily cooperative ones. People will make choices, and as paradigm one leads to some successes or failures, some of those other 21 options will fall by the wayside.
Here’s what I think is valid…
Well-being – the sh** gets real
Over the last five years, while there has been a lot of talk about well-being in general, and mental health in particular, one of the biggest challenges for the field has been to crystallize a specific problem to solve. While 10-20 years ago, disability was a question-mark for physical disabilities, people figured out access to buildings, retrofitting of offices, and ergonomic assessments. There was an identifiable problem to solve and people could focus on the task to find sustainable solutions. There were false starts, false successes, ongoing challenges, special cases, everything. But it was concrete, and a field developed around disability management and what it entailed in a full entity.
Well-being hasn’t really had that zeitgeist or defining moment. Some people see mental health initiatives being about formal diagnoses while others view it as someone simply having a bad day, and everything in between. Trouble managing work/life balance? Well, that looks different for everyone, right? So no blanket solutions. Working from home has always been a question-mark, often tied to accommodations of a individual worker problem or an incentive for a specific recruitment challenge.
Now? Everyone has similar headings to group their challenges under. Work/life separation when working from home. Time-shifting work duties to deal with home responsibilities like kids when all the schools are closed, while still trying to work and maintain productivity. Technological challenges. Isolation issues.
COVID-19 made all those issues real for EVERYONE. And so every sustainable return-to-work plan has to involve not only the return portion but the ongoing home portion. We’re not in a “temporary world” that people can cope with, this is the new normal. And organizations need someone to pull that all together for them to make sure their policies drafted in the old paradigm still make sense. Even something as simple as office supplies…if your old policy was that WFH was a privilege, so no office supplies were provided, but now EVERYONE is at home and needing paper and printer cartridges, who’s looking at the rules when bottlenecks or irritants crop up?
Where I disagree is with the suggestion that there will be “new jobs” being formed such as Director of Well-being and Work from Home Facilitator. In my opinion, those are functions that will need to be addressed, but most places are just going to assign them to HR and if they do use the new titles, it will be replacing old titles that are pre-COVID. Does that mean they are new jobs or just old jobs being changed? I don’t know.
Everyone will care about health and safety
OHS used to be something only the unions and a few people cared much about, particularly in an office environment. Sure, there were people who cared about scents; others who worried the lights were killing them; others wanted juice bars. But most of it was about regulations related to chemicals or heavy equipment. Ask yourself…when was the last time you read the minutes of an OHS meeting? Do you even know who your OHS officers are? Or who chairs the committee? Probably not.
But as people return to the office, that “health” role just went through the roof. They now have to understand social distancing, local and national guidelines, best practices in internal mobility of workers in elevators or stairs. Just as retail outlets had to figure it out for grocery stores. If people return to offices, will they need shields in front of adminstrative assistants? Will that be the “minimum standard” or a “gold standard”?
The research didn’t address this directly, other than as organizational trust, but their focus went to the IT / AI side, and quite frankly, most employees aren’t going to see anything like that anytime soon.
Nobody understands privacy
Oh sure, everyone understand the basics of privacy (permission to gather) and damage (leaks and breaches). However, while the survey work focused on AI and bias in algorithms, what they didn’t see coming that is directly tied to COVID is the sheer number of people working from home. I work in government, and we have long had a policy that certain docs can only be worked on at the office and saved on secure drives. Our regs are clear. But what do you do when people have to prepare those docs from home and the infrastructure from point A to point B is NOT as secure as what we had? Do you do the work and “hope for the best” or do you refuse the work because it can’t be done securely? In a time when rules are falling by the wayside all over the world to “get the work done”, privacy rules are likely being broken hourly. They aren’t breaches or leaks, but the assets are not secure.
As we move to a fully enabled WFH culture in many industries, what does that mean now? Fully encrypted VPNs, perhaps? And how long will that take to integrate into existing systems? Where I work, things are flying through the system at lightning speeds to meet immediate needs, which is great for productivity, but the reason they can do it is basically we relaxed all the due diligence rules that have been in place for some time. Red tape, a bunch of people say. Privacy laws, other say.
Other areas I’m not sold on
You could think that emergency preparedness and business continuity people will be important in the future, and I completely disagree. We just went through a catastrophic transformation, and while some people will say that proves the benefit for the future, the short version is that all of it was unforeseen. And very few orgs were able to use their BCP for anything other than phone numbers of key personnel. There was no loss of data, no damage to the office, we just couldn’t go to work. So we dealt with it. Not cleanly, not perfectly, but we did, and mostly WITHOUT BCP offering us anything. So if it didn’t help with the big event, why would I bother with it for next time?
Others want to argue for a more “woke” work culture, with diversity, safety in the workplace, community relations. Ethics in how we use info and how we operate period. Great. Except COVID also said “Stick to what we HAVE to do now” to keep the lights on and the trains running. We have legal obligations we aren’t meeting, and they expect orgs to pony up resources for ethical operations with the community? Most of them are going to slap a BLM announcement on their website and call it a day. They’re fighting to survive financially and economically. There are few examples of successful companies doing more than the minimum in those types of crises.
I want to embrace the calls for more creativity and innovation. I do. I’ve seen it on IT, I’ve seen it in options for WFH and everything else. It’s inspiring even. But I also think there will be a snap-back at some point, and innovation is going to be one where people start getting bitten. Oh, you did a new program with no due diligence and 2 years later discover massive problems? Snapback. Oh, you had a data breach while having all of your workers access confidential info on clients from home? Stick to your knitting. Lock it down. Not everything will be a home run, there will be failures. And when they do come, many organizations have a habit of NOT learning from failure nor celebrating it and moving on, but rather circling the wagons to regroup.
I am intrigued by the idea that there will be something called a VR Immersion Counselor. I don’t know who they talked to outside the executive suites, but a lot of organizations are struggling to switch to using Zoom, yet the CEOs think they’re ready for VR? There’s some pun in there about dreaming in technicolour, I think. I do think that HR will spend SOME time (i.e. a LOT) adapting to the new e-world. Interviews entirely by Zoom, time-shifting behaviour, references by chat, etc. It will be different. It will work, but it will take time.
I confess I am also not sold on the future of AI or “human machine partnerships”, at least not any time soon. If they want to give me a robot butler and everyone gets a smartcar, sure. Until then? Not buying it. I do think we’ll have better data algorithms to spot patterns in large data sets. But that still requires a human to interpret what it means.
Still, it was an interesting forecast. And unlike the ones of the last five years, it has a strong disruptive event to base its analysis on in order to make it realistic.
There are processes in GoC HR called “inventories” and they are often done in one of three instances, all of them generally bad for the applicant:
A. They are hiring for LOTS of different categories
You’ve likely seen these, as it will say “Come work at Transport! We’re hiring AS-01, AS-02, AS-03, AS-04,…” and they then list 7 levels of AS, 5 levels of PM, 7 levels of EC, etc. It’s called a “cattle call” and it is basically the equivalent of having a large drop box in front of their building that says “drop your resume off here and maybe someone will look at it”. There are no specific jobs identified, just an open lazy-ass HR process that screams “We have no idea what we’re doing but we need a lot of people and it’s easier to do this than a real competition where we tell you in advance what we want. We would like good people, but since good people won’t apply through this process unless they dream of working at Transport, we’ll settle for warm bodies who have no dignity, self-esteem, or standards. Oh, and since we have offices in multiple locations and can’t tell you what the job is, we won’t bother giving you any details on where the jobs are or what the requirements are, so try and be psychic to include what we’re looking for!”
B. They are hiring for multiple levels in a single category.
Often this is slightly better, as it will say, “Hey we’re hiring, and we need EC-02, -03, 06, 07”. While that seems at least a little more focused, here’s the stupid part. EC-02s and -03s should never be in the same process as an EC-07 since the requirements are completely different. So, since HR knows this and doesn’t have a solution, they tell you almost NOTHING about the requirements for any of the jobs. Again, it screams “We’re really desperate for ECs, and rather than waste time running competitions that might only promote people but not increase our body count, we’ll just see who is desperate enough to run our administrative gauntlet blindly!”. Again, you’re basically being psychic.
C. It’s a single classification level but they have very different jobs within it
So I was asked a question through my website by someone looking to apply for a job at Health Canada in their Regulatory Enforcements and Operations Branch. And it is a perfect example of why I totally hate inventories. I should state, which is probably obvious if you read my guide (see the sidebar), that I prefer crisp and clean processes that are totally linear from one end to the other. It does NOBODY any good to be in a process where elements are opaque. You have people, who are quite good, stumbling over what should be an administrative tickbox and getting tossed from a process just because the tickbox was hidden under a layer of stupid HR and they miss out on a great job while the hiring manager can end up missing out on the best candidate.
Let me show you what I mean with this example from Health Canada. I am not going to list the process or reference numbers because I don’t want to seem in any way like I’m promoting it to anyone.
Increasing the risk of a bad HR process
Let’s go through the poster in detail, and I’ll show you how it combines a bunch of BAD elements for both the candidate and the hiring manager.
First, it is an inventory for an SG-SRE-05 position, which I’ll tell you right off the bat is a specialized category. The job classification falls in the SP grouping (applied science and patent examinations) which includes many of the GoC’s scientists — AC (actuaries), AG (agricultural specialists), BI (biologists), CH (chemists), FO (forestry), MT (meteorology), and PC (physical sciences). For this job, it is in SG-SRE which is “Scientific Regulation” (as opposed to SG PAT which is for patents). It is a highly specialized, highly technical group. It combines scientific knowledge, legal issues, and policy considerations. If it is the right fit for the employee, it can be their DREAM job (for the combination) or their worst NIGHTMARE (depending on the policy direction).
I tried to find out exactly how many people are in that category across all of government, and couldn’t lay my hands on the data easily. I know they’re represented by the PIPSC union, which only has 60K members in total but they have 41 separate groups that they represent. The SP group overall might be decent size, but I suspect SG-SREs are less than 5K across all of government, and likely less than 2K in total. Those specializing in health only? Even smaller. Those operating at the -05 level, their big working level (the equivalent of an EC-06/PM-05 working level for other categories)? Smaller still.
So, to put it differently, the potential pool isn’t big. Which then cuts both ways. If the pool isn’t big, you might want to enlarge it and so an “open call” to anyone and everyone might increase your pool; but if the pool isn’t big, you can also tailor the job to those most likely to apply so that they WILL apply easily. An open-style inventory doesn’t do either of those well.
Here’s the kicker too. It doesn’t say if it is “at level” only; open to actings; or potentially could be an actual competition. You don’t know, you just apply. They’ll figure that out if they want you, I guess.
Next on the list is that it involves three separate streams. Streams aren’t always bad, but they’re looking for regulatory advisors, specialists and supervisors. Those are three positions that attract a wide range of people who are interested. But it doesn’t ask you in the portal which one you want to apply for, you are applying for all three simultaneously, AND it doesn’t tell you which elements go with which job. As you go through the questions, you can likely figure out which ones are “supervisors” as they ask questions about HR and finance. But what if they want a specialist who also has some HR experience because they want people to lead a small team, if not formally supervise them? Well, if you didn’t fill that tickbox out, you’re likely screwed.
However, I will tell you that their HR jedi are putting the most positive spin on their poster — “An inventory is a selection process that can be used by various hiring managers to meet their current and future needs. As a result, you will apply only once to be considered for multiple job opportunities at the SG-SRE-05 level.”
Third up are the multiple locations for the job. It SOUNDS great, as it lists jobs all across Canada (3 offices in BC, 2 in Alberta, 2 in Saskatchewan, 1 in Manitoba, 6 in Ontario including Ottawa, 4 in Quebec including Gatineau, 1 in Nova Scotia and 1 in New Brunswick). Remember that this is a HIGHLY SPECIALISED group with a small base. Which means there isn’t going to be a lot of labour mobility within the category. If you are in an SR5 job in Winnipeg in the one and only office, you’re likely to be in that job for an extended period of time. Equally, you probably aren’t looking to move to Quebec if you’re living in Winnipeg. So when you apply, you need to specify which areas you’re willing to work in, and maybe you’re open, but maybe you’re not. In my regular job, I’ve got some ties to people who work in labour mobility more generally, and while we often work to eliminate barriers between provinces on certifications, the real decision for people to move is often personal, not purely work-related. Dentists don’t leave one province to go to another if they can find work in their home area. So someone looking to apply likely has a VERY defined area they’re interested in. And if the job in Winnipeg is for a supervisor, they could tailor a really kick-ass application to that specific form of the job. Or a really kick-ass advisor application. They just need to know WHICH one they’re applying for and they’ll dance on the head of a pin for it.
But they don’t know which job it is in Winnipeg, or to be honest, if there is even a job IN Winnipeg. They list these inventories every place they might need someone, they rarely exclude a post. There are no “specified” jobs tied to the inventory that have to be filled. Really, you don’t even know that there are ANY jobs available (for the intent of the process where it often undersells anyway, it says “to be determined”). It stands to reason they wouldn’t run an inventory if they didn’t expect to have SOME needs, but hard to say. Sometimes they forecast badly. Maybe they have a lot of young officers at home during a pandemic and they’re worried they’ll lose a lot to parental leave in about 9 months.
But with all this “flexibility”, there is another problem that is made clear when you get to the actual portal to apply. It asks you which of those offices you want to be considered to work in. Sounds easy peasy, right? Except suppose you REALLY want a supervisory position. And if you’re offered THAT, you’d be willing to move to Winnipeg or Halifax, but not Toronto. But you don’t know where the supervisory positions will be. So you have to apply to any location, and if it turns out that Halifax considers you but for a specialist position you don’t want, then both you and the hiring manager just wasted their time.
Most of the poster has to be about the general aspects of the jobs since there is no specific job. Duties are general, the work environment is “general”. But if you’re working in Ottawa with 20 other regulatory people, or coordinating across Canada, your job looks VERY different from someone in Winnipeg where they might be the ONLY -05 in a small office. Across HR, people are working very hard to beef up those elements in job posters as they realize the “non-work” elements are equally important. There is a GREAT example for Agriculture Canada in Ottawa which has an office that is NOT in the downtown core, which drastically improves commuting hassles (before COVID) and they advertise that out the wazoo. Maybe the one in Burnaby is right next to day-care, maybe the one in Montreal is right above a Metro stop. Who knows? Because the poster has to market them all equally, they end up marketing them all badly.
It combines both inside the government and outside the government in the same process. The poster is mainly written for those outside government so it doesn’t look overly bureaucratic. And for those in technical regulations, the truth of the matter is that often they have more experiences and knowledge in common with the industry they are regulating than with the pure policy or technical wonks down the hall. They have counterparts in the industry who also combine law, technical knowledge and policy who manage how to comply with the regulations, comment on them, etc. Often in industry associations. And in some fields, you could more flexibly move between the two. Except the process is overwhelmingly complex for someone outside the government (and more so than a normal comp for 3 separate jobs) and overly opaque for someone inside.
Don’t get me wrong, I like that it is open to the public, I just think it should then be geared towards the public so government doesn’t look like its HR is run by bureaucrats in the worst sense of the word.
For the actual requirements of the job, because of much of the above, there are a lot of requirements where it says OR. And one of them really quite badly. Here’s the wording in the poster:
Significant* experience researching, analyzing, interpreting policies, legislation, or technical information (such as data or literature) and making recommendations.
Okay, so what that means is they are looking for:
Experience researching (x)
Experience analyzing (x)
Experience interpreting (x)
Experience making recommendations about (x) based on the research, analysis and interpretation;
For the (x) , it says “policies, legislation or technical information”.
I’ve been an EC a long time, and I did a year of law school back in the day. I’m also decent with highly technical information usually, even though I don’t have a science background. So I have some experience with all three of those things, and I can tell you that they are NOT the same skill set. There are lots of people who are great at policy and have no idea how to read legislation and technical stuff would throw them. Or people who are experts at technical but the regulatory and policy stuff would drive them nuts. So the fact that is an “OR” for those three is puzzling. Worse though is it isn’t clear that the wording doesn’t mean:
Experience researching ANYTHING
Experience analyzing ANYTHING
Experience interpreting policies legislation or technical information
Experience making recommendations about anything
People have successfully challenged clearer wording before, so I’m not going too far in questioning the wording.
Later, it includes references like “Significant* experience developing or reviewing scientific or regulatory documents or policies”…are those (developing or reviewing) (scientific or regulatory) (documents or policies) or does it mean (developing) (or reviewing scientific or regulatory documents) (or policies) or does it mean (developing or reviewing) (scientific or regulatory documents) (or policies). The last one is completely possible that someone could read it as the policies could be about anything, it was just docs that had to be scientific.
Am I being overly pedantic? Maybe. You tell me. Is it LIKELY that they meant anything other than the first option? No, but someone could easily misread it and be “out” even though they would have answered just fine if the poser had said, “Experience in developing and/or reviewing written materials (such as documents and/or policies) related to scientific or regulatory issues”. I prefer AND/OR to simple OR, but that is my legislative interpretation background showing through, I suppose. OR suggests one or the other but not both, while AND/OR makes it clear you might have both and if YOU do have both, you might want to explain that…I have seen people who applied and thought, “Well as long as I have one, I’ll just mention that”, and the hiring manager or HR person thought it wasn’t “significant enough” so they get tossed. It’s a bad way to apply, but the wording encouraged it.
The challenge I’m flagging though is that the MORE you use streams and cattle calls, the more you start to put in a lot of “this OR that OR another thing” and it can lead to some weird wordings that seem obvious to the writer but not necessarily obvious when the applicant is stressed or not quite so knowledgeable about application processes.
However, these pale in comparison with the huge laundry list that then follows:
• Significant* and recent** experience working in any of the following disciplines: o Quality Assurance o Quality Control o Biological Products o Cannabis o Pesticides o Tobacco/Vaping o Natural Health Products o Food Manufacturing o Pharmaceuticals o Medical Devices o Consumer Products o Cosmetics o Precursor Chemicals o Controlled Substances o Environmental Health o Public Health o Quality Management Systems in accordance with ISO 9001 or ISO 17025 standards
If you’re too tired to count them, I’ll tell you there are 17 different categories there. In the portal, it asks you “yes or no” if you have each of those separately, and THEN you have a single box where you dump in all your evidence of having that experience. How much should you write about it? I don’t know. I have no idea. Because I don’t know how important each element is to the job that you want. Because I don’t know what the JOB is.
I can tell you that it is a huge burden on the applicant to cover every possible element in that list when they don’t know which ones are relevant to the local job they want. Suppose, for example, you live in Calgary and you want to stay in Calgary. And you see this job, and you think, “Looks interesting, sure, I’ll apply”. And you have lots of experience in Cosmetics so you feel like you clearly meet that one, but in comparison, not so much for most of the others. You have experience in a bunch of the others but aren’t sure if it is “significant” enough. And you’re outside government, and don’t know you should answer EVERYTHING you might qualify for, so you just focus on cosmetics because you can nail that one and think that is sufficient (you got one of the OR options). But it turns out that the Calgary office was mainly interested in Pharmaceuticals and that your experience working for a food and cosmetics company would have been sufficient. But you didn’t tick that box, never even knew there was a job that had food and cosmetics that you would have spent a lot of time on an application for, because YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT’S RELEVANT AND WHAT ISN’T.
Normally when you see a list like that, it is an “asset” element. It says “Hey we have a bunch of core essential elements”, but since the jobs are going to vary, “we are also looking for assets in some of these areas”. They can’t be essential because they are all one big giant OR list.
So what do you have to do? You have to answer EVERY one you possibly can because if they are looking for Cosmetics (which you nailed) and also Food (which you didn’t feel was strong enough to mention but you could have tried), then you’re not even going to get considered. It’s the same as the LOCATIONS part above. If you would take a supervisory position in 8 different offices, say yes to all eight; and say “no” later if they call you and it isn’t supervisory. Why waste everyone’s time applying for elements that will have NOTHING to do with what you end up working on? It’s an inventory, why not?
I don’t mean to rant, but this is just a badly done poster overall. In the same section, where it says here are the essential requirements*that you (supposedly) have to cover in your application*, it lists:
Competencies: • Respectful of Diversity • Thinking things through • Working effectively with others • Showing initiative and follow through • Dependability • Attention to Detail Abilities: • Ability to communicate effectively verbally and in writing • Ability to work in a high pressure environment with changing priorities
If you are within government, you KNOW that the only two things in your application are experiences and eligibility. Competencies + abilities + personal suitability are all elements that are tested through a process. Almost universally. Once in a while, HR will fudge it a bit and use your resume or application as evidence of your written communication skills, but it’s on shaky grounds legally. Anyone can hire someone to write their resume or edit their application. I have helped 100s of people tweak an application letter/element. For my own staff, I’ve even helped edit their cover letters or resume in markup edit mode to give them suggestions where they’re struggling with how to word something or structure a paragraph to cover three different things in a short amount of space. If the HR marked their application for writing, were they marking THEM or ME?
When I saw it on the poster, my first thought was, “What? Are they nuts? How the heck are they going to mark THAT in an application?”. So I went to the portal. And of course they don’t. Sure, they’re essential, but they’re not part of your application even though it says so at the top of that section on the poster. Sigh.
And like all posts that have multiple streams, there are 10 assets. After the 17 above, what could possible be missing? I don’t know, but they have 10 that look an awful lot like some should have been essential. Wouldn’t you think, after you answered the question about your experience with docs, you have likely already answered it completely? Of course you did. But now, they want to know if you have “Significant* experience developing or reviewing scientific or regulatory documents or policies” so they can see if you have at least two years. They could do that with just “scoring” the experience requirement. They don’t need a whole separate element for it, but sure, why not? This is poor process design because the applicant is going to hit it and either just copy and paste what they ALREADY wrote above, or take a risk and say “See element above, ya stupid git”.
Then we come to the Conditions of Employment. When HR processes run broad jobs across a wide range of physical environments in Canada, particularly with regional offices, the duties the employees perform in those offices vary widely. And the CoE often presents serious challenges to the wording. The list includes a requirement for a driver’s license. Or more accurately, “Possession of a valid Driver’s license OR personal mobility to the extent normally associated with the possession of a valid Driver’s License.”
If you’re in Ottawa, you will probably never need that. Why? Because if you’re going to a site location, it is almost guaranteed that you’re going to take a taxi. Toronto and Montreal have great transit systems, are you going to drive? Maybe, maybe not. But if you’re in Moncton, and you have to serve the whole province, a taxi isn’t feasible. So it makes sense there. Some locations? Not so much. So I know some good policy people who could not tick the box that they have personal mobility equivalent to having a drivers license except inside the city limits.
Oh, sure, HR will tell you that it’s possible, some people do travel from Ottawa to somewhere like Bancroft to do an audit and you need to drive. Okay. Sure. It’s possible. But I also know that in most places that have regulatory staff, some of them NEVER leave the office while others LEAVE REGULARLY. Depends on the job, allocation of duties, etc.
What I’m trying to say overall is that it lists a drivers license, travel within and outside provinces, international travel, and three possible levels of security clearance. What if you have a summary conviction offense for smoking marijuana five years ago, and it is enough to block you from a TOP SECRET clearance (maybe, maybe not). But it wouldn’t do anything to your reliability check unless maybe you were working on Cannabis regulations. Almost all of the requirements listed are “dependent on the final job”. But you have to say yes to them all to even continue in the process.
The one that frequently bothers me, and it’s a small bugaboo, is it asks you if you’re willing to work occasional overtime on evenings and weekends. Which most people can and do say “yes” to…except, if you’re a single parent, and have reliable daytime care, you might be able to do the OT if and only if you have a couple of days notice to arrange a backup. Or for example, if you’re sharing custody, and you’re likely going to be swamped for the last two weeks of March, maybe you can arrange for the kids to be with their other parent that week. Or your partner has some flex in their schedule and normally they would take care of the kids at night, but 1 week in 4, they’re on call at night and can’t cover THAT one week.
Yet people are asked a binary question — are you willing yes or no. Wellllll, it’s not a binary world. Yes I’m willing but sometimes I might not be able to…and I’m not even talking about the stress of being asked to work OT because of bad management where they sat on something for three weeks, now it’s urgent, and the only way to get it done is to work over the weekend. Are you STILL willing? Wellll….
I know why we ask, and why HR wants it in there, and the unions are okay with it. I feel it would be a lot better to say “Willing to consider reasonable OT on occasion, if necessary” or some more nuanced wording that HR could come up with that says “you will do it if the request is reasonable, not stupidly inflexible”.
But I’ve seen single mothers who did not apply to something because it said that and they felt it meant on very short notice and they didn’t feel they could find night care on short notice. And then after the fact, after the comp closed and they didn’t apply, they’re talking to someone who works there who says, “oh, yeah, but if we’re doing OT, we always know about it about 2 weeks ahead”.
Yet even if I ignore my regular bugaboo, this section looks like it says “Hey lets only have able-bodied single people with no kids apply”. I’m sure it’s not intended that way, but it sure could turn people off, particularly if they are outside government where OT sometime means “Dave didn’t show up for his shift and I need you to work tonight or you’re fired”.
One last thing about inventories is mentioned at the end of the poster. It says that if you have successfully submitted, you will be registered in the inventory. Does this mean you’re qualified? Nope. It just means you applied and the computer didn’t spit you out. It means NOTHING other than “Thanks, don’t call us, we’ll call you”. Literally. They say: “…your application can be considered. You will be informed in the event that your application is considered as part of a process generated from this inventory.” No one assessed ANYTHING to see if you’re qualified. An inventory isn’t a POOL to hire from, it’s a list of people to MAYBE INTERVIEW.
Sooo, in theory, if a manager looks at for a job, they’ll call you? Not necessarily. The manager might be just browsing. What they MEAN is if the manager decides to do a real process based on the inventory, you’ll hear from them. If they went through and didn’t like your application, they’ll ignore you and you may NEVER HEAR ANYTHING. Lots of people have seen these inventories and thought, “Wow, they must be hiring lots of people, I should apply because multiple jobs with one application, awesome”. And then they hear nothing. Ever. Because nobody used the inventory, or there was only one job and you didn’t tick the COSMETICS box or you didn’t say you were willing to work in Montreal. So your application disappears into a black hole and maybe it comes back out through a worm hole, maybe it doesn’t.
It is a REALLY good way to make an applicant do a LOT of work having no idea what will happen afterwards, if they’re even really going to be considered, or what the jobs even look like, if there are any. And unlike a normal process, where if you were considered, you would get a notice saying you were screened out that could trigger informal feedback as to why, for inventories, you GET NOTHING BACK. “Hey look, this person doesn’t have quality assurance or cosmetics ticked, nope” yet you thought it all went in properly. And maybe you DO have those things but the system isn’t showing your application right. Technical glitches DO happen. Or simple user errors. And we have legislation that says some simple errors can be corrected and the application retained. But it doesn’t really apply to inventories as you may never hear ANYTHING about being considered or not.
But wait, it gets worse. Your first application is only good for 120 days. At the end of the 120 days, you’ll get a notice in the online portal that it’s about to expire, and if you don’t click, “I’m still interested!”, they’ll deactivate your application. You can renew it later, but you have to keep it “active”. They can sit on their butts doing literally nothing, maybe with no intention of EVER using the inventory because they looked through it, saw 3 people that interested them and took them, and left the rest sitting there with no info ever. And departments frequently extend inventory because “maybe someone good is in there”. The HR people may not know they all suck, they just run the process. If the managers don’t say, “Blech”, they’ll keep renewing the inventory. It’s part of their metrics of good HR (“hey our metrics show we have an inventory of 500 people available, aren’t we great?”).
Why don’t I like inventories? Because they encourage HR to merge jobs together, streams together, requirements together, locations together, conditions of employment together into combinations that may or may not exist in the real world. Which means the applicant has no idea what they’re actually applying for — dream policy job in Calgary or their worst nightmare supervisory job in Toronto?
Equally, applications go in, and sometimes, nothing comes out. There’s no process to follow up on, no idea if jobs are being filled, NOTHING. Were you considered?
The processes are opaque to the candidate and all of the control is hidden in the hands of the hiring manager with no checks and balances on things like bias, discrimination, or even simple administrative error.
It’s lazy HR and I think they should be banned. If you have an actual job available, post the damn thing.
If you’re applying for one, don’t get your hopes up, but tick every box you can and answer every possible question where you think you could even remotely qualify.
Personally, I’m fortunate enough to be in a good classification and level for me, and already in government (obvious). My reaction is if someone runs their HR department with lazy inventories? I don’t want to work for them. I know there have been a few who ran huge inventories and then started screening everyone actively, but that type of rigour (and outcome) is rare. There are better processes to target for your time and energy investment.
As part of an update to my website, I am revamping all my featured images (https://polywogg.ca/new-featured-images-astronomy/). Having already tackled a small one (astronomy) and a large one (website and computers), I am turning my attention to a different challenge — governance. I actually have multiple categories that fall into a “governance” theme, although in many ways, “government” might be a better term for some.
I have an actual category specifically called governance, and I tend to write about a variety of things related to running a government. Elections, public administration, audits. I have more of a technical bent to my topics, and if I was completely candid, it seems like public administration would be the more likely heading. Except from time to time I go above that and intersect with policy and politics. The running of a government at a level above. Not often, but occasionally, and usually related to how the two realms — politics and public administration — intersect. At one point, I wanted a new “image” to represent all that, and given the ethereal nature of the concepts, I made up a combined image representing different parts of a governance package — politics, legislation, judicial, and the people. It’s not a huge category for me, only 30 posts out of about 1400 deal with governance issues, but it may grow once I retire.
I also used to work at CIDA dealing with international development issues. I don’t write about it very often, only 27 posts in total, and 17 of those are about one specific book where I wrote about each chapter as I went. I do like to follow what’s happening in broad trends, though, since I spent 10 years of my career dealing with the files, yet even when I do write, I tend to have a “public administration” slant to my writing, rather than development in general. I didn’t have a great idea for my international development “image”, but managed to find one that was about food security, including both growing your own food and production of meals afterwards. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’ll do.
A third area I write about regularly is the “civil service” itself. And to be honest, I haven’t had a good image to reflect that area. It’s not a lot of posts, still only about 27, but I’ve tended to bop between one of two images. First, I’ve used the general governance image shown above, but that doesn’t really reflect what we do. I have also often used the bottom right-hand corner of that governance, the one of “people” to reflect the civil service (the fourth pillar of the governance stream). Which is fine. Except that I have also used that one a LOT for something else — my posts about HR in the government. In particular, when I’m writing items for my HR guide, I’ve tended to use that image as the theme. However, to be honest, I don’t really like it for my HR guide. I need a new one for that, so I can use it here now. And, as noted, there’s symmetry with the larger combined governance image.
Which leaves me with two very specific areas to deal with. One is a “one-off” conference that I helped organize way back in 2002. The reports and docs are on my site (13 pages), and I use the logo we had for the conference.
The other is my HR guide. I have struggled with this guide for a long time, in varying forms. Mostly I have used my large tree frog image to reflect my branding for it.
But a few years ago, before I ran into some publishing snags with the Conflict of Interest people, I went ahead and had the full cover page designed for the guide.
Okay, okay, it’s a little large for a featured image for a post. 🙂 So, I’ve played with cropping a bit, and I have this.
I ain’t gonna lie…I really like that one. Okay, good. Governance images are set!
Unless you have been living under a rock, you would know that one of the latest pushes in all management circles — public, private, C-suites, academia — is to figure out how to improve workplaces so that they are supportive of good mental health. But part of that push is recognizing that we are not there yet, and even if we were, life happens outside of the workplace too, and eventually, even the most awesome place to work is going to deal with mental health issues with its employees.
Analysis without resolution
Earlier today, our branch held a half-day management discussion on mental health issues and included a desire for us all as managers to make a personal commitment to what we would “undertake” to improve our support on mental health issues. Some of them range from the obvious (don’t look at your phone while you’re talking to someone) while others are more complex (how to manage performance when there is an undiagnosed but suspected mental health issue on display). As I look at them, I start to feel like I’m doing a simple analysis without resolution. But these are the thoughts that tickle my brain.
One of our conversations was around the type of mental health issue. For example, something that is a one-off is often easier to respond to, as it is clear what the cause is, and even what some of the options are to help. At least insofar as you are helping as a manager with the “incident”/”episode”. By contrast, it is often more difficult when it is either not obvious what the issue is or where it is ongoing. So, a death in the family might prompt obvious responses for sympathy, leave, etc., while prolonged grief presents more challenges for the manager to know how to help, or even in some cases, whether to help at all.
But even the episodic can prove challenging. At one point in my career, one of our young staff was travelling for work here in Canada, and had an allergic reaction to something she ate, ending up in the hospital. To me, everything seemed stable, and she was an adult…the situation sucked, but I didn’t think we had any role to play other than staying in touch with her. For me, it was only marginally different than if she had gotten sick in Ottawa. Yet my director was going out of her way (in my view) to help her mother figure out how to get there to be with her, etc. Even looking into whether or not we could pay for the trip. By instinct, I would have done none of that. For me, it seemed like we were actively intervening in her life, in her business, and I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that. Yet tragedy struck. The young woman had a seizure and died. Suddenly it didn’t seem like our involvement was enough.
To the extent I can separate out the tragedy from the work side of things, some of it still bothers me in the abstract. Does the age of the person factor into my role as a manager? Should I be more aggressive intervening for a younger employee than an older employee? Would I decide on my role on the basis of whether or not they were married? Surely if it is right to intervene for one employee, it can’t be their age or marital status that determines my role? And while this was a physical health issue, would it make a difference if it was a mental health one?
Way back when I was starting in government, I had a co-worker who was about the same age. She was bright, articulate, good interpersonal skills, a work friend and a good colleague. Her dwelling was struck by lightning while she was having a shower, and she was jolted. In short, it messed her up. What seemed at first like it was a simple physical recovery problem became evident that it was more than that, a combination of concussion-like symptoms mixed with paranoia. I noticed she seemed more pessimistic than normal, but that’s all I noticed. But her supervisor noticed the paranoia and called her parents who took her back home to help her heal. Would I have intervened enough to call her parents? Was it because she was single that our role as coworkers and friends changed? If she had been married, would our role have been simply to ask the spouse, perhaps, if they had noticed something?
I find myself often thinking about this role as manager in helping staff who are off on extended sick leave. In the Government of Canada, our benefits and rules basically give you up to 2 years of medical leave if needed, without pay. At the end of two years, you have to “resolve your leave situation”. This means one of four things:
Return to work, with a doctor signing off you’re not only okay to come back but with any accommodation issues that need to be addressed;
Retire, if you have enough years in to do so;
Medical retirement, which usually requires you to have a different amount of years of service plus a medical evaluation that says you are still unable to work currently with an indeterminate time remaining for recovery, if at all (i.e., in other words, you aren’t well enough to work and they have no timeline to suggest when you might be);
Now take, for example, an employee who is off for leave because of a head injury or mental health concerns. They can’t work because they can’t concentrate, maybe their judgement is impaired, they are dealing with health issues plus the extra emotional and psychological burden of doing so, and one of their key “grounding” networks and routines i.e. work and the workplace is no longer part of their life. Yet as a manager, at the first instance of being on sick leave, and again at 12m, 18m, and 23m, I have to write to the employee and say, “Hey, by the way, while you’re dealing with all of that, here are 20 pages of dense documents to read and then decide what you’re doing with your life”.
On multiple occasions, I have had employees that I was managing come to me and say, “What should I do?”. Except my role is both to manage them and represent the organization. If I lead them through the decision points, and they aren’t able to return to work, aren’t old enough/haven’t served enough to take regular retirement, and don’t qualify for medical retirement, then their last choice is to quit, yet I could be accused of trying to get rid of them by helping them figure that out.
This is why labour relations will quickly tell you not to do that, and instead point them to their union, the Employee Assistance Program, their family, etc., instead of helping directly. I can explain the options, tell them what they CAN do, but avoid any semblance where I am telling them what TO do. And yet, I am their manager. Part of that job is helping them understand their options, making informed decisions, whether that be training, applying for or accepting new jobs, etc. Yet in this situation, there’s an inherent conflict of interest in roles. Equally, referring them to the union or EAP isn’t exactly a slam dunk that they will get the help they need.
If that sounds too abstract, let me give you an example, which I will combine aspects from different experiences into a single case. Suppose you have an employee who is on extended sick leave. They come to you at one point, they have all their medical forms with them, and they’re trying to figure out which work forms plus which medical forms need to be submitted. Equally, you also know, because they told you, that a friend is going to take them on a vacation to get away from the stress at home, and they’re going to go down south for a week. And they want to know if that’s a problem for their leave benefits. So they’re asking you (a) which medical forms need to go with which work forms and so they’re sharing medical forms that you don’t need to see and probably shouldn’t and (b) asking if they should tell the insurance company they’re going down south or will that create an impression they’re not really sick. As a manager, you now have more information than you need to or should have; an employee is asking you to help them file for their sick benefits, which if you get wrong, will no doubt come back and bite you because the “manager told them to file it that way”; and, they’re asking you for ethical guidance on how to manage information with their insurance company, which would also bite you whether you tell them to tell or not tell the insurance company.
At times, it can feel like the movie War Games. The only way to win the game is not to play.
On top of that, I as a manager, have never had any training to help deal with someone in that situation. Sure, I reached out to Labour Relations for assistance and they walked me through what I needed to do, but there is a large gap between the formal guidance in the abstract and the specific management on the ground when the employee that you manage is sitting in front of you.
One thing that I do believe in quite strongly as a manager is my “duty” to you if you’re my employee. It starts when I’m interviewing or recruiting you, long before you’re hired, and it even continues past when you stop working for me. Our journey together starts before you report to me and it continues after you stop reporting to me. It starts with seeing if working for me is even the right fit for both of us, and it continues with helping you with career decisions after you leave, if desired.
Yet I struggle with knowing where the line is between my role as manager to you as an employee, and my role as manager to you as simply a human who needs help. Where the line between work relationship and almost personal relationship is blurred by issues of your personal health. At the very least, the premise of “First do no harm” has to guide all actions, but that is not enough. But I’m not sure it’s simply an empowerment model either.
After I go through all those little prickly threads, while still not knowing where my full duty or boundaries lie, it doesn’t change the fact that I still have to “act”. Oddly enough, I don’t find that decision particularly hard, as we frequently have to implement decision models with imperfect information. Canada Life has supported a simple guide for acting as manager, and I really liked a few aspects of it, partly as they articulated some of my thoughts far better than I had imagined. Their page is here: https://www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com/managing-workplace-issues/supportive-performance-management
The first element to me as a manager is to LISTEN. To be open to hearing what they have to say. The link above has this captured as COMMUNICATE WITHOUT JUDGEMENT, which is a nice way of viewing it. But I feel there is a small piece missing. In order for that communication or discussion to happen, the employee has to be willing to open up and share their situation. Often, the focus in these management discussions is on the importance of de-stigmatizing the issue of mental health. “Let’s Talk”, “Break the Silence”, “Don’t Judge”, “Welcome Diversity”. All of which are great. But I find myself looking at the hesitancy and I am not convinced the stigma is the main reason that some remain silent.
I think most employees know enough about their diagnosis and their problems to find a way to explain it in a way they will be comfortable doing so. They know they have a problem. They may not know the words for it, or how to describe it exactly, but they know they are having a problem and they know their own symptoms. And if they are in the mindset that they should “be a man!” or just “suck it up, buttercup”, that’s them feeling like their problems should be manageable and they’re feeling weak if they ask for help. Stigma, sure. But to have a conversation, they have to overcome two other barriers.
If they can overcome their sense of stigma, the second element is that they have to be willing to have a difficult conversation. Yet nobody likes them, there’s a reason why people put them off in their personal or professional lives. It’s uncomfortable. There are courses on “how to have a difficult conversation.” There are marriage counsellors whose practice consists extensively in helping people do that. So they need to be able to not just break the silence but also break the ice. Doing that with someone “above” you at work, who has power over you, or at least with a power imbalance between you, is even more difficult. Some of that is just uncertainty…they don’t know what to expect. Even calling a support network like the EAP program is beyond some people. Because they don’t know what to expect, they won’t call.
A friend of mine was in that situation. She didn’t really know what they did, how it worked, etc., even though she had heard of it lots of times. She felt she wasn’t in crisis so it likely wasn’t appropriate, etc. Once I explained my experience calling them, and how it had worked, she was like, “Oh, that’s easy enough.” And she called. Would she have called otherwise? I don’t know. But there are not only tons of employees who don’t know, but there are also a large number of MANAGERS who don’t know either, and yet as a manager, they’re encouraged to refer people there for help. How can you effectively refer people if you don’t know what they’ll do to help?
Third, even if you accept that you can get past the stigma and are willing to have a difficult conversation, you still have to overcome the issue that you are about to have a conversation with someone at work about something that is extremely personal. There is nothing I can think of more personal than what is happening inside your body. Yet here you are about to discuss it all with your boss.
Let’s ignore mental health for a moment. Instead, let’s make it a bit simpler. Let’s say it is simply a genetic health issue, maybe a heart murmur. You have had it all your life, but it’s been “murmuring” more than usual of late, and your doctor recommends surgery. Yet you work a high-paced job and you have to go tell your boss that you have a heart condition that requires surgery. No stigma, it’s genetic not a lifestyle, not serious, not terminal, but suddenly you have to tell your boss that you have this genetic thing.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Just tell your boss the minimum they need to know, don’t overshare, all good. Except here’s the thing. If you don’t share details with the boss, they don’t know how to help you, or if they even need to do so. And their response is likely to be different if you tell them you’re having wisdom teeth out, treating hemorrhoids, or having heart surgery.
Yet let’s now make it that you’re dealing with grief over the loss of your parent. Most people would respond with sympathy and support, because of your obvious loss. But you’re really emotional, and you overshare that it’s more complicated than that because he sexually abused you as a kid. Holy Hannah, yes, that’s going to mess you up. And your boss probably doesn’t need to know that, but they do now, and they realize it’s not just bereavement grief. It may not even be grief at all. And their “role” in supporting you shifts from normal platitudes about a loss to realizing they have no clue how to help you. But they DO know you’re going through some stuff, and it’s not light crap either. So they are going to be more supportive when you come to them on a day’s notice and say you can’t cover some event you were supposed to cover. If your boss doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s harder for them to know how to react. They have no barometer to know how serious the storm is for you, and if you aren’t comfortable telling them, it’s hard for them to manage.
Let me move away from that emotionally charged world. When my son was born, my wife’s water partially broke at 26w. All our plans for a so-called normal birth went out the window, and we were in the world of “hang on, delay delivery until as long as possible”, which turned out to be 36w, 5d because my wife is a rockstar and kept him safe with bed rest. One difficult birth later, NICU for two weeks, lots of issues around feeding, etc. Short version? I didn’t work more than 3d straight for almost six months. Emergencies, appointments, something pulled me out of the office. I felt like the most unreliable employee ever, and I derive a lot of self-identity from being good at my job. But I told my boss what was going on and why. And he got it. It was understandable, easy to see, and thus easy to be as supportive as possible. If I hadn’t told him what was going on, he would have just seen me being completely unreliable for six months. Missing a lot of work on short notice. Leaving in the middle of the day for appointments. Having mood swings and being less tolerant of normal levels of BS in the office. Hard for him to be supportive if he doesn’t know what is going on. Hard for him to manage around too.
And every time I have shared my reasons with my bosses, and what is going on, how I’m trying to cope and still get work done, they have been awesome. They understand and can figure out how to help, or at least show they understand. Work still has to get done, but they get it.
So for me, the first commitment is to LISTEN, ENCOURAGE DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS, and be WILLING TO SHARE MY OWN EXPERIENCES. So they know that I’m not some automaton.
Another key component that I sometimes struggle with articulating when dealing with employees, even if just about performance, is the difference between listening and validating. While I want to listen, I don’t want to necessarily reinforce their thinking about something if it doesn’t seem reasonable. I may not have a role in their interpretation in their personal life, but I do have a role when it comes to working.
I have listened to people vent, and I sometimes liken it to the difference between symptoms and diagnosis. For example, I have seen people witness a rather innocuous behaviour from their boss, misinterpret it, wrap it in some grand conspiracy theory with all the bells and whistles, and suddenly the boss must think they are the worst employee ever, not capable of anything. And what was the transgression? The director said good morning to someone else and not them as they passed by. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.
Often the “evidence” is warped to confirm a bias they already think is true, and yet while I listen, I often will say I agree with certain “evidentiary facts”, but not the interpretation of them, nor the conclusion as to motivation. I can validate that they are feeling a certain way, but I try not to validate their reasoning if I think it is “off”. The link above has this captured perfectly — “separate acknowledging from agreeing“. Exactly.
But for me, even after LISTENING and ACKNOWLEDGING, that just makes me good at interpersonal relations. I still have to do the next step which is MANAGE.
What do I have at my disposal to manage?
The go-to solution for most managers is often to offer/approve leave. To my mind, that’s a valuable tool, but it is not the only one in the toolbox. I also manage my relationship with the employee and those around them. Maybe it is as simple as checking in with them regularly to see how they’re doing; maybe it is just asking them how they would like me to check in with them (i.e., for employees on leave, the guidance from Labour Relations is to set up a protocol with the absent employee about how often and in what form they want to communicate with their boss to manage the leave situation).
I can also manage workloads, although sometimes it is the type of work more so than the level of work (some might want slower pace research projects, others might more task-oriented process items). Performance still has to be done, of course, but like with workloads, that could be about focusing on certain manageable precise outcomes that they feel they can address (perhaps quantitative over qualitative goals). For the work environment, it is often easier to try things like lower lights or quiet spaces, while work arrangements often look like flexible hours or working remotely.
In addition, I manage people and that includes, as I said above, before they start working for me until after they stop working for me, and how I manage them affects their mental health as much as other factors. Integrity, personal respect, communication styles, visioning, all are obvious elements. And finally, I can spend money on training, indirectly on the EAP services, or even a coach if it would help.
Lots of other things I can do besides simply approving leave.
For me, it isn’t really a unique challenge that requires unique tools. The tools are the same, and the job is the same, even if the combination of tools is different.
To me, I’m hired to manage, not to ignore things or just do what is easy. If one of my employees has a physical issue or a mental health issue or a technical issue, my job is still the same…to manage, to figure out how I can help, and to decide what is the proper role for me to do that.
I work in a government office complex, and for the most part, our offices tend to look like they were designed and approved by accountants. Actuarial accountants. And auditors. We don’t have 50 shades of gray, we tend to have three. Light gray, dark gray, and something in between that is probably “light gray that got dirty and will never get cleaned”. Don’t get me started on the carpets. But before I talk about Workplace 2.0, let me talk for a moment about my last 20+ years of office accommodations.
From 1993 to 1997, I was with Foreign Affairs. Generally, everyone had a closed office, boring off-white metal-like walls, brown doors, small window next to the door (usually, but not always), desk plus computer table, chair, guest chair, bookshelf and filing cabinet. With enough room that you could often have two people squeeze in front of the desk as guests, and have a quick meeting. Meeting rooms tended to be few and far between, a boardroom generally per floor of about 100+ people, but Directors had slightly larger offices with small tables for 4, DGs had tables for about 6, and ADMs had room for about 8 as part of their actual office, so between your own offices and meetings with executives, you rarely ran out of meeting space. At the time, there were almost NO people with cubicles except for admin staff who tended to be in open areas near the Director’s offices, and they had full L shaped cubicles with a “receiving” shelf in front of their desk.
From 1997 to 2005, I was at CIDA. We mostly had high cubicle walls, shades of beige as I recall, but footprints with room for a desk, a computer table, a guest chair or two, a bookshelf, and a filing cabinet. In about 2003, they experimented with a new design, an early version of what they were calling Workplace 2.0. It promised collaborative spaces (although they didn’t call them that, they said they had more meeting areas), lower walls (yay, extra light), new kitchens, eating areas, etc. They engaged people across the floor to help with the design, very participatory, and then in the middle of the implementation, they cut the kitchens, collaborative spaces and improved layout, and basically just put a bunch of people in “clustered” cubicle areas where four people would occupy what was probably originally about three cubicles before, and would have improved “common” space in between to save a bit of footprint. But there were still high walls between you and the next pod, and as is quite common in government accommodations, they changed part of the floor and then stopped because they had been using end of year money to pay for it and ran out of money.
Departments don’t control their own accommodations
Plus another factor that frequently causes no end of challenge. I’ll digress momentarily to talk about it. Individual departments are not, generally, in charge of their workspace. Public Works is. Or, rather, now called Public Services and Procurement Canada. And it looks like the worst form of bureaucracy, outside of the creation of the NCC. You might have a small team in your branch dealing with accommodation needs, and they will feed their info to a building committee for your department. Neither group has any power. One departmental rep will sit on an interdepartmental committee who will decide who gets money to do stuff each year and when. Bearing in mind that they are the ones paying for it — PSPC. Not the actual department with the employees, PSPC. Even if the department sets aside money to renovate a floor, PSPC will likely take the money and ignore what the department wants to do with it. Sure, they talk about collaboration, but in the end, most of the big decisions are outside the individual department’s hands.
Why? Partly equity. They don’t want a Department with a warm fuzzy Deputy Minister to go out and buy all nice furniture for their employees because immediately you create the same expectations across government, and when you’re talking 250K employees, a desk suite that costs $500 vs. a desk suite that costs $750 starts to add up into real dollars really fast. Which is why we have central procurement for all government assets. Just like every other large government and most large companies. Even small companies I suppose too.
But I digress. What I’m pointing out is that the people who make decisions on office layouts and configurations are NOT the department that actually uses it, it’s decided elsewhere. Okay, back to my experience.
The outside says nothing about the inside
From 2005 to 2006, I worked for SDC in Vanier. A very block-like building, a little worn looking, and you might expect old-style furniture. Not so. The towers were laid out on general hollow square designs with the elevators in the middle. Add to that, most floors of about 75 people tended to have at least one medium-sized boardroom and one small boardroom, plus a kitchen area. The offices themselves were high-walled cubicles with the full modular furniture attached, L-shaped for your desk and computer table merged into one. Very “modern” looking, functional. Insurance company-like. But clean and bright. It was actually quite pleasant, and with limited numbers of people from the centre core out to the windows, you were usually no more than two cubicles or so from natural light. Not very efficient, but not bad. And this was now the point where I was officially a full-fledged manager, so my needs shifted from analyst duties (workspace, cabinets) to managerial duties (guest chairs, whiteboards).
In 2006, I moved back to the mothership, and for 2006-2007, I was in a central part of a very large floor. I could see some light from an atrium a few cubicles away, but real light was quite far away past lots of closed offices. I had the standard footprint, what we tend to think of in government as Workplace 1.0, but that is only among people who don’t remember back to the days when people tended to have a lot of closed offices (like Foreign Affairs). Back when people often smoked IN THEIR OFFICE, the hallways, and even meetings (shudder). Kind of like some of the UN buildings in NYC up until about 2000. The cubicle was standard footprint like at CIDA … you had room for a combination computer/desk (L-shaped and mounted on the cubicle walls), high walls (5′ usually, often more), the bookshelf was optional, at least one guest chair, and a filing cabinet plus a pedestal for office supplies, etc. But I was on a floor with a lot of meeting rooms. Plus you could meet in your cubicles. It worked, and while cubicle land is never “fun”, it wasn’t bad.
In 2007, I moved to a new job in the same building and I had basically the same footprint for the cubicles until 2013. The floor didn’t have as many board rooms though and you could end up frequently squatting in a director’s office or DG’s office who was away, just to avoid dealing with the boardroom booking service (a blight on our experience, I’ll come back to later). In 2013, we were moved to a new floor plan, and I ended up with a window office which is to say a cubicle next to a hallway along the windows, and we removed the walls on that side to give me a semi-open-concept (except for the standard other three walls). It seemed almost like heaven. I had a small table right against the window with two chairs. Plus a guest chair in my office and a large whiteboard. I’m sure we were occasionally noisier than we should have been, but with high walls, you frequently have the illusion of privacy at least.
The game is afoot…or is it?
However, in 2016, they announced “the big redesign”. The powers-that-be had listened somewhat to the constant complaints of dingy carpets, drab walls, horrible layouts, and were going to do something for our floor…complete Workplace 2.0 redesign. I was horrified.
We were mostly analysts, and within that, a strongly introverted bunch. Open concepts? We needed quiet, studious areas to think deep thoughts, conduct focused analysis, lay out our papers on our desk and bury ourselves in our work. We weren’t SOCIAL, why the hell would we want open concept? It seemed like the worst idea on the planet. And like a friend of mine who is facing it now, the immediate thoughts of various strategies go through your head:
A. Resistance — Have the unions agreed? Someone thought department X fought it and they backed off. Someone heard everyone over at department Y got sick, and were now putting things back. Others heard blah blah blah;
B. Coping — Maybe we can move to other departments who haven’t been 2.0-ed yet. Maybe we’ll get noise-cancelling headphones. Maybe we’ll try it for a while and see how it goes. Where will we store stuff? How will we survive? How can we work from home every day instead?
My reaction was a bit more antagonistic a bit earlier, something I didn’t mention. Back in about 2010 or 11, I went to an HR conference put on by the Conference Board, and they had the ADM of buildings from Public Works there to talk about a bunch of things, and one of them was 2.0. Of course, he said the positive things about open concept, collaboration, blah blah blah, but I was curious about the push-back so I asked a question, and he cited some stats in his answer about how much time people spend in their cubicles vs. calculations of how much time they spend in meetings. It seemed a bit off to me. So I did the calculations myself, and they didn’t add up.
Basically what he had were stats on how much time an EC or a PM would spend in their cubicle vs. in “meetings” in their day. And depending on types and levels, they had ranges from 40% in cubicle to 60% in cubicle, or thereabouts. I don’t know if I would buy the “only 60%” but I get that it is an average…there are some ECs who are VERY active for lots of meetings daily, and others that are more researchers who might be in a lot less meetings during the analysis phase (some I know have gone weeks just in their cubicle). But I went with his most generous estimate, only 40% of the time in the cubicle. So 60% of the time in meetings.
That means, say for a group of 100 analysts on a given floor, on average, 4.5 hours per day of a 7.5 hour work day would be in meetings and 3 hours would be in the cubicle. Which means, separately, 450 hours worth of meetings per day. Now, assuming that they are all evenly spread out across the work-day and not clumped at the 10:00 and 2:00 marks, that means at any given hour of the day, 60 analysts would be meeting each hour (same stat as calculating 60% of the overall analysts). Now, how are they meeting? Those ECs might have a meeting with only 1 other person (their boss), or 2 coworkers, or say attend a meeting with ten others. But let’s say on average, they’re meeting in groups of 4 overall. That means 15 meeting rooms for four people would be running on that floor all day. Fully occupied. Just to meet their estimate of how much time they would be in meetings, at the most GENEROUS time out of the cubicle they might come to hate. Plus they’ll need some spaces to go and perhaps work quietly, a couple of small quiet rooms, say perhaps 5 per floor? What about telephone rooms when they’re “meeting” with people virtually? Another 5-10 of those?
At the time, I estimated our current floor with his numbers would need somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40-50 meeting rooms. How many did we have? Eight. The numbers didn’t and couldn’t work. I button-holed him after the panel and said, “Wait, the numbers don’t work.” He referred me to his director at Public Works, I followed up several times with them to get an answer, and was met with a resounding silence. They had to know the numbers didn’t work, maybe they just hoped that no one would bother to check their math.
So when they announced our floor was going to 2.0, I cringed, but I laughed too. Because in my experience, the only thing certain about accommodations plans in the Government of Canada is that they don’t survive engagement with the enemy, namely anyone in charge of actually doing anything. Oh, look, great plan…but we’re running low on money as someone clogged a toilet over at Eddy Street. And somebody tried to microwave a heating pad that wasn’t apparently microwave friendly after all over at that building. Oh, and machinery changes reorganized a whole whack of people over there. Let’s repurpose the budget over here, and we’ll get to that later. Which is what happened at Foreign Affairs. CIDA. SDC. And even in HRSDC, earlier.
About a year after the rumblings, they said, “Okay, we’re going to move you into swing space and then move you back.” Which I also knows almost NEVER happens. Once you’re in swing space, the tradition is to leave you there and move someone else into the space you left. Why? Because it’s cheaper. Thing of it this way…You’re in space A, someone else is in space B, they have swing space C, and they want to renovate both A and B.
They announce that they will move A to C, renovate A, and then move C back to A. Then they’ll move B to C, renovate B, and move C back to B. Four moves.
However, if they move A to C, renovate A, move B to A, renovate B, and then move C to A, it’s only three moves. Much cheaper. Namely 25% cheaper (at least for the “move” part of the costs).
Let’s throw an extra domino in. A1 to C, C to A1; A2 to C, C to A2; B to C, C to B…six moves. Or A1 to C, A2 to A1, B to A2, C to B, four moves, and you are 33% cheaper.
It has happened three times in my career, although never to me. They moved someone out, but instead of moving them back in right after the renovation, they moved someone else in, and then renovated their old space before they moved the originals back. Cheaper. But presented as “Hey, we just realized this is less disruptive” when that was the real plan, not the announced plan, all along. And the people in swing space just hang out where they are with vague promises it will “only be six months”. Two years later, it will only be “another couple of months”.
So when they decided to move us to temporary swing space, I figured when it was all redone, and the “perks” trimmed, it would look like a call centre when finished, no collaborative spaces, crappy setup, lots of unhappy people, bad morale, mass exits, and at least one extra domino in the mix.
I was almost completely right in the short-term
Before I get back to that outcome, I will talk about the temporary swing space. We were moved to a floor that was, I don’t know, 2.0 lite. It had the small footprint and low walls, and no collaborative spaces on the floor. No extra kitchens, nice setups, it was crap. I was “protected” personally by the fact that there was one of the cubicles that had an old 1.0 footprint with room for guest chairs and a whiteboard, so I could keep doing my managerial duties. Noting too that I had no director, I was reporting directly to a DG, so I was doing unit management and had to have HR meetings in my cubicle regularly. Not ideal for confidentiality, but that’s the rub.
In advance of heading to this potential hell-hole, I bought my team all noise-cancelling headphones and anti-glare screens. It helped, but it wasn’t great. As one pointed out, after several years of working and promotions, they were now relegated to a space smaller than they had as co-op students. With no work space on their desk, basic desk setups, and extremely small filing cabinet, storage areas. Plus low walls. Next to a group of people using old-fashioned paper adding machines several times a day. With the appropriate noise. It was a gong show in some ways. Now, to be clear, none of them were whining or complaining about it. There was no sense of “I’m entitled to more”, it was just “well, this isn’t very good work space, kind of noisy”. And yes, as expected, you do see upticks in sick leave and requests to work at home from time to time. More tension in the workplace too.
Another division who ended up on the same floor had a unique solution implemented by the Director. She got rid of the “desk” in her office, reduced herself to a small computer table in the corner, and put a table in the centre. Instant meeting space for her team. With complete and open willingness to have them use it for meetings while she was working on her computer or she would go to their cubicle while they were using it. Seriously. To give them a meeting / collaborative space. My immediate reaction was, “I would NEVER kick my boss out of her office like that”, but it worked for them. Quite impressive adaptation, but not one that should have to be made to compensate for bad office accommodations.
For other reasons, I exited the branch for most of a year and went to work in another branch with the old 1.0 footprint (nice window, small table near me to have meetings, but no space for my whiteboard, sigh). Anyway, someone senior asked me about the setup plans for the new floor, and I was not optimistic. I even broke down and gave my completely blunt assessment. “DMs couldn’t solve the space problem in the building, so it was delegated down to ADMs to cope, who delegated down to DGs to cope, and Directors. And in the end, the solution is that individual workers will end up with pill-box sized offices to solve the space problems the DM couldn’t solve in the first place.”
I was completely wrong in the long-term
When the new floor was “revealed”, I have to say, I was impressed. The floor holds almost 500 people (actually only 469 by fire code, a separate issue). Here are the highlights:
Two large fully-equipped boardrooms that hold 20+ people easily with options for video conferencing, projections, logins, etc. (previously only one medium-sized boardroom, not very well-equipped), AND which are only close walled on two sides for monitors and white boards while the other two are all windows with some frosted glass and sliding doors;
Another five smaller boardrooms or so, suitable for up to 10 in most cases, plus another couple of smaller ones for up to 6 comfortably and 8 with some borrowing of extra chairs), also with bright windows and sliding doors;
Healthy overhead lighting (not the bright glares of older fluorescents), and with lower walls for all, clear and bright natural light from all the windows, visible from every spot on the floor (except perhaps the elevator area);
Walls near the elevators to muffle the elevator sounds, creating almost a hollow square around the elevator areas with hallways as buffer zones;
Clean and bright cubicles with every cubicle having fully adjustable stand-up / sit-down desks, which even if you don’t use to stand at, is great for just simply adjusting for your own ergonomic height needs;
Director offices are about the size of the old cubicle 1.0 footprints, with three solid walls and a glass wall with a sliding door, which might initially make you think like a fish bowl, but the glass is frosted from modesty panel height at the bottom to above head height when sitting, but with small clear horizontal lines so you can “peer” through but not look through just passing by, and enough room in them for a small meeting table or a desk, up to them how they want to set it up (I flag this in particular as it is not just worker-bees taking the space hit);
DG offices that usually have enough room in them for a small meeting table too but are about the size of old director office footprints;
ADM offices that are big and spacious if they want the desk space and some guest chairs, but because they have small nearby boardrooms, no room for tables;
WiFi throughout the floor, and particularly so for all the meeting rooms;
Multiple telephone rooms (or mini meeting rooms for two people) around the floor; and,
Special high-tech white noise dampeners in the ceilings to keep the noise levels down on the floor — it is pretty quiet considering you have 100 people working near you in a call-centre-like layout.
The two big “extras” that have been added are two collaborative spaces. A little less formal than you would normally see in an office, it looks a lot like open spaces in more modern libraries or schools.
In the big space, there are five little “commuter” pods. I don’t know what you actually call them, but they look like commuter seats on trains where there is a high-backed two-seater bench facing another high-backed two-seater bench, with a coffee table in between the two benches.
In the centre of the space, there are a random collection of movable arm chairs with swing arms that you used to see on those old-style desks in one-room school houses. Except not at all uncomfortable. I just have to stop playing with the swing arm and the desk top as it totally rotates any direction you want it to and it’s not for the hyperactive mind.
Over farther, along the wall, there is a big-ass kitchen. Microwaves, fridges, toasters, coffee makers, etc. Nothing super luxurious but highly functional. Upgraded water fountains that take your reusable water bottles, or there are the water coolers around. Proper recycling receptacles for just about everything in the office (and we have more options in the lobby for batteries and things). And the kitchen has a bunch of tables. I don’t know, maybe 8 or so, ranging in size for seating space from 4 people to 10 people.
Pardon my language, but it is pretty fucking awesome. It is actually fun to be in that space. It is upbeat. It is positive energy. There’s a buzz. I went by the other day at lunch and it was FULL. People were laughing, eating together, talking. It was dynamic energy. Impressive for a floor full of mostly analysts.
There is a second area on the other side of the floor, as well as a smaller kitchen, but the collaborative space has more of the two-seater high back areas, a couple of large TVs, a bit more open but with walls along the side to contain the noises. Perfect for more collaborative brainstorming in a larger group, or, perhaps, a small festive occasion.
I haven’t used the spaces much, but anytime I have, there have been NO problems finding space to chat. Not once.
It can’t be perfect, though, right?
I have only heard four complaints, only two of which apply to accommodations directly.
First, everyone notices immediately that there is NO PLACE to put anything in your cubicle. You have a small locker, with room for a short-length coat (the whole locker is only 4-5′ tall, do the math), two small letter-sized width drawers for files, and a half-height area on top for a few personal storage things on shelves. Desk space is at a premium too, particularly if you have dual monitors or like to display photos. There is no easy option for a whiteboard (the cubicle walls are actually thicker than average so even getting an over-the-edge bracket is challenging to find, even on Amazon), and they aren’t “2.0 compliant” anyway. Neither are pedestal drawers under the desks although that is more about the up/down desks functioning properly anyway as well as how rigid your branch accommodations person is when someone in the official “workplace 2.0 goon squad” rats you out to them to say you have an authorized whiteboard or something. There is still an 1984-element to it.
Second, more of a concern than a complaint, nobody knows what happens in this environment when flu season hits. The air has much better circulation than in old, but it is still a very open office. Officially, the stats say it is better than traditional office environments, but I’ll be curious to see the stats of sick leave usage come January / February / March.
Third, my wife summed it up better than I could, having less space is initially frustrating but it is mostly about adjusting your mindset to be able to work in a more paperless format. Which is great, but ONLY if you are also given the tools that go with decreased paper. Such as strong central filing and records management of whatever paper and e-records that people need to access. There are lots of filing cabinets on the floor for secret stuff, but there weren’t any new tools delivered for better tracking and management of it all. Our department has IM practices that resemble toddlers in the 1950s, but that’s a separate challenge. The mindset can change, but you still need the tools to support you. An additional tool that hasn’t been rolled out yet though to everyone is the portable tablet or laptop to replace the desktop so everyone can take advantage of the wi-fi around the floor. The building will get there over the next five years, a one-device model they hope, including potentially elimination of both desk phones and blackberries (i.e. go to mobiles), and they are leading experiments in iPhone trials, Samsung, etc. My wife’s team was an early pilot for having laptops [correction: NOT tablets as I indicated, tablets tend to be only for directors] so their whole team has them, nobody in my team other than the Director has it. And finally, remote access for home should be almost a default with a lot more flex around working remotely, while recognizing it should still be the exception not the norm (you’re being paid to work at the office, not simply to work wherever is convenient for you, and we are far from any such model, particularly until people see that it isn’t being abused).
Fourth, and this is closely linked to the last, you need one very simple effective tool to take advantage of all this extra meeting room space. A way to book the space easily. You would think that was easy. I know you think that because everyone with a brain thinks that. Except for some strange corporate-history-laden-tale-of-woe, our department has the worst tool imaginable. Wait, no I can prove it. Ask yourself, what is the most important feature to have when you are looking to book a boardroom in a list of available boardrooms? Think about it for a second while we all imagine the Jeopardy theme. Yes, you are correct. A search function to show you which rooms are available at a given time. So you can, you know, FIND ONE AND SELECT IT. What has our boardroom booking tool not had for the last five years? A search function. I kid you not. We still have a crappy system in place, so people are using the open spaces more often than not, even if a room would be better, just because you can wander over faster to see if the space is available (you can’t “book” them), rather than using a crappy tool to look for a room. And yes, go ahead, list the obvious things to say about using Outlook, others have had it in their buildings since 1995, yep, we know. Trust us, WE KNOW! And yet, while there is progress in the last six months on the file after five years of inertia, we’re not quite round the bend yet.
Where does that leave me?
Even with the small challenges above, I like it. If I had the choice, if I was asked by the DM what I thought they should do, I would say “Convert the whole building as fast as possible.” To the REAL 2.0, not faux 2.0. Because with the extra collaborative spaces, meeting rooms, noise cancelling, light improvements, and general all around positive energy created by the ambiance, morale is way up, at least informally. I’m curious to see if it plays out in employee satisfaction surveys for our floors vs. others, because I have to believe there will be a large net bump.
Would I like 10% more space to store stuff? Sure.
Would I like more bathrooms? Sure.
Would I like to go back to workplace 1.0 with the larger footprints but give up the collaborative spaces and natural light? Not at all. I could “live” with the old way, but this floor is awesome. The only thing that would make it even better is if the whole building went that way, thus freeing up pressure from others to use our space too or if we had already had the rest of the pending tools.
Because I was absolutely wrong about real 2.0, I like it. I really like it.