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Leadership and Workforce Management: Shaping the Next Normal

Highlight on our Panel Discussion with Darlene Dasent, Stephanie Nagel, Alexander Ralph and Zachary Woodward

A new value placed on corporate services

The pandemic has shaped many workplace discussions and practices over the last two years, but not just across the healthcare sector. In many realms of the public sector the pandemic has affected operations. For instance, Darlene Dasent, the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at the University Health Network, which is Canada’s largest academic research hospital based in Toronto, says that “the pandemic really highlighted the tremendous value of the so-called corporate functions that often sit in the background.” This includes functions like digital, procurement and treasury. In many cases, “their workloads actually went up exponentially” during that time, and “we tend to underestimate the impact that the pandemic had in these corporate areas.”

Across the other side of the country, Alexander Ralph, the Chief Procurement Officer & Director of Supply Chain Management at the City of Vancouver, says that one of the reasons why corporate functions often sit in the background and are usually not very prominent is because “when all goes well, there’s silence, but when something goes wrong because of a problem or a disruption, that’s when we actually talk about it.” For a long time, these corporate functions were “taken for granted,” but when a big disruption like the pandemic happened, suddenly everyone noticed when things didn’t work the way they should, or when there was a lack of a certain critical product. “Now everybody’s talking about supply chain disruptions.” The clear lesson is that corporate services are much more important than people give them credit for, and that from a vendor perspective at least, “it is important to develop and nurture those relationships on a day-to-day basis.”

The far-reaching disruption caused by the pandemic

This new value placed on corporate services has come about because the pandemic upended so many operational procedures and practices. Stephanie Nagel, the Treasurer and Director of Corporate Finance at the Region of Peel, a local municipality in Ontario, says that for the first time they had to “make really quick decisions without going to Council first.” On top of that, when they were making these decisions and “working in cross-functional teams, finance was at the table too.” Normally finance is one of those back room teams that only gets involved when money is required. But now for the first time, “we had to work out how to make things happen quickly, how to secure PPE for example.”

From a procurement perspective, “we had to work really quickly with vendors and had to make emergency purchases. We also had to do things a lot faster than normal, making some people uncomfortable.” However, in a way the pandemic came at a good time for the organization. “Less than a year before the pandemic, we switched out our desktops for laptops.” At the time it was a big change that was very disruptive in itself, “but it ended up making a real difference.” There were some working-from-home practices already in place, but for most staff it was foreign territory. “So integration was a big thing for us.” Some staff also had to be redeployed whilst others had to “take up extra duties.” In many cases, the back office operations were tested even further. It is unlikely that everyone will always work from home, but having a different kind of “work-life balance was a positive” for most people and the majority of staff were able to make the transition. In the future, “we’ll probably move to a hybrid system and keep some of that flexibility for people.”

What a lot of this shows is that a disruption like a pandemic has many far-reaching effects. Zachary Woodward, the Senior Director of Procurement Modernization and Continuous Improvement at the BC Public Service, says that when required, “everybody just dropped everything that they were working on because there was a common goal that they all needed to work to.” This was across almost every division and every task, and was necessary at the time “to ensure we had everything that was needed.” But the problem is that so many other things, especially related to procurement or even IT operations, “didn’t get renewed when they needed to be, got postponed or got delayed.” Now, two years on, there is “a flood of new projects as a result,” and people who were already over stretched, “are probably getting slammed from last year’s work.”

New opportunities and challenges

At the Region of Peel, Stephanie Nagel says that before the pandemic began, they started “a big undertaking to replace our ERP system,” the ‘enterprise resource planning’ software that manages a company’s financials, supply chain, operations, reporting and HR functions. Because of the emergence of COVID-19, it was a project that was “much delayed, and we have only now started to get back on that road.” It requires “a lot of coordination” because it essentially effects everyone within the organization “since we have to replace old systems and integrate new processes.” Before the pandemic, the biggest challenge was “was getting buy-in from our senior leadership.” Though they saw the benefit and authorized the project, it seemed to them to be “too big, too expensive, too time consuming.” But the pandemic has changed some of that focus. There is now a shift from seeing it as “a transaction based system to a more strategic way for employees to move forward.” In other words, the technology capability that was so vital during the pandemic has made this new system seem indispensable.

To ensure that indispensability, they set up a “broader operating committee, and anyone working on this project has it as a performance goal and they need to check-in with their leaders on a monthly basis so that we’re all keeping in alignment.” They have also brought in change managers and key leaders from other areas to lead the project and have also set up a system to “report on outcomes and keep the journey focused and understood. We needed to keep it on track.”

Alexander Ralph says that they too changed their ERP system, but that the technology alone will not change attitudes or perceptions. “It is a good system with different processes that is a main efficiency driver for us, but to really be more efficient we need to look at and do things differently as an organization.” Installing the new system was a “great catalyst to ask how are we doing things.” For instance, “we all think of our own organizations as unique,” but at the end of the day, the back office operations are “generally the same whether you are talking private or public sector.” What sets organizations apart are the people “because they are the ones that use the technology.” The pandemic has stressed this and therefore what has become more important than ever is to “design processes with a customer or client focus perspective, and making sure that everyone is aligned to it.”

Zachary Woodward also stresses the customer focus, and particularly in light of the pandemic. “If you are developing software or applications, you always need to remember you are not the user. The user is the person who may only use that technology once a year or perhaps only once in their career.” From a procurement perspective, there are core professionals and there are others “who do procurement off the side of their desk,” like the people who had to become experts at ordering PPE even though it was not their job. As such, in the last few years there has developed a “concept of low code or no code technologies.” These are tools or solutions that are being designed so that “a business analyst could run them rather than a qualified engineer.” These new tools are emerging largely but not solely because of the pandemic, and are really there to “manage and remove bottlenecks.”

“The key driver of machine learning and AI focuses not on eliminating existing jobs, but removing those bottlenecks for those tasks that we get assigned to us but we don’t do them very often so we are not very good at them. We feel like we are fumbling in the dark. These new technologies are intended to be able to streamline that work effort.” – Zachary Woodward, Senior Director, Procurement Modernization and Continuous Improvement, BC Public Service

Lessons to take us forward

The pandemic was clearly a health issue first and foremost, but for functions like corporate services, there have been numerous lessons that have been learned as a result of such a great disruption. Stephanie Nagel says that the real lesson that the pandemic highlighted and exacerbated, was that “communication is really the key. Our ERP project will bring a lot of change that’s going to affect a lot of people in a very short period, so we need to ensure that everyone gets the same message.” Having access to technologies like MS Teams, Zoom, Sharepoint and others have been beneficial, but everyone connects in different ways, so that has also been a key learning.

“As a result of the pandemic, we also developed closer working relationships with our local municipalities. We always worked with them but now we are even closer and are looking at setting up systems together.” – Stephanie Nagel, Treasurer & Director of Corporate Finance, Region of Peel (Ontario)

Darlene Dasent also says that the pandemic highlighted the need to communicate better. “The pandemic had such a wide, sweeping impact, but the impact was very different for different people, even people on the same team or within the same organization.” The pandemic also reinforced that “transformation also means very different things to different people.” So, establishing and having clarity is crucial, and this extends from the leadership team down.

“For a transformation journey there needs to be consistent messaging and consistent support throughout the organization. Communication needs to be broken down so that everyone understands the message.” – Darlene Dasent, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, University Health Network (Toronto)

On top of that, the pandemic also showed that everyone is interconnected and “we need to understand the interdependencies of all the different corporate areas and corporate functions.” For the first time it became clear that if one area goes down, the whole organization suffers. Some people work better under pressure and others can’t handle it, “so we need to be flexible to adapt to the needs of our teams and our staff.” In some cases that means being creative about how to stay connected, but in all cases, it means “being there to support your people.” On top of that, it is probably much clearer now that some people are more adept at handling difficult situations, “so we need to identify all of those unofficial leaders out there, all of those change champions who can really help us on our pathway.” For Alexander Ralph, the pandemic showed the need to not just communicate, but to “build and maintain constant relationships.” When the pandemic began, they “went to talk to our closest vendors, the ones we thought we might need to work with more.”

“Relationships aren’t only important when things are good. They are long-term and need to brew for many years. We develop good relationships vendors, senior leaders and trusted staff who showed their capabilities and rolled up their sleeves when it was required because we engage on a daily basis.” – Alexander Ralph, Chief Procurement Officer & Director of Supply Chain Management, City of Vancouver

Zachary Woodward continues on this point and says that the pandemic exposed “people who didn’t know they had certain strengths and created opportunities for them to shine.” Removing bottlenecks is not just the domain of technology but is also about having the right people in place. Before the pandemic, “we focused on the low hanging fruit, the easy ways to streamline procurement.” But now, through the right technology and the right people, “we are getting access to tools, services and functions in days rather than weeks or months. We therefore now have the practices to better make those decisions and to better coordinate our services, even if they are in disparate divisions or locations.”

Featured speaker:

  • Darlene Dasent, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, University Health Network (Toronto)
  • Stephanie Nagel, Treasurer & Director of Corporate Finance, Region of Peel (Ontario)
  • Alexander Ralph, Chief Procurement Officer & Director of Supply Chain Management, City of Vancouver
  • Zachary Woodward, Senior Director, Procurement Modernization and Continuous Improvement, BC Public Service