In the world of performance measurement, a friend and I have a cynical joke between us that it seems like every year is a baseline year for some programs…if you’re always moving the baseline, there’s never anything to measure or report other than activities undertaken. There’s no standard for success. When it comes to the question of working from home, any year up to the end of 2019 would have been a baseline year, and there is still not much evidence of a performance standard for success.
What did it look like?
If you looked around the government on January 1, 2020, you would have seen very few departments leading on anything resembling working from home except in exceptional circumstances. Generally speaking, the only people who had full remote access from home fell into one of three categories:
- Duty to accommodate — remote logins, bad gateways, slow networks, little in the way of IT supports, occasionally people making noises about having the government pay for their internet and especially so if they had to get faster internet to run work applications, etc.
- People dealing with emergency issues, where timely access tended to outweigh security concerns; and,
- Senior personnel.
Almost no departments were offering full remote access to internal systems. People could ask to work from home, often on a short-term basis, and often with no actual access from home. They would do internet research or take stuff home. But logging in on an ad hoc basis? Nada. Even senior personnel rarely had great setups that were equivalent to what they had at work. Maybe there were exceptions for one day a week if the person had family or medical issues, or if they worked in research or statistics (which might require working independently with little distraction).
Yet perhaps even more important than remote access? Only the most senior personnel had anything looking like video conferencing. And most departments made little use of it. Sure, DMs would have meetings with ADMs in regional offices, different departments dealing with regular updates from a pan-Canadian portfolio had stuff, but many of them got by with audio teleconference, not digital video.
On the rare occasion that someone would discuss WFH for general staff, some immediate assumptions would crop up. Policy, or at least GOOD policy, was assumed to require extensive personal interactions and therefore there was obviously no way it could be done at home. Research possibly. Anything requiring access to internal processing systems like benefits, well that couldn’t possibly be done at home. Nope, nothing could be done from home.
When departments looked at Duty to Accommodate requests, it often boiled down to making the best of a series of bad options. Anyone working from home would be working with second-class connectivity. And guess what? There was almost no training available on how to manage people remotely. So even if a manager was supportive, they had no idea what they were doing.
I consider myself a better-than-average informed manager on the options out there, I approach the issues thoughtfully and intentionally, and on the occasions where I managed WFH employees up to 2019, I would say it was a crapfest on any given day whether it would work. On the policy side, I could make it work. On the admin and operations side, I could make it work. It wasn’t about substance. It was about the culture and management practices that are “learned” in the government. Sometimes it would be as simple as we had scheduled a meeting for a Tuesday, one person was WFH that day, so we needed to ensure the teleconference was set up, and on the day of the meeting, we’d have to bump it by 30m for some reason, lose the room and the telephone equipment, adjusting on the fly, grabbing an empty boardroom, all good to go, right? Except the person participating by teleconference was now reduced to hearing whatever a blackberry / cell phone could pick up in the room. Plus we would have them on speaker, which was not always ideal. Or we’d be in the office, someone would throw us an urgent file to work on X or Y, we’d huddle around a desk, start doling out work, and guess what? We wouldn’t think to phone the person at home to loop them in. It was a challenge to manage over time, and I felt like I did “okay” but not “great” at it. With more time, I hope it would have improved. My predecessors and some people around me basically treated the person like a problem to manage, not staff who just didn’t happen to be present in the office. I made it work, I didn’t make it a success.
Most people I talked to then said the same thing on both sides of a DTA file. Managers and employees with the best of intentions found it challenging to manage the relationship and WFH situation effectively. Inconsistent technology was a constant pain in the patootie. Persons with disabilities noted, time and time again, in many different fora that the problem was a lack of attention to the issues by management. Management, in turn, said they were doing the best they could and it would never be perfect.
It was ad hoc and best efforts, not a truly functional model.
Enter the dragon
When the pandemic hit, and all the public servants were sent home, approximately 360K people suddenly needed to be able to connect to the office and for it to WORK right almost all the time. The resulting response from the federal government was, literally, unprecedented. Nobody had ever even thought of trying to do this at scale before. Let’s look at the challenge for a moment.
First and foremost, people needed computers. Sure, lots of people had their own PCs at home, and that was fine as a starting point with remote access software. But remote access means that you are remotely connecting to a computer at work, not a mainframe like people did at school. You needed a computer at the office to be turned on and running, and you were essentially logging into it from your home. A direct connection if you will from your home computer to your work computer. That was a starting point, but not a sustainable option. The government needed laptops or tablets, work-supplied computers, and they needed them for the entire workforce.
In my department, if you looked at the draft IT plan for the whole organization that was in place on March 12th (the day before being sent home), it said that they were moving to a “one-device” model. Everybody would have a single device, and it would be a tablet or a laptop, depending on the person’s needs, level, etc. The timeline to do that was FIVE YEARS. And with the full expectation that it would take longer than that estimate. Five years was considered AMBITIOUS to implement. With the pandemic, they did almost all of it in 4 months.
I’m going to digress for a second. I work in a department that regularly talks about our aging infrastructure, and we even call it “technical debt”. It is the single largest constraint on our operations. Yet it confounds me. I work on corporate files, I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago, I see the bigger management picture and can spot the interlinkages, constraints, and reasonable challenges. Someone rants, “But why can’t we just…” and I generally know the answer. I feel sometimes like Sir Humphrey in a Yes, Minister episode seeing that while something is a good idea, it won’t work in this area due to operational issues. And yet on our IT side, I hit a wall every time. I can’t “see” our vision. I don’t see why we’re going in the direction we are going. Until I talked to a senior person who was retiring who basically said my expectations were too high. That I assumed our infrastructure was “functional”. Instead, while we have a regularly stable internal network, any day that we don’t have complete catastrophic failure is a good day. The technical debt overrides anything resembling new initiatives.
And yet, there they were, rolling out one-device models to the whole department, tens of thousands of computers in four months. Functionally. They did it.
Secondly, the bandwidth had to be dramatically increased. While that is an ongoing issue over time, the government as a whole found ways to do it. Massive increases in our external capabilities and throughput. People without a corporate view or IT experience have no idea how seriously massive that challenge was, although most of it was solved by simply buying the increased capacity.
Finally, we all needed new software to make this whole thing work. MS Teams for the most part. Something that was years away from being implemented, with Office 365 roll-outs and Sharepoint improvements, all of it on departmental plans to be done incrementally over 2, 3 and 5 year timeframes. Once people had their systems and bandwidths in place, roll-out was done over the course of a month for most groups, basic training through train-the-trainers was done, and voila, video conference was up and running.
Computers, bandwidth and software for all. And that’s just the outward-facing stuff. Never mind all the inward-facing stuff, just on the IT side alone. If you had asked me what they could do in six months, I would have said about a tenth of what they accomplished. Minor variations on what we already had, and instead they threw out the bath water, the baby, the bathtub, part of the sink and toilet, and built a whole new ensuite system in what seemed like overnight.
I feel almost guilty that I didn’t think they could do it. Now, sure, we were in crisis and suddenly money was no object to getting it done. Everyone was reassigned from other projects to make this happen. A massive effort.
To tame the untameable dragon that was working from home, at least from a technical side.
Mind the gap
Not everything has had the same attention or success. Security remains a giant question mark. Most departments have employees using VPNs to connect to their departmental networks. Once connected, all the internal security kicks in to protect the files you are working on daily. Most of the networks are designed to handle up to Protected B — personal info, for the most part. If you are into the world of Secret, then you really shouldn’t be on VPN, according to security reviews, you should be on a dedicated line (i.e., at work in the office) and using Secret Document Repositories (like Secret Sharepoint) or Secret USB keys to move files around (you know, the old school solutions).
So lots of naive employees keep saying online, “Well, it would be stupid to make me go into the office just to work on a Secret doc, I can just password protect my Word document”. But VPN + internal security (mostly for anti-virus and anti-hacking) + password isn’t even good enough generally for Protected B. That isn’t something an employee gets to decide…it’s set by the departmental security policy, and the privacy commissioner, and Treasury Board, and for the last two years, most of them have been holding their nose. People have added digital encryption, password protection where the password is sent in a separate communication, secret doc repositories, etc. It’s close to the standard, but it isn’t fully compliant. Global Affairs has a solution, as does CBSA and DND, plus PS and CSIS. They have separate systems that meet the higher security standards — but they aren’t connected to the rest of the networks. You can’t simply copy over a file from one to the other — it’s entirely separate secure systems. Nobody wants people to have to run two systems at home — you can’t even have them on the same computer, it has to be separately self-contained.
Nobody has a silver bullet to solve this.
Training is another huge gap. People got training on how to work the computer systems, people have shared best practices on doing fun things in Teams. But nobody knows how best to manage employees entirely WFH and what that entails. Or how to ensure that career management isn’t affected by the decreased networking. Onboarding became increasingly harder.
I’ll talk about more of this in future posts, but there are serious issues that the government hasn’t addressed yet. We’re good at solving technical problems now, but the human equation is a lot harder.
Unprecedented success, right?
If you look across departments, lots of people are patting each other on the back. Large-scale internal comms efforts have spread the thank you Thursday message, gratitude for all, about how the public service has helped Canada weather the storm. New programs designed and delivered. People helped. Even an election held. All with people working from home.
And if you listened to the messages, you might be inclined to come to the conclusion that a lot of employees have reached, i.e., it’s been an unprecedented challenge and we handled it while working-from-home, so obviously WFH is a success. The regularly heard phrase is “There’s no reason to go back to the office.” What is missing from most of those statements is the attribution which is “I believe that…”.
But employees don’t get to decide what works and what doesn’t, the employer does. In every single sector of the economy, except perhaps for solo entrepreneurs.
And while management might agree it’s an unprecedented success, they would not say it’s an “unqualified” success. There are cracks in the foundations that are starting to show after two years and the 100% WFH model may not be quite as sustainable as some hope or desire. One of the frequent phrases that people working on transition to RTW mention is “the research shows”, which seems ludicrous at first blush. How can the research show that it doesn’t work when we just proved that it does?
I’ll look at some of those issues in the next post…