If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the public service (not necessarily federal, but mostly), and unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard the story about the health townhall meeting where one of the executives suggested that going back into the office was a good thing because you could go to Subway for lunch and support local business. There are lots of people who argue there was more to it, and memes blew up about Subway-gate, with many of them coming from people who weren’t even in the room nor work in the same department. It was a catalyst where people were saying management was tone-deaf and they needed to read the room.
My reaction was that management weren’t the only ones. The audience was too, and they weren’t reading management right at all. Management at all departments is trying to walk the line between two very difficult views to express. On the one hand, they want to tell people they’ve done a great job over the last two years; on the other, they’re seeing cracks in the foundations and know people are going to have to do SOME of their work in the office for different reasons. So far, nobody is saying full return to the office for everyone. But they are talking about hybrid arrangements where a day a week is likely to be common. Some will be more, some will be less. They’re playing it by ear. I’m getting ahead of myself, that’s the next post. What it actually will look like. Today is about the cracks.
Let’s talk about security again
I mentioned security previously that working from home, with a VPN, encryption on your desktop, and sending emails around with passwords do not together meet the standard for secret work. And, as a result, many departments are nervous about the security issue. Those who are responsible for enforcing the rules are holding their noses while everyone is still in the “well, we’re working it out” stage. Special permissions are given to let lapse the heavier requirements, everyone gives their best effort, and we get by.
Yet, as a commenter pointed out, this seems like a bit of a red herring. We’re not meeting security standards? Well, we never met them when we were in the office either. People still sent things around that were uber secret for Cabinet discussion with no passwords, no classification, no flagging of the issue. Oh, Cabinet retreat doc? Here you go, have a copy.
The difference seems negligible. Except it isn’t. There are two very important nuances hiding in the weeds.
First, on the simpler side, we’re not communicating within relatively contained networks — we’re using VPNs and everything else, but we’re using our own private internet providers to connect. That makes a LOT of people a lot more nervous than when it was just within a department from computers that all relatively needed direct wired connections to talk to each other. It resembled in many ways the same approach to building security. We’ll guard the windows and doors, control access, but once you’re in, you have relatively free reign to go where you want except for really secure areas for servers or privacy issues. Yet now we have thousands of doors and windows popping open all day long. They can’t guard them all as easily. In comparison, the building is NOT secure. So they’re trying to figure out if the internal controls can compensate (hint: they can’t).
Second, when something goes wrong, it won’t be simply a breach that happens, it will be a breach that happens through an obvious and well-known risk vector. Senior management gets reprimanded and grilled for a breach, they get fired for failure to manage a known risk. And I’m not even talking about the impacts of the actual breach.
Management may not be able to quantify how bad things are when you’re in the office, but it is pretty obvious when NOBODY is in the office. It’s a huge risk. I’ll return to this in “episode 6”, still to come. 🙂
It’s a little about Subway
One of the ideas that frequently floats around is that everyone has to be back in the buildings, say in the NCR, because the Ottawa downtown core and the Gatineau downtown all need our business. They need people to RTW and spend money in the city core, the local economy needs it, all of that.
Is it an issue? Sure.
DMs aren’t stupid. They know that their operations contribute to the local business. But you know what? There is nothing in their mandate letters that says help the local economy. They would almost, to a person, never have a briefing on these issues. Treasury Board and PCO care, because they’re paid to, but nobody in any of the real property groups in a department or the DMs have any idea what that really means or how it works. Maybe they’ll get some background info from TBS, maybe the City of Ottawa will share info, but it’s not part of their decision-making.
Put a different, slightly more blunt way…nobody in a decision-making position for RTW for a department sees support to Subway as a deciding factor. It’s a bonus if/when they have people RTW, a side effect, if anything. In the interim, they all know the alternative — if people are spending money, they’re doing it in the neighbourhoods in which they live. I spend money at a local deli, not tons of course, but way more than I ever would have if I was at a different work location than my house. I try to force myself to go out for lunch once a week, but that’s about mental health, not supporting the local economy. Most economists will say, “Sure, working generates additional spending in the local economy”, but more advanced economists will say, “Well, yes, but it’s more of a shift in WHAT the money is spent on and WHERE in the city”, not about WHETHER it is spent. Not really. Major reductions in overall spending are about the pandemic, not simply WFH.
So, again, sure, Subway is a contributing factor. But not a decisive one.
Does anyone NEED to go out to Subway today?
But if it isn’t about supporting local businesses, what was that Subway comment about? Mental health, actually.
Many in management are worried that employees are sitting at home from 9-5 working and doing NOTHING but sitting inside. Don’t get me wrong. Most of us think WFH is great. Some of us are walking more, or we eat on our deck or balcony, we aren’t commuting so we have more time to play with the kids, etc. All of those are good things. But many people are sitting alone in their workspace. Some don’t even have a dedicated workspace, they’re using a corner of their kitchen table. They’re stressed.
Now, if you have been in the public service in the last five years, you will have seen every single year that the focus on mental health has increased. We know that social interaction, taking a break, getting away from your desk is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. The whole work/life balance (yes, they appreciate the irony of that statement) that says your mental health is important not only to you, but also important to management. Not just so you can do your job, that’s always been a cause, but really, because we’re supposed to care about our employees. We’re not “Greed is good” flunkies, we’re the workplace of choice champions with tons of leave options if you need it. Or EAS. Or silent rooms. Or 100 different initiatives a year. They’re making an effort to be warm and fuzzy. And yet, what are we seeing? The kids are not alright.
EAS usage is up. People’s sense of identity, the link from their personal values to their work, connections to their job, all of it is decreasing…and no, for the tone deaf, it’s not because of fear of RTW. It’s because of WFH. They are not seeing themselves as “childcare specialists” or “security of the workplace”, they’re seeing themselves as policy people or security people who happen to work on childcare or security. They are identifying less with their files, less with their organizations, and dare I say it, more like indistinguishable cogs in a machine. Mobility at certain levels is higher, people are playing hopscotch with their careers, staying shorter in some positions. They’re feeling less connected to the employer (government), less of a sense of comraderie, less “bonding” with their fellow employees.
Meanwhile, while some have embraced a healthier lifestyle at home, not everyone has done that. Those with addiction issues are now sitting at home within 20 feet of their beer fridge, for example. Day drinking in some cases is real. Sick leave is trending back up, despite the fact that people are less exposed to the standard cold and flu contaminants they used to have — aka coworkers or fellow commuters.
Surveys about mental health are showing shifts in the responses, with some saying “WFH is great! My life has never been better” and others ticking every box that would have a mental health professional saying, “hmmm”.
But then a few people go into the office. They GET OUT of their house and go into work for a day. And instead of sitting in their living room, bedroom, basement, office, kitchen, they decide to go out for lunch at Subway, for instance. It feels NORMAL. Is going to Subway incredible? No, but if you haven’t done anything for lunch in 2 years because you didn’t feel safe or energized enough, actually doing ANYTHING for lunch is a mental health boost. The manager at the town hall is not the only one who has experienced that “bump”. I haven’t been in the office that much, but each time I go in, I try to arrange my schedule so that I can have lunch with someone. To do that social thing and feel normal again, DURING THE WORK DAY. Or even just having someone else make my lunch instead of making it myself in my kitchen. A luxury or a treat, depending on your viewpoint.
Communication is up, connection is down
If you don’t drink the Kool-aid on the past research too much, you can still see that what most of the social engagement research of the past and present reveals is that you can communicate lots of different ways — in-person, digitally, video, phone, carrier pigeon — but almost all sense of true sustainable connection is achieved in person. Hence why a bunch of executives are referring to the RTW or “in-office” events as “meaningful moment” opportunities. Brainstorming, retirement parties, all-staffs, team-building, etc. All things that generally don’t work as well without strong interpersonal connections between people. The stuff facilitators brag about being able to deliver when they pitch their services for…wait for it… in-person events.
And when people were surveyed about their “pilot experiences” in the office? They all confirmed that conclusion. They could connect with their colleagues in person in ways they couldn’t do virtually. Now, let’s be clear. The language is very carefully nuanced. The surveys aren’t saying “it’s better in the office five days a week”, it’s saying certain types of activities work better in person. All things that improve “connection”.
But let’s look at communication and connection across the various personality types, just for a short digression.
If you have been in the public service for a while, you’ve likely seen the Lego-Block-style personality profiles offered by Insight Solutions and others. For those not familiar with it, generally “cool blues” (introverted analytical types) prefer to be communicated with through details. Give them the details, let them read it all, and things are hunky dory. They love email, they hate people, WFH is mostly awesome for them. Unless they’re prone to the stereotype of the reclusive hermetic nerd who starts building a bomb shelter in their basement. They hate RTW because, well, there are people there and they feel they can work perfectly well, thank you very much from home, and none of them ever want to do stupid things like team-building or go to a party anyway. Don’t be silly. Yet they’re part of the group that NEEDS to be part of the team-building…it’s why they ORGANIZE team-building events, to reach those cool blues.
The warm greens are the intuitive introverts, and their preferred communication style is “show me you care”. And nothing says “we care” like having a video chat with all your colleagues with half of them (the blues) leaving their camera off, right? Right? Okay, so maybe not.
Both of those types are introverted groups where WFH should work well, they don’t need people as much. And yet, not so much.
So let’s look at the sunshine yellows, the intuitive extroverts. They thrive on interacting with lots of people, they’re like energy vampires. The more people, the more energized they are. But guess what? Video doesn’t do that. Almost no energy bump comes from the interactions, they’re way too flat. They thrive on PEOPLE and being IN-PERSON. Guess what? They’re suffering big time through the pandemic. If you look at their FB or Instagram feeds (depending on their age), you’ll see first that they have 1000s of friends (including each of the three baristas at their coffee shop) and second that they are doing their best to do things outside of their house. Any chance they get. They used to thrive on going to work, seeing all those people in person. Now? They are increasingly disengaged for work. If they were married to their employer, they’d be starting conversations with “It’s not you, it’s me, I just need more than you can give me right now.” Their mental health is taking a hit from the pandemic mainly, and WFH is not sustainable for them long-term. It never has been. Personal connections at night and weekends will never be enough to feed their hunger. They need to feel it at work too.
And then we come to the analytical extroverts, the fiery reds. The ones who prefer people “be brief, be bright, be gone”. Most people assume this means “management”, and they’re not completely wrong, as many bosses do have to display a lot of “red energy” when they’re leading and managing, regardless of their natural lead colour. Admittedly, most of these people tend to do better in the pandemic. They need people to feed their energy, but they’re equally energized by decision-making. And crises feed reds with all the decision-making energy they can handle, maybe even too much. But their natural colours as blues, greens and yellows do want that “connection” of in-person collaboration. And even the bosses are feeling the disconnect.
We all say we hate team-work, many want WFH forever perhaps. But when we go in, we get the connection we may not even have realized we’re missing. And we get a mental health bump.
After five years of telling executives they need to care about mental health, and knowing that the kids are not alright (to steal the popular phrase), they look for solutions. And one of those solutions is more opportunity for connection in-person. Is it surprising they’re thinking of having people do SOMETHING in the office?
Vertical work has cracked, horizontal is in a tailspin
There’s a classic quip about how do you want some work done — fast, cheap or good? You can pick two.
The nature of WFH is that people tend to use email, chats, and video calls as their main tools with others. All more suitable for transactional processes than for general collaboration. So, what does that mean? It means that networking — not the pejorative sense of a used car salesman working their contacts to make a sale or get a job, but in the sense of substantive engagement with peers — is way down from what used to happen. People do not pick up the phone to randomly call George unless they have something to discuss, maybe George is busy, etc. You might message them, but are you chatting with dozens of people the way you might have chatted with dozens in the office? Some are, most are not. Overall, most people are doing less “general” networking and more “focused” collaboration. As I said, carrying out transactions rather than building relationships.
I’ll give you a personal example as a digression. Almost all of my career has involved extensive horizontal work across multiple groups and areas. I’m a blue (analytical introvert) but people know me across the organizations I’ve worked for because of my job and my personality. If I was in the office, and dropping something off at the ADM’s office, my instinct is to go from point A to point B and return. A simple transaction. But my work depends on the relationships I have with people too, people I genuinely like but I also NEED to work with them. So if I’m going to the ADM’s office, I’ll route myself through my old division and say hi to old colleagues, maybe stop for a minute or two to see what one of them is working on these days or to check on their daughter who just gave birth. Maybe it’s just social, maybe they mention something of substance. Then I am off to the ADM’s office where I chat with the EA and the scheduling assistant while passing by, if they’re free. Same deal. And then on my way back, I might route myself through a division that I’m going to work on stuff with next week to see who it might be and give them a heads-up. I joke that I hate people, but in my day job, I might go to drop something off and chat with 5 different people along the way. Passing along intel, picking up intel, and generally just saying “hi”. In MS Teams? That doesn’t happen. I click send on the stuff and away it goes to the ADMs. Five conversations that I didn’t do because it seems weird to just cold call a colleague when I don’t know if they’re busy, swing by just to chat for 5m. If I was in person, I’d stop if I caught their eye and they didn’t seem busy. It isn’t important enough for me to schedule something. It’s the equivalent of the water-cooler chat.
When I was in the office, I generally felt like I had a pretty good pulse of what was going on in the branch of 800 people. Some from my job, some from networking, some from reading docs going by. In the first 2 years of the pandemic, that intel dropped to almost zero. It doesn’t happen without deliberate planning (hold on, I’ll come back to that).
I’ll give you a second example. I met an EX-02 way back in about 2006 or so. Different branch, but our files intersected, seemed like a good guy, and I don’t care much about hierarchies. I joke around with EX-02s, even DM-02s, like the real people they are, not like demi-gods. We connected well, and I consider him a friend. He offered me a job in 2007 that I passed on, but we still worked together on joint files on and off for 10 more years so saw each other regularly. In 2018, I worked for him directly for a special six-month project, which was awesome, and then moved on to a regular position after that. Between 2008 and 2020, I would never have gone more than about a month without chatting with him somehow. In the hallways, lobby, on margins of meetings, stopping by his office at 4:30 as I was on the way back from dropping something off. I wasn’t networking, I just like socializing with the guy. Sure, I learned tons through the years, and I consider him a mentor too. But from March 2020 to May 2021, i.e., the first 14 months of WFH? I didn’t speak to him once. I had no reason to. I never saw him in the halls, our files never intersected, there was no “transaction”. And in May 2021, I thought, “Huh. I haven’t talked to him in a while.”
So I did the obvious deliberate planning thing. I reached out to him and set up a coffee chat for 30m. We both agreed, it felt weird. We had never really had to set up coffee appointments before. And when I reached out to him, he had the same reaction I had been having. Tons of people you interact with normally in the office but have no transactional reason to call separately for, although lots of people would say, “just msg, what’s the big deal?”. The simple answer is that it is not the same. It feels different. Weird even. I’m good with computers, I run my own website, put myself through university with my computer skills, and have spent an enormous amount of my free time online since 1988 when I bought my first PC. And even I find it odd. In the literature, they talk about people losing tools…for me, networking in-person was a core part of my job for 20+ years and now it was gone, and not easily replaced, at least not fully. Now extrapolate that across government and business who need those informal networking opportunities to make the system run smoothly.
Senior management is seeing networking and horizontal work disappearing. Proposals are coming to them that are not as widely consulted as previously because the silos are becoming more rigid. I started a temporary job back in January for eight months and it required me to work with about 29 executives almost daily. I consulted the list and realized that I knew almost all of them…22 were people I had met in person previously. For the remaining 7? Blank slates. I had to do cold calls to interact with them. Can I do it? Of course. And I did. But in the past, what I would have done was drop by their area and introduce myself in person, often likely with one of their colleagues that I know available to introduce me. To get over that awkward “who are you and what do you want?” type reaction of someone popping up on your video screen. That was my challenge when I knew 80% of the people. What kind of challenge is it for an organization when you’re seeing increased mobility, people hopscotching around jobs, and never getting a chance to make the extra connections they need? People coming into similar jobs to me are coming in cold and have to do 100% of it as “cold calls”. That is a much steeper learning curve than I had.
Examples of the challenge are embarrassingly obvious in some cases. I’ll be a bit vague on details but it has happened in more than one department. Let’s say there’s a new problem, we’ll call it “X”. Maybe it has an economic solution, a financial solution, a regulatory solution, and a social solution. All pieces that could contribute to a larger solution, at least, if not a solution on their own. Departments used to be embarrassed a little when it turned out four separate departments were writing to PCO to say, “Hey we can do X1, X2, X3, X4” and PCO would say, “WTF? Don’t you guys talk to each other?”.
Not our finest hour, right? Well, guess what? Now those situations are cropping up within departments, within BRANCHES even. Multiple proposals on the same issue because everyone is busy worrying about their own vertical silo and not about horizontality with other groups. In the past, they would have had conversations on the margins of larger meetings and figured out maybe Jane should talk to Jadeep who’s looking at the same issue. But not only is it embarrassing that the same branch is sending forward competing proposals, four different groups did the same background research, maybe even contacted the same stakeholders to try and figure out what to suggest. The inefficiency is astounding.
Horizontal stuff is falling through the cracks all over the place. And the Centre’s solution is to have more tracking templates to force people to talk to each other. Cuz that’s always a good sign. Cheap it wasn’t, fast neither, and good? Fuggedaboutit. Things are tough all over.
For vertical work such as designing a program or service, getting it operational and managing it, most people who work on these things say “Hey, we did it. You told us to do program X, we did program X, ergo obviously WFH is a success.” Except it looks a bit like the first quip. We did it fast, sure, there was a pandemic on, and we needed to make changes on the fly. But it definitely wasn’t done cheaply (huge expenditures not only in programs but in increased personnel) and people are seeing that “good” might not be quite the right value assessment. Did we do it? Yes. Did we do it well and right? Welllll…the jury is still out.
It’s ironic that a video tool designed to increase communication at will has had the unintended consequence of actually increasing silos. People working in a division of a branch have even less idea of what the other divisions are doing. Sharing is down, group learning is down. It’s like we’ve created work pods and nobody will leave the hive unless they actually LEAVE.
On a more serious scale, some things are somehow skipping major steps in governance even. Some of it is simply timelines are too tight, but other times it is right hand/left hand not connecting well enough to realize that group 1 approved version A of something that is now on version J. And nobody circled back because, well, there was no reason to meet with them. I have done some major horizontal files in my career, worked in a DM’s office, I joke that I’ve seen some sh** go wrong. But I’ve seen three things happen in the last few years on governance that are SMH moments. It makes no sense how something went as far as it did before someone said, “Hey, wait a minute, did Legal look at this? No? Umm, maybe they should, you think?”.
I was explaining it to someone who doesn’t speak government, and I used a small business growing bigger as the metaphor. Frequently, a small shop is being run, the owner is doing the finances, spends all the outlay and collects the revenue. Very simple, one person controlling it all. But then they get bigger and maybe it’s one person ordering something and another paying for it. Basic accounting and management principles. And then the group gets bigger and you start to have rules about delegated authorities, ordering, etc. Over time, errors crop up and people put in place rules and procedures to plug the holes from something going wrong. Not necessarily illegal, just not ideal. Like someone deciding they should buy a brand new colour photocopier without checking with the procurement people who could have got a discount because they were buying 3 for other areas. So the rule says a) submit the order; b) finance people will confirm funds; c) procurement will confirm plan; d) someone will authorize the order, etc. And how did they control all that? Wet signatures. Often some sort of approval slip where multiple people signed. Maybe for something under $10K, it’s just one director. But if you’re spending $100K, maybe there are a few signatures. Those controls worked when everyone was in-person at the office. When WFH started, all those processes went out the window because nobody was signing things by hand. It was all digital. And so what happened? Bob decided to order a photocopier and had the form, but just sent the email to the final purchase person who had no reason to believe the other 4 steps hadn’t been done, so it was ordered. And people said, “Wait, how did that happen?” Not a big deal, but they had procedures in place to prevent those things, right? Except the digital process somehow jumped the paper routine.
Things like that are happening in government too. Well-established processes that have worked for years suddenly aren’t working — because people are skipping steps trying to do it digitally and the pressure to deliver “sooner than later” is so high. It happens. It’s not nefarious, but senior management is seeing things happen that are, well, not the way they should have been done. Controls were missed. Nobody wants another Phoenix problem, but that’s the potential risk at some point. Due diligence isn’t done and something goes wrong. Something preventable.
Vertical is cracking, horizontal is disintegrating. And executives are seeing people who used to be able to manage these files in person with relative ease not being able to do it virtually. Personally, I think it is the increase in transactional interactions over relationship building, but the reason doesn’t matter.
Nobody knows what to do about performance
Let’s face it, all the organizations were forced into this world. They didn’t plan for it, they didn’t make a conscious decision to switch to this type of model for their business, and this was not a strategic pivot. This was a risk mitigation response to a global pandemic.
If it had been a planned pivot, they would have had to answer a bunch of key management decisions. For example, they would have asked, “So, in this new model, does anyone know what we need for infrastructure (bandwidth, software, equipment)?”. I mentioned that they handled this on the fly, and we’re still implementing new tools 2 years later. They did well, but it wasn’t pro-active excellence that got us here.
They would have had to ask, “How will we maintain output levels and quality?”. Would horizontal still work, as I mentioned above? Would the vertical stuff still function as well? How will we even measure it?
The private-sector is really struggling with these issues. Every few days, somebody runs a story about company X or employee Y doing something to monitor their performance…keystrokes or mouse clicks to confirm they’re at their desk, cameras “on” to prove you’re working. Surveillance to make sure people aren’t watching Netflix, playing on their phone, or playing Solitaire instead of working.
Government may not be resorting to those types of tactics, but they have concerns too. It would be nice to assume that 400K employees are all going to be eager beavers doing everything they can to maximize their efficiency, but well, that’s not human nature. Somewhere in that mix will be at least someone who’s dogging it and getting away with it. If they’re clearly not delivering stuff, well that will be obvious. But what about someone who’s phoning it in, so to speak, not really making much effort? We already know some people are disaffected. Some are having mental health problems. If they’re wasting time doing nothing, or day drinking, or a whole host of other behaviour we would see in the office, how can we know and manage for it?
And suppose there is someone who is a problem and you want to get rid of them. Well, let’s look at the due diligence you had to do as a manager to make sure it truly is a performance issue:
- Were they onboarded well? Generally being done badly by almost everyone;
- Did they get high-quality training? Well, knowledge training goes well, procedures and processes tend to be taught better in person, soooo….;
- Were they monitored closely? Umm, no;
- Were they given extra mentoring? Probably yes, but how good is it virtually if the person isn’t that receptive?;
- Were managers open and available for easy drop-in for assistance? Sure, except you had to almost phone and make an appointment, so maybe not.
Let’s be honest…managers received no skills download to suddenly make them amazing managers for remote work, they’re figuring it out as they go along too. So if you have a poor performer, is it just them or is it partly the system?
If you have an option for in-person too, there are more options to help the person progress.
Command and control by any other name
I’ve held off including this element to the end because it can be highly misleading. People frequently think of it as very draconian, reflecting the military wording. And extrapolating that it is all about control. Really it is likely better worded as “Manage and Lead”.
Every senior executive has their own style by which they want to “manage and lead” their staff. Some think it is all about empowerment, some think there is a heavy stick required. Often it reflects their own inclinations as to how they themselves work best. But there is a wide divergence of views across government about what way is “best”. There are some who are disparaged as not trusting anyone, and they want everyone in five days a week. Certain types of jobs would lend themselves better to that than others. Or more accurately, some jobs are more amenable to WFH than others (again, I’ll talk more about that later, so I am not covering it here). The government has played with management-by-the-numbers or by-objectives back when it was a popular idea in the management literature, and they found that generally speaking, it worked fine for process, and not at all for policy. If you could establish clear KPIs, any style of command and control would work; if not, you pretty much needed in-person “leadership”.
Hence why, pre-pandemic, the assumption was that you couldn’t do policy at home. So the command-and-control preference is that policy wonks should be in the office more. Is that true? It’s not really relevant.
What’s relevant is that the senior managers don’t know any OTHER way to manage some groups. It’s all they have. So even if the employees think they want to be at home, the managers don’t feel comfortable giving up all control and just letting them set their own schedules and work locations. It is one of the few things they could control, and giving it all up with no clear replacement leaves them very vulnerable.
Individual workers frequently rant and rave that everything is working just fine as is, with everyone working from home. Except they don’t see the whole organization. What they see is that their life is better, at least for work-life balance, and they feel empowered with not having to commute, etc. Heck, I am excited about not wearing dress pants and shirts every day, let alone a suit and tie.
But the cracks are visible to senior management. And as they move forward, much of their focus on options depends on which of the above elements (or others) is keeping them up at night.
I’ll cover the variables of the return in my fifth post, but let’s also look first on what management is even hearing.