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.
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.
There really weren’t any forward-looking ones, at least not upfront. They had some generic elements under governance, but that was it.
What the REAL criterion should have had
It is pretty simple — is there a plan in place going forward that addresses major issues, is risk-based, and is written down. There are lots of bells and whistles beyond that, things like cost and timelines, but the most basic element is “Do they have a plan?”
What did the audit find?
The audit found that
Departments and agencies had significant difficulties in providing timely and accurate pay information and in supporting employees in resolving pay problems
A sustainable solution will take years and cost much more than the $540 million the government expected to spend to resolve pay problems
What COULD the audit have found?
I need to digress for a minute and talk about the audit process. Generally speaking, auditors come forward and say, “Okay, here are the terms of reference for the audit, i.e. this is what we’re going to look at”. There may be some back and forth with the department to say, “Wait, what about this?” or more likely “Wait, that isn’t part of this project” — it looks at what is in scope and what is out of scope.
Then the actual audit process begins, there are lots of documents and meetings, and preliminary findings are shared with the Department. This is the opportunity for the auditors to say, “Based on the docs we have, and the info we have been given so far, this is what we’re thinking we might say.” At this time, departments go crazy and say, “whoa, THAT’S not true, did you read this doc and this doc and this doc?”, often three docs that the auditors were never given. So they’re wrong about some aspect because they didn’t have any evidence from what they had seen so far. A gap, if you will.
Then they come back with their draft audit findings, they go through some iterations where the department gets to agree or disagree with some of the wording, often saying, “Wait, if you say THAT, with that language, we have to disagree, it goes too far”, and the auditors balance out their wording with their findings. While some people get their backs up that this is interfering with the independence of the auditors, it is often more along the lines of the auditors saying, “We examined the building plans for a green cabinet, a blue cabinet, and a yellow cabinet, and we found no evidence of cost analysis.” And the department says, “wait a minute, we had full analysis for yellow, and partial for blue, but agree with nothing for green.” And the auditors go back and look at their evidence and come back with revised wording that likely says “Not all projects had full cost analysis in place and there were significant gaps for most.” They’re still slapping someone, just making sure they’re slapping the right someone with the right language. And to be candid, some of it is seeing how much pain the department can handle. Can it handle 4 slaps or only 2? So the auditors start by saying “YOU COMPLETELY SUCK” and water down the language a bit at a time until the department stops whining, somewhere between “YOU MOSTLY SUCK” and “YOU’RE KINDA SUCKY IN CERTAIN AREAS”.
Because after the audit is done, there are two things the department has to produce and the level of work depends on which of those phrases the department could live with:
A management response; and,
A management action plan.
The management response is a simple response where the departments says “We agree” or “We disagree” with the recommendations. The cycle of responses over the years has ebbed and flowed, with some periods existing where no DM ever wanted to disagree with an audit recommendation. Even if they thought the auditors completely misunderstood the situation, they would say “We agree” and then in the prose explain how they were planning to either not do what they said or the exact opposite of agreement. The responses were somewhere between a sorry/not sorry situation and a Sir Humphrey response from a Yes Minister episode.
In more recent years, and changes in Auditor Generals, DMs feel more comfortable to say, “Wait, hold on a minute, we grudgingly agree with your findings, but NOT your recommendations on how to fix it…so we disagree.” But auditor generals NEVER want the report to say the department disagrees, as it basically means they’re saying fairly confidently that the AG didn’t understand the subject matter or project. If a department disagrees, this means they seriously disagree and then suddenly the AG jumps into the project directly, often working to massage the language enough to be so much “motherhood and apple pie”-type statements, that NO deputy could ever disagree with the recommendation. And then they’re back to bland recommendations that the department can agree with easily. Yawn.
But, regardless of the MR, the department also has to create a management action plan. And there is one relatively universal truth to MRs and MAPs — a “plan to have a plan” is not a plan in and of itself. The department cannot say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea, we’ll look it, develop a plan, and then implement it.” They are SUPPOSED to say, “Hey, good idea, we’re going to do THIS and THIS to implement.” In other words, you need to have some content and an actual plan, not a plan to have a plan.
What would this look like in this case? They would have recommendations for a clear set of roles and responsibilities between players. Which this audit did recommend, except that the response is that they’ll create such a plan. A plan to have a plan, not the plan itself.
They would have clear recommendations relating to the role of other departments who send the pay files to Phoenix. The audit found that “Departments and agencies contributed to the problems; however, Public Services and Procurement Canada did not provide them with all the information and support to allow them to resolve pay problems to ensure that their employees consistently receive their correct pay, on time” so they did articulate a problem. Yet the response is a plan to have a plan to fix that.
There should be clear recommendations on transparency, risk-based triaging, cost breakdowns and service delivery mechanisms. Again, there are some strong hints to do that, and the response is “We’ll develop a plan.”
DEVELOP A PLAN???? What the heck have they been doing for the last two years or even the last 8 months while the audit was busting their chops internally? The Department *knew* that the audit finding was coming, and they should have had the plan relatively complete in certain areas. It should be ready to go.
Heck, the language was so watered down, it looked more like “we’re working on a strategy on how to develop a work plan that will lead us to a complete plan to respond to the challenges identified …. zzzzz”. Their plan is to develop a plan to have a plan. They haven’t even developed the PLAN for the plan, let alone the actual plan.
No governance in place, but watered-down wording that could possibly lead to little concrete change.
No transparency in data, so employees are still wondering what the state of pay is, and no recommendations or commitments to change that reporting.
Hardly any commitment at all of anything, other than a plan to have a plan.
It’s unfathomable that such an audit passed even the most basic internal tests at the OAG. Based on the actions committed to, it seems more like the audit equivalent of a hangnail than a project that is way over cost and a disaster on the ground. The system is bleeding out, but good news, they think they might know someone who can come up with a plan to develop a strategy to stop bleeding in general. But let’s not rush into anything resembling a solution.
Directive on Financial Management of Pay Administration, Treasury Board
Policy on Results, Treasury Board
Directive on Results, Treasury Board
Supporting Effective Evaluations: A Guide to Developing Performance Measurement Strategies, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
COBIT 5: Enabling Processes, Information Systems Audit and Control Association, ISACA
As with the review yesterday, the policy on results, directive on results, guide to PM strategies, and COBIT 5 are virtually worthless to the exercise. They tend to talk heavily about programmatic delivery results (external results of spending), and have very little to offer in the way of measuring or monitoring internal services. To the extent they do, they tell them what types of things they should do in general, they don’t dictate or give explicit instructions. The first two, however, are a lot more detailed and do include some directive language, along with some indication of actual service standards and duties/obligations. Not enough to run the Phoenix system, but at least PSCP managers would have had SOMETHING to rely upon.
The second criterion was:
The resolution of problems related to paying public service employees is being effectively and efficiently managed.
For these ones, a few of the documents are the same, but it is the ones from TBS that are different and quite telling:
Guidelines on Costing, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
A Guide to Costing of Service Delivery for Service Standards, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat
COBIT 5: Enabling Processes, ISACA
Information Technology Information Library Service Strategy, second edition, 2011
What the REAL criterion should have focused on
Now, if you take those above pieces, and break them down into manageable chunks to audit, you would expect to find some of the following:
A comprehensive inventory of all the pay action requests in the system;
Detailed reports of nature (type, age, and department) and impact (materiality, $$ estimate, $$ as a percentage of annual salary);
Clear project management principles showing differentiated approaches based on nature and impact;
A risk-based triage process and analysis of the various PARs;
Cost breakdowns of the steps taken to date and how they impacted the resolution of numbers outstanding;
Key performance measures in place for overall and individual workload management, tied to nature and impact; and,
Training in place to respond to basic training, ongoing maintenance and emerging issues.
While there are other things you COULD see, those seven items are pretty basic tools.
You could also likely examine three other items that deal not with the PARs themselves, but the client service function:
Clear identification and public sharing of service standards for various types of PARs and how the system is doing, updated likely weekly;
The system in place for people to access and receive status updates on their individual file and to know what is happening, even a queue number if the answer is nothing yet; and,
Detailed communications plan in place to transparently share the detailed reports.
What did the audit find?
The audit concluded that there was “The number of pay problems continues to increase”, “Public Services and Procurement Canada did not have a full understanding of the extent and causes of pay problems”, and “Departments and agencies had significant difficulties in providing timely and accurate pay information and in supporting employees in resolving pay problems.”
What COULD the audit have found?
It is clear to anyone and everyone that the solutions in place are not meeting the needs. And on some of the elements I mentioned above, the auditors did have some views:
The inventory was not comprehensive, there were clear gaps;
The reports are rudimentary at best, and don’t give details on nature or impact;
Differentiated approaches based on nature and impact were done, mainly based on various pressure points over time, but with little analysis or evidence of the result for each group; and,
The training was not done before launch and hasn’t kept up.
They could have also expressed concern that there were clearly other gaps:
No detailed risk-based triage;
No cost breakdowns;
Little in the pay of performance metrics or service standards; and,
No exception management system, nor any feedback and status mechanism.
The audit failed in this area on two counts. First, the audit recommendations could have been quite prescriptive and detailed, saying “We recommend you do x or y, and do it by such and such a date”. Which PSPC would then have to commit to doing, and to do so publicly. The recommendations are more general than that, telling them to do better rather than saying they failed to meet even the most basic standards at all. As a result, PSPC basically was able to respond that they are to develop a plan as to what their overall plan should be. A plan to have a plan, not even the final plan itself.
More importantly, though, the auditors had access to the internal data. While it is clear that the PSPC system is not robust enough to generate the reports needed, some more rudimentary reports could have been developed and calculated. And, given the public spectacle surrounding the audit, part of the role of auditors is to report on what is happening and how it is performing. Instead of giving us the reports we need, or coming as close as they could at least, they went for straight-up overall volumes. Stakeholders — namely employees — had almost no more useful info or data than before the audit.
Here is the most minimal of tables that I had expected and hoped to see:
Type of Pay Action Request
< 1 month
1 month to 6 months
> 6 months
Put in pay (i.e. new employees)
Acting pay (up to 2 weeks)
Acting pay (over 2 weeks)
Removals from pay (retirement)
Removals from pay (special leave)
Don’t get me wrong, I think that table is insufficient. I just think it was the most basic table and that they should have been able to provide it, or even generate it as part of the audit, even if there was a gaping sub-area / black hole called “other”. Basically, people, they hadn’t triaged yet so they weren’t even sure what was in there. But arguing there are 500K requests doesn’t tell me anything about nature OR impact.
Now, I expected that table, and it didn’t come. Nor was there any details on maternity leave, sick leave, overpayments, assignments, secondments, other administrative changes, etc. There could be another 10-20 categories for the Type of PAR, but it is not just the categories as the time factor besides it — how old are the requests, how big is the queue? Because once the report is generated the first time, it can be generated again. With showing changes since the last one. I suspect the age figures would have to be even more disaggregated (maybe 1m, 2-3m, 4-6m, 6m-1y, 1-2y, 2-3y, etc.). That would give you decent details on the nature — at least for the type of PAR and the age of the request.
Where I was apparently dreaming in technicolour was in thinking that they might even go further. Think of the above table, with the same PAR categories down the side, but instead of showing the age, the table showed the dollar value across the top. For some reason, the materiality threshold set by PSPC was $100. Almost every request would be over that threshold in gross terms, particularly as acting pay is only paid if it is longer than 3 days now. So their threshold is meaningless. Instead, I’d hope to see something along the lines of 0-1000, 1000-2500, 2500-5000, 5-10K, 10-20K, > 20K as the cutoffs.
Why? Because it would give a clear and compelling indication of the magnitude of the problem. There are lots of stories of people complaining about Phoenix, but not all complaints are created equal. Some are life-altering disasters, with people not being paid for over a year, running into tens of thousands of dollars owed. At the same time, there’s Joe Worker next to them in the queue who didn’t get their three-day acting pay last week. Both people deserve to be paid, in full and on time, but when I have to triage the files, the person who is owed more money is likely facing a larger personal impact, particularly if it is combined with a longer period of time and affecting multiple tax years.
Now, the auditors hinted that the info isn’t available, and to be blunt, I don’t entirely believe them. I believe the info isn’t READILY available, but I don’t believe that it couldn’t be generated with some basic methodology. Even if they had 300K files in the queue, and didn’t really have a way to code 40% of them, they would still know the profile for the ones they have and be able to extrapolate what it means for the others. Is it a perfect methodology? Nope, but there are lots of previous audits that did more with less.
While there were some basic charts and tables included, they really didn’t provide much info on the scope at all. I thought they at least might have profiled one of the participating departments as an example, but they didn’t even do that.
I literally felt like it was a completely missed opportunity to pull back the curtains and provide SOME info to all the affected employees. They deserved an audit that went farther and produced more, particularly when they saw that PSPC didn’t have the data already available.