Redefining HR Functions Amid the Evolution of the Workplace

Summary of the panel discussion from our HR and Future of Work – Spring Edition Virtual Event which focuses on building more resilient HR processes and people management initiatives with the newest technology with HR experts across Canada

Changing the Nature of Work

There is no doubt that as a result of the global pandemic, the nature of the workplace at almost every level has changed. In some industries, the pause on physical engagement and field operations was difficult to handle and caused great grief. But in other industries, especially for those people who used to work behind a computer in offices, the changes that remote work brought were embraced, and it is unlikely that things will ever resort back to how things used to be. For those workplaces in particular, HR departments and executives need to adjust the way they recruit and especially the way they attract and retain staff. For instance, Martina Mangion, the Strategic Human Resources Manager at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction within the BC Public Service, says that the HR community needs to think differently. We have to be more creative than ever before. One way of doing this is by applying a more human-centric lens to how we empower, engage and recognize employees. In a practical sense, this means more listening, more asking and more coaching, and it may also mean greater engagement through surveys or other feedback mechanisms in order to better hear from our staff and to better communicate with them.

Communication in particular has become more critical than ever for everyone involved in HR. Martine St-Louis, the Assistant Director for Leadership, Performance and Talent Management at the Canada Border Services Agency, says that now more than ever, it’s important to pay attention, to listen and to communicate continuously. In her role this has always been critical since my unit supports our leaders and looks after succession management. This means they are always tracking opportunities and looking to appoint the right people into the right roles, like all recruiters. As such, they know for certain that to keep people, you have to maintain their engagement. There has always been a fine line between employee needs and employer needs, and we always need to find the balance, but the pandemic has highlighted the opportunities for employees. We have seen their families and know that many of them have varying needs outside of work, though sometimes during work hours. At the same time, the organizations that they work for have products or services that they deliver to Canadians, so businesses need to do anything they can to facilitate the processes and ensure that both the employees and employers are satisfied.

Communication is equally important for Zuhar Akhunov, the Acting Director for Human Resources at the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which regulates the gaming, liquor, cannabis, horse racing and internet gaming industries. He says all organizations would benefit from listening more to their employees, and adjusting their training and development based on those needs and demands. In their Commission, largely as a result of the pandemic and because of the opportunities related to remote work, the expectations of employees have increased significantly, and they now feel more independent and make multiple decisions on a daily basis. Since they conduct a lot of training programs, in light of the pandemic – like so many other workplaces – they began to deliver our training and development activities using a virtual model through a combination of live training on Zoom or Webex and pre-recorded sessions. They also introduced an e-Learning component which basically supports self-paced learning for the employees.


Practical Changes as a Result of the Pandemic

The main point is that the pandemic shone a light on the need to ensure greater engagement and empowerment of employees. Almost for the first time, employees realized that they are in charge of their own destinies, so Martina Mangion says, we as HR teams need to be more competitive in how we attract, recruit, engage with and retain those employees. People now move laterally not just upwards if a competing role has better conditions or benefits. So upskilling has also become more important than ever before. On top of that, it is crucial that we have a diverse workforce that represents the communities we serve to engage employees. In many ways, this means creating or further developing a positive culture in our organizations, and expanding our flexible work options.

Another learning from the pandemic is that employees want to see their contributions making a difference. For most workplaces, this means being more strategic and working in greater collaboration with others since working in silos is no longer an option. One way to be more strategic is to use data more creatively and to think about what we measure, how and when. There is more data than ever before, and much of it is collected and measured, but not all of it is necessary. We need to ensure that we have data savvy organizations as this will be critical for the long-term success of the public service.

Martine St-Louis agrees, and says that collecting data and engaging with staff is necessary, but it’s not just a paper or survey-filling exercise; it’s about making sure that we have those meaningful conversations with our staff. This is something that they train their executives to do because if you don’t have engaged and happy employees, then it has a detrimental impact on your bottom line. Since the pandemic, this has meant really listening to their problems and being aware of their needs. For instance, supporting employees to work remotely has now become the universal practice. But what does that mean in reality? Are there are policies in place for that? Not all leave needs to be vacation leave, whilst not all time off work needs to be taken as leave. If for instance someone needs to go for a medical appointment or to pick up their child early from school, there should be support for these kinds of things, without them needing to take leave. We need to find the right solution for each scenario. Equally, many organizations, including the Canada Border Services Agency, has employees across the country in different time zones. This means that the agency needs to respect the hours and not schedule meetings that are only suitable in Eastern Standard Time.

“It is about paying attention to the personal needs of our employees and supporting the flexibility of working anywhere and anytime in more creative ways. In fact, all these pieces contribute to making the employees feel supported and for them to remain engaged. In anything, they’re likely to contribute even more because they feel like they’re part of an organization that understands their needs.” Martine St-Louis, Assistant Director, Leadership, Performance and Talent Management, Canada Border Services Agency

Zuhar Akhunov also says that it is important to keep employees engaged. At their Commission, when employees began working remotely, their challenge was for the managers to continue to lead their teams in the virtual environment and to make sure that the teams were as efficient as they used to be before. To assist with that, they created training dedicated to employee well-being, which focused a lot on mental and social matters. On top of that, they increased their employee feedback platforms. Whilst regular feedback was always something they had in place, since much of their work was now virtual, it was important to ask their employees and clients what they want to see more of or less of in the future.

Thinking Differently is the Key to Success

Martine St-Louis says that thinking differently in the public sector is critical, but before that, the public sector needs to take credit for embracing the digital transformation that the pandemic forced on all of us. The public service was generally rather behind as far as technology was concerned, but there’s been a quick adaptation, given the circumstances. This means anything is possible. We can innovate and advance when required. And the time for that is now. The main learning is that rather trying to advance a lot of things all at once, we need to know what the problems are and what exactly the needs are. It became clear during the pandemic that as much as people adapted, many of the regular tasks were put on the backburner. In terms of new technology, you can’t come up with this beautiful new tool that’s going to do amazing things if it’s not necessary and no one’s going to use it. So it is important to think creatively and to rely more on feedback and user engagement. On top of that, the public service has a lot of old technology and legacy systems. We need to think about what is possible and how can we merge some of them or use them in new ways. In general for these kinds of things there aren’t any quick fixes.

The most important thing – now as much as before the pandemic – is to invest in people. Staff need to understand what they are doing and why. That’s going to be a game changer for getting somebody engaged. For instance, there is always a lot of training, and sometimes mandatory training within the public service. We need to explain why it is mandatory and how it might save them time or effort. It’s a future oriented thing and they need to understand that. As part of the communication, staff are now much more empowered and are likely to interrupt the process and question if we are on track. Whilst in the past this may have been seen as being annoying or it may have been ignored, these days such questions and comments should be welcomed. In fact, it’s okay and maybe even appropriate to stop and adjust or tweak or adapt what we are working on.

Zuhar Akhunov says the for employees who had the opportunity to work remotely during the pandemic, many of them really appreciated the flexibility. So much so that I don’t think we’ll ever go back to what it used to be; people now expect at least some level of flexibility. The question now is how much flexibility should be offered? What is operationally feasible? The main learning for their Commission was to engage in continuous and clear communication. They always offered some level of flexibility but most people didn’t engage in it because they didn’t know about it. If your employees do not know about all that you offer or don’t understand the options, it will not matter. On top of that, the pandemic taught that flexibility can’t apply to everyone. Some roles have to be in the field, for example. But that doesn’t mean that those employees shouldn’t have flexible options either.

“Maybe they can work four days a week or have flexible hours on some days. There are so many options, we just need to carefully consider those and make sure that whatever we offer fits our organizational needs and of course, the employee needs. If you always take the employee needs into consideration, you have a much better chance of hiring and retaining the best talent.” Zuhar Akhunov, Acting Director, Human Resources, Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario

In terms of remote work, Martina Mangion says we definitely need to think differently about how, where and when the work is done. At the BC Public Service, we were actually already a virtual ministry prior to the pandemic, but the last two years have still been quite a whirlwind. In part, because so many changes happened all at once. One thing the pandemic confirmed is that different perspectives and thoughts make better outcomes, so we need to invest more in inclusion and diversity. These different perspectives should lead to a network of problem solvers. The pandemic showed that it is not just senior leaders who are responsible for decision making. However, in order to have such a network, organizations should have “more coaching and mentorships. In a hybrid or remote environment this is even more necessary because engagement may be more difficult. So recognition and well-being programs are really at the heart of a successful organization. Remote working has its benefits, but at the same time nobody’s getting a break from their personal stuff creeping into the workplace. We need to be mindful of that. Not only do there need to be policies and practices in place, but there also needs to be personalized communication methodologies.

Featured speakers:

  • Martina Mangion, Strategic Human Resources Manager, Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, BC Public Service
  • Martine St-Louis, Assistant Director, Leadership, Performance and Talent Management, Canada Border Services Agency
  • Zuhar Akhunov, Acting Director, Human Resources, Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario