In this article featuring insights from Nicole Haggerty, Assistant Dean of Mentorship and Associate Professor of Information Systems at Ivey Business School, we explore how taking the right approach to talent, technology, and workplace culture can help public sector leaders meet the challenges of the post-pandemic world.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted almost every aspect of Canadian life, from how and where we live and work, to how we learn, shop and socialize. The disruption was particularly challenging for the public sector. Not only did the pandemic force government organizations to rethink how services were delivered, they also had to navigate the sudden shift to remote work themselves.
Almost 70% of government employees were working remotely at the height of the pandemic — up from just 2% prior to COVID-19. As a result, digital transformation projects were expedited across the public sector, with some organizations making significant technological advances in only a few months.
“A positive effect of the pandemic is that it put in motion momentum for necessary change,” notes Nicole Haggerty, Assistant Dean, Mentorship, and an Associate Professor in Information Systems at Ivey.
While the social distancing mandates associated with the pandemic may be over, many of the resulting changes or adaptations made by public sector workers to accommodate those unprecedented circumstances are here to stay. As senior leaders in Canada’s public sector strive to adapt to the new reality, we look at some of the key challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
The future of work is flexible
The sudden need for social distancing allowed many individuals to prove that remote work is a viable option. Most employees remained productive while working from home, and many reported enjoying a better work-life balance as they traded commutes for more time spent with family and friends.
Today, most Canadians are reluctant to return to the office full-time. One recent survey by Canadian HR consulting firm Robert Half found that 85 per cent of job seekers are considering hybrid or fully-remote opportunities only, while Colliers Canada found that almost two-thirds of Canadian employers have already made the switch to a hybrid working model.
“Life may have been easier for leaders when people came into the office and you could see them working,” says Haggerty. “But it would be a mistake to insist that workers come back to the office full-time and not to take advantage of the ways in which hybrid work makes employees happy.”
It seems that the Government of Canada agrees. In January 2023, the federal public service began the phased introduction of a common hybrid work model that has employees working on site two to three days each week, or 40 to 60 per cent of their regular schedule.
“Today’s leaders have to create a flexible environment that works for everybody, as much as possible,” says Haggerty. “They have to think differently about whether visibility means people are getting work done. They need to learn how to judge people based on results and not on perceived effort.”
The move to hybrid work also requires a new approach to building and managing organizational culture.
In the past, a sense of community often developed organically, simply by having people come together in the same space to get work done. Leaders now need to take a proactive approach to building a culture that fosters collaboration between employees who may be working in different locations and at different times. “They have to identify what it is about bringing people together that actually adds value,” says Haggerty, “and then create moments of connection in a physical place where employees can get together.”
An opportunity to create a more inclusive workplace
Like their peers in the private sector, public sector leaders face the ongoing challenge of attracting and retaining talent in Canada’s tight job market. And although the public sector may not always be able to compete on wages, Haggerty says a flexible workplace, the opportunity to do meaningful work, and an inclusive work environment can make it an attractive choice.
Haggerty points out that the ability to work virtually means people no longer have to live in Ottawa, or other large centres, in order to have a career in the public sector. That can be a real benefit for leaders looking to hire the best candidate for the job while growing existing inclusion and diversity initiatives.
But Haggerty cautions that building a diverse team is only the first step. “Leaders can struggle with what it really means to manage through an EDI lens,” she notes. Creating a safe environment where all voices are heard is key. “It’s about leading by example, creating inclusive policies, amplifying underrepresented voices, accommodating differences to ensure equal opportunities and addressing microaggressions and unconscious bias that may creep in to the day-to-day work.”
Embracing digital transformation
Many public sector services that were traditionally delivered in-person were quickly brought online during the pandemic. “This dramatic adoption of technology could be a major source of momentum on a lot of fronts,” says Haggerty. “For public sector leaders, there is a huge opportunity to reimagine how work gets done.”
Digital transformation of the workplace is as much about social transformation as it is about technology, she notes. “Leaders need to be thinking about team roles and how people collaborate and how to support new ways of working.”
Understanding the skills that are now required and providing employees with opportunities to hone them will help create a workforce that’s engaged, agile, and ready to excel.
A new approach to project management
Leaders in all organizations face similar challenges in terms of managing resources in a rapidly changing environment. “What’s distinctive about the public sector is the dynamic nature of the environment and the shifting ground on which public sector leaders live, including things like fiscal restraint, partisan politics, public demands for accountability, and transparency of public sector work,” Haggerty notes.
“The government is very good at documenting their expectations of project management as a way to reduce risk,” she says. “But what we know today, more than ever, is that attempting to create plans that are 2-3 years long demands a level of foresight that is impossible in the dynamic environment in which we live – there are just too many changing forces.”
Integrating design thinking and agile management practices into their project management toolkit can help public sector leaders ensure the best possible outcomes in an uncertain world. But being willing to plan in increments and view mistakes as learning opportunities requires a shift in mindset.
“The pressure to plan in order to reduce risk clashes with this need to be resilient, agile, and adaptive,” Haggerty says. “This is what leaders in the public sector need to think about and manage. They may not be able to deploy these toolkits in the same way that can happen in the private sector, but they can use adaptive practices and learning-oriented practices to drive collaboration within their organization and make use of the diversity and talent of their team within the risk tolerance of the media, the public, and the politicians.”
The pandemic served as a catalyst for change and underscored the need for the public sector to embrace new ways of thinking and adopt digital tools in order to best serve Canadians as we face an uncertain future.
“In a world of continuous change, lifelong learning is probably the best way for leaders to stay on top of things,” Haggerty says. “Be self-aware. Identify your leadership capabilities and where you need to develop new insights. And pursue a steady dose of learning where you are exposed to new ideas, learn from evidence-based practice, and can build new skills to bring back to your organization.”
This article was written by Nicole Laidler. Nicole is a Western University graduate, BA '03, MA Journalism '04, and an award-winning journalist and content creator. To see what else she’s been writing lately visit www.spilledink.ca.
Hybrid work model is here to stay in Canada, research find (CityNews)
62% of Canadian employers using hybrid working model: survey (Benefits Canada)
Common hybrid work model for the Federal Public Service