Innovate on Demand episode 8: Virtual Leadership

Telework. Some departments strongly endorse it, while others have only explored it under limited and strict guidelines. This episode of Innovate on Demand features Simon Gascon, Director of IT Research at Employment and Social Development Canada, on his experience as a virtual leader within the Government of Canada.

Duration: 47:57
Date: February 10, 2020

Transcript

Innovate on Demand episode 8: Virtual Leadership

Todd 
I'm Todd Lyons.

Natalie 
I'm Natalie Crandall.

Valeria 
I'm Valeria Sosa.

Simon 
And I'm Simon Gascon.

Todd 
And this is the Innovate on Demand podcast.

Telework remains a contentious issue in the public service. Some groups use it extensively. Others grant it only in extreme circumstances and for limited periods of time, requiring proof of need in order to prolong the arrangement, because after all, how can you manage people you can't see? And how could a manager ever possibly consider teleworking? Let's find out.

Valeria 
Welcome, Simon. I'm very happy to have you here. Why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Simon 
Well, I'm "Simple Simon" and I work for the federal government and have worked there for 20 years. I work out of Mont-Tremblant [in the Laurentians region of Quebec] on a full-time basis.

Valeria 
Very nice, very nice. Can you tell us how that came about?

Simon 
To make a long story short, I was, like everybody else, in the race and enjoying my career o far in the public service. I'd reached the level of acting director general at the EX-3 level. I was qualified in pools. After a few months in the job, I think six or seven months, I sat down with my ADM [assistant deputy minister], a great guy, and he asked me how I was doing. I said, "Actually, I really don't like it. I'm not enjoying my time right now. I have young kids."

When I was working for him, we provided him some statistics in terms of mobile workers and teleworkers, and he said, Geez, the numbers are low in the NCR [National Capital Region]. So I thought that was an opportunity. I talked to my wife about it. She thought it was the least crazy idea I'd ever had: to move to Mont-Tremblant on a full-time basis! We'd had a little condo on the mountain—ski in, ski out—for five years and on Sunday nights, you have no idea what I thought about: that it could be an actual good idea to move there on a full-time basis. So we both talked to our senior management. I was willing to take a demotion to do it. At first he thought I was kidding. He [said], "Simon, you're a funny guy. Simon, you always have a joke." [I said], "No, it's not a joke. Actually, I'm interested in this." And he was actually very supportive about it; then it got a little bit spicier. So at the end of the day, I'm in Tremblant full time now and quite enjoying my time.

Valeria 
So, we have to ask you, what do you mean by "spicier"? [laughter]

Natalie 
I was curious, too, I'm not going to lie. [laughter]

Simon 
Well, it just got more complicated in the sense that I was an acting EX-3, I was in pools, I was thinking that I wanted to be appointed, and—

Valeria 
What year was this, just for context?

Simon 
It was about a year and a half ago, last January 2018, I think, would be the  closest ballpark. He was very supportive. My wife's deputy minister was actually very supportive, too. And she's at Privy Council Office.— What? Somebody teleworks from the Privy Council Office? Actually, they do. — But when it came down to the approvals in my department, we're very good at complicating things, and especially for approvals. So, in front of the executive management committee, there was a long, difficult discussion about whether executives should be able to telework or not on a full-time basis. And there was a decision, a unilateral decision, that the answer was no.

Valeria 
This was just within your department?

Simon 
Within my department. So I took a demotion, voluntarily, which people thought was a crazy move. But for those who follow my Facebook or Instagram, they see that this was the best thing we'd [Simon and his wife] done in a long time. I'm quite happy to be doing it right now, as we speak. Yeah, it was a complicated thing. My ADM felt so bad, because he was very supportive at my substantive level. Unfortunately, we had to take a demotion. He felt really bad about it. I didn't. I was willing to do that.

Valeria 
So how long did that process take?

Simon 
Well, to be honest, it didn't take that long. We were just going through the motions. And while that process was being done, I knew I had his support. I knew I was moving in the right direction. So I kept doing what I had to do. Sold my house. [It] happened a little faster than I thought it would, and then we were [still] building our house in Mont-Tremblant and so...our condo is about 500 square feet—

Natalie 
How many young kids did you say you had?

Simon 
Two. And an old boxer dog. Actually, four of us in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo on a full-time basis, because the kids started school in Tremblant in August, and we only moved into our [new] house in December. So, for a few months, my wife and I were sitting at both ends of the very small kitchen table we had. This was our telework environment and—

Valeria 
Eye on the prize. Eye on the prize. [laughter]

Simon 
Well, the funny part was, we were always in teleconferences or video conferencing. We would look at each other [and say], "Who are you video conferencing with? 'Well, so and so.' 'Okay, fine, I'll go into the bedroom.'" And then [one of us] would move or go sit on the terrace or whatever, and it worked.

Natalie 
Well, it's funny, you're not actually sharing any less space than most people share with their cubicle mate.

Simon 
Except when you have an old boxer who's laying on the table and has some digestive issues, and then you realize—

[laughter]

Valeria 
Now tell us about some of the highs and lows of mobility. And I think you're probably one of the champions for mobility now.

Simon 
Well, champion, I'm not sure, but I certainly am a big advocate for it. My whole team is what we consider extremely mobile. You saw me here. I arrived a little early, locked myself in. I can work from anywhere. I was actually holding a teleconference in the car on the way here. There's no limit to how I work on an everyday basis whenever I need to. At first, it was slightly disruptive. I've had all kinds of conversations, with different people [saying], Simon, you're going to feel alone, you're going to be feeling isolated, you're not going to be part of the culture in the office anymore. But one of the directors general I work with today, he would say himself he's a bit of a dinosaur. He's an old-school guy. And he said to me, At first, I didn't believe you'd pull it off. But I see you more than I've ever seen you before, on video and through teleconference and everything else, and I can feel your presence. And he said, I'm impressed and I didn't think it would work, but it does—and really, really well. So, one convert down, a few more to go.

Valeria 
Yeah. A few hundred thousand to go!

Natalie 
What would you say, in the process of getting the approval, in your view, is the biggest [obstacle]? It breaks my heart that you had to take the demotion to do this. I'm fairly confident that won't be a permanent thing for you, you'll fly through. But we need to break and change this culture around mobility and the whole topic of it. If you look back on that, what is the biggest obstacle you faced, do you think? Trust?

Simon 
Oh, well, not necessarily. I think the biggest obstacle, to be honest, is lack of awareness. I don't think people are aware of what [telework] is. We [Simon and his wife] started having more and more conversations. A lot of people approach us. We make ourselves very approachable to talk about the topic. This is one of the reasons I'm with you guys today. I find it very interesting to discover how some people think about some issues. I'll give you an example.

Some fairly senior management do not believe in telework or mobile working. They don't think it works. They don't think it can work, especially not in leadership positions. "Oh, my God, that's forbidden." Okay. But then you ask them, but why?
And they say, Well, I can't. I won't be able to see my folks. The presence that my leadership brings into the workplace is a symbol of the rigour of the management, being there in case of a crisis.

So you think about it. "Okay, that's great. And do you have any regional colleagues or regional employees?"

"Oh, yeah."

"How does that work?"

"Super well! We have good technology, we see them often. It works great."

"And they report to you?"

"Yeah."

"So that works?"

"Yes."
And then they think about it, about the "seeing" part and the supervision. I'm sure our Clerk comes into the office and thinks, Gee, I wonder if the President of the School is working right now. Because you can't see him!

Natalie 
Of course. I wonder if he's at home watching Netflix in his pyjamas?

Simon 
Absolutely. Absolutely. Now, I do work in my pajamas sometimes. I'm just kidding. I do take time to dress up in the morning. Seriously, these paradigms are being thrown at us on an everyday basis. In terms of the leadership presence and the culture and the group dynamics, it changes and it morphs, and it becomes a virtual culture of virtual leadership. The fact that I'm online almost every day, and you can bet on that, from 8:30 till five [or] 5:30, I'm going to be there. I deliver, I answer, I approve, I comment. The speed at which I do things drives the speed of the team.

What about if there's a crisis at work? Well, my team's not at work: my team is everywhere. So the likelihood of a crisis at work is none. Work crises that we need to work on? That we have a lot of—and we do it and we can do it super fast. And then [people say], "But Simon, it's more complicated when people are remote." Oh, really? The last time I tried to set up an interdepartmental committee in a boardroom, most people arrived late because there were traffic issues, then trying to get a pass from security, and then it's one by one [people trickling in], and then everything else. Versus, I set up a WebEx teleconference in two seconds and there you go, I can call in a meeting, a multi-departmental meeting, in probably less than two or three minutes. These are comparable issues. "Yeah, but what about network issues?" Well, it's the same thing as traffic and travelling, and security and everything else. When you think about that, then you start demystifying what this is all about.

Think about all the regional ADMs that we know of and that we have. Their bosses are in Ottawa. And as soon as your boss is not in the same building, or not in the same city, if the relationship works, and you trust your employee to be delivering, and you're noticing that they do, whether they are in the office, or whether they're at home, is that going to make a difference? Because if you're not in the same building or not in the same city, you will reach them by email by, by text message, by instant message, or by video conference. What is the difference? So then, [the argument] becomes, "Yeah, but you're going to create a precedent and then everybody's going to ask for it."

Now, here's something that made me laugh, because I like to be a little bit provocative from time to time. I love the HR folks, but I think OCHRO [Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer] right now is not at the cutting edge of this movement that's happening, which is actually led by PSPC's [Public Services and Procurement Canada] modern workplace and PCO's [Privy Council Office} Beyond 2020. I truly hope that OCHRO will step up and get into the game with this. I was looking at the different policies that we have on mobile working and teleworking and just the fact that we're talking about it demonstrates that it's still not an acquired taste [despite] the fact that it's more productive, it's more flexible, it's easier to recruit that way, maintain and retain.

Anyway, I was reading some of the policies [and] I talked to some of my HR colleagues—and they're fantastic, by the way—and so I looked at them, and I said, "I was reading your policy, and telework should be approved by management, yes. But if your productivity goes down, it says that telework will probably be the first thing that's removed."

"Oh, absolutely."

"Okay. So let me get this straight. If your performance goes down, the first level of punishment is we're calling you back into the office. So going to the office is a punishment?"   [laughter]

Natalie 
I've had a few conversations like this before! I know the look on your face very well. [laughter]

Simon 
They weren't too sure what to do with that one. And from then on, we had a different conversation in terms of, Don't tell me what are the conditions that can be met in order to telework. If I was a bit more provocative, I'd tell you that if your job is 99% in front of a computer or in a meeting, you can probably telework. You should—you'd be more productive. We are seeing some ADMs, PSPC really is leading the charge on that front, and some of their ADMs actually telework every week, one or two days a week. It just brings more productivity to the table. It's that simple. So we have a bit of an old-school approach to mobile working and teleworking and everything else.

Another thing, with my folks in finance, we've implemented an activity-based workplace. A much nicer setup for collaboration and newer technologies. It really looks great. They were telling me that somebody who's mobile and doesn't have a fixed office costs approximately $8,000 a year. In an activity-based workplace, it's demonstrated that 30% of offices at all times are empty—maybe up to 40%, according to the industry. So, technically, we went with a conservative approach, instead of 100 employees for 100 desks, we've assigned 120 employees to 100 desks. It works perfectly. People actually love it. People don't want to go back to the old setup of the cubicle farms and everything else. Then I pushed it a little further and I said, "Well, if you work from the activity-based workplace, whether you're there for meetings or other good reasons and you believe you need to come in, or whether you are just the kind of person that likes to be in the office for one, two, three, fours days a week, whatever, that's fine. The rest of the time you can work from home." We were going about this and I'm coming back to the fantastic telework mobile working policy or "alternative work arrangements" now they call it, I believe. If you are assigned to a head office and you're asked to come to the head office, your travel is not paid. Your parking is not paid because that's the reporting office that you're attached to, so—

Natalie 
Providing a further disincentive for anyone to want to come into the office.

Simon 
Well, I work from home full time. So technically, I save $8,000 a year for the government because I'm fully set up at home. My colleague who works out of an office at the other end of Ottawa, the west end, if he is asked to come into the office, he will probably get his parking paid. Not us, not the mobile worker. And we're always on. I'm always reachable. My ADM knows he can reach me at any time. If it's outside of office hours, just tweet me a message, I'll reply. It's in these kinds of things that I think we're still in the old ways of thinking, in the old paradigm.

Natalie 
I agree, I think one of the most fundamental things we need to do to nail this culture shift is to actually start living it. I don't even want to talk about why telework or mobility is important; for me, it's imperative. And I feel like, if you're a hiring manager, you should have to explain why somebody cannot telework, not give an explanation as to why someone can, or say why someone can't have flexible work arrangements, if there's not a reasonable work [or] operational requirement for that. I think that's part of the culture shift we really, desperately, need in the federal government.

So the question I would ask is: given your experience, do you think that that culture shift would be more achievable if it's a movement from employees, who are saying, This is what I'm looking for, and this is the only kind of job I'm going to take. Or [should it come] from the executive, from a top-down leadership stance? Obviously, I know that if we do both, it would probably be the best, but I'm just wondering what you think is the most effective right now. I personally haven't had a job, since I returned from maternity leave in the federal government in 2015, that has not afforded me flexible work arrangements. I don't choose to telework full time but I do some teleworking and flexible work scheduling every single week.

Simon 
That's awesome. I think it's a bit of both. No projects will succeed without the proper sponsor, without the proper visibility from senior management. Too often, our middle management community is targeted as being the one resisting because we've approved the right policies, we've done everything right. "If it's not working, it's probably because the supervisors are not allowing it." Well, it's not true. It goes with the culture. And when you unilaterally declare that executives can't telework full time—based on what?

Natalie 
And then you tell all these people that they're "guardians of the policies." They're not "shepherds" of it.

Simon 
Well, that's the thing. And I think you do have a move en masse right now where the newer employees, or the dynamic employees that know their worth on the market, whether in the public service or even outside, will ask for it. And I think that also helps a lot. In terms of changing the culture, though, there's a lot of things that we need to do. For example, I don't know if you've heard of Olivia Neal [Executive Director, Digital Change, Chief Information Officer Branch]. She's from the UK.

So, Olivia Neal was looking at this and in the UK, they're a little bit ahead of us in terms of activity-based workplaces and the way we do things, and she was looking at the different offices. And she noticed that a manager has a slightly bigger cupboard than the employee; and then the director or the executives and the DGs have [even] bigger cupboards. And she was saying, in a very pretty English accent, "Is this what it came down to? It's the size of the cupboard that matters?" I thought she was bang on. People just hold on to these things. I heard an ADM say, I'm not going to do like the PSPC ADM in charge of workplace modernization and give up my corner office. I've worked all my career to get that. Okay, I understand. I understand the culture, the paradigms, but at the same time, you don't have to go unilaterally one way or the other. Yeah, I think it's just a driver of enabling and allowing.

Now the other part. We've talked about senior leadership sponsoring [and] I think it's important. I think there's a move en masse, [where] more and more employees are asking for it. And trust me, I say to everybody, "Did you even ask [to telework]?" And often I tell employees, "You're at fault. If you haven't asked, don't blame your management. You didn't even ask." So that's the other part.

And the third one, though, is with the political movements that we've seen. We downsized the public service and then after that we started growing back, but buildings were sold, we were running out of space. So, activity-based workplace, those stats now became, all of a sudden, very interesting and very important. The cost saving also is a major driver. But we're also running out of space. This is one of the things that is quite important in terms of pushing further the mobile aspects of work.

The last one that we don't talk about enough, and that drives me absolutely crazy and I think it shows a little bit of a limited view or strategic positioning of the Government of Canada as a whole: we are the Government of Canada. We should be well represented from coast to coast to coast. We somewhat are, with big offices in major cities. But I can't tell you enough, the [beneficial effect of] representations of senior public servants in areas where usually the public service is nowhere to be found; the federal public service, nowhere to be found. Being able to represent the country, the interests of the country, talk about what we do in the government, and explain situations to folks. A lot of people don't understand the complexity that we deal with when you have a little issue but it's an issue that has an impact coast to coast to coast. From linguistic issues [to] social issues, Aboriginal issues or big cities versus regions, and everything else, you have that capability of at least providing a different perspective on things. I can't tell you how many times people just thank us and appreciate the fact that the federal government does awesome things. But it's complex, it's big, we're the biggest employer. That has an impact.

On top of that—so I'm in Mont-Tremblant, okay. Everybody thinks, Ooh, Mont-Tremblant, Mont-Tremblant, Mont-Tremblant, that's this mountain and Mario Lemieux's castle—which is for sale for $22 million, by the way, Todd, if you're interested in a little cottage. But you know, everybody thinks of that about Mont-Tremblant, but Mont-Tremblant is a tourist [town]. There's the city per se, the Mont-Tremblant city, and Saint-Jovite, [which] are actually low income. The average family income is lower than in the rest of Canada. My kids' primary school, on a scale of zero to ten,  ten being poor, is at seven. People don't understand what Tremblant really is or the "back office" of Tremblant, if you want. If you think about two senior officers in the public service, working in Mont-Tremblant with the federal public service salaries and social advantages, the wealth that we bring to the community, whether the fact that my wife spends way too much money or whether the fact that, you know, we are involved in—

Natalie 
I'll tell her you said that. [laughter]

Simon 
Can you cut that part? Oops!

Todd 
This is also staying in the show. [laughter]

Simon 
But if you think about it, we also are very involved in our community and you know, happy to support it. So the impact, the economic impact, the social impact, of enabling people to work and go back to their communities and work for the federal government
I don't understand why there's not more vision about this. You don't need big offices. I have a Service Canada office in Sainte-Agathe, which is about 20–25 minutes from my house. Why can't I go to a hotel there when I need to? We're not structured yet that way, but I know PSPC is pushing in that direction.

Valeria 
We're starting. We have a few here: co-working sites.

Simon 
The five co-working sites.

Natalie 
They haven't opened one in Mont-Tremblant yet, though. I will confirm that.

Simon 
I'm working on this, trust me. And the other thing I need to figure out is—Todd, I don't know if you know about a Bluetooth microphone that would cut the wind sound when I'm skiing—[laughter]

Todd 
I've been working on a pretty modest budget so far, but I can look around.

Simon 
Anyway, you see where I'm going with this.  The power of representation of the Government of Canada in smaller communities where there are usually no offices or no services from the federal [government], [and] the fact that we have public servants involved in their communities, I think has a tremendous impact.

Natalie 
We're limiting our talent pool to those who are able and willing to live in the big hubs, first of all. Second of all, I recently read a post from a previous colleague of mine, Frank Assu, who started FlexGC. He was talking about mobility in terms of the Reconciliation agenda. I'm just saying, for example, some of our Indigenous citizens would be more likely to come and work for the federal government and have a career if they had more teleworking possibilities and didn't have to leave their homes.

Simon 
We're lucky where I work because we have senior management in my branch who are visionary and it started a few years back. We pride ourselves on being a coast-to-coast-to coast organization. People can work from anywhere. They have to be tied to the hub for policy purposes, but they can work from anywhere. On top of that, we have one of our senior leaders in this branch who happens to live on a reserve. His contacts in his communities are through the roof. He is very involved and he loves it. And at some point he was talking about it and we just opened the door. He went, with the leadership of a great leader, into the community and organized Haka girls in the communities on the reserves. He involved kids in primary and secondary school, talked about the federal [government], the student employment programs, all kinds of other programs [available] to help the people in these communities find jobs. The federal [government] provided money to those programs, but weren't hiring from them. Talk about not connecting the dots! But that guy did. And all of a sudden you have all of these people walking in, proud of where they come from, going back to their communities, saying, "I'm working from here, for the federal government, from anywhere in Canada." Just think about the impact that these women, these men, these kids, have on the local perspective when it comes to job opportunities, growth and development! People associate me with telework, but I work from home, most of the time [and] I work from anywhere very often as well. Think about the impact that that has overall in our country and I find this is absolutely fantastic. Think about people with big families who have kids and everything else. One of my favourite meals of the day now is breakfast. Last year, breakfast was the thing I grabbed on the corner of the table between shouting, Get dressed! Where are you? Hurry up! And then, you know, you put the kids into the yellow bus and you wait for the yellow bus to leave. And then you rush to work. That was breakfast. Today? Breakfast is my kids leave the home at 7:05. I drop them, I come back home and it's 7:07. What do I do until 8, 8:30, before I log in? I can read, listen to the news. We bought an espresso machine. I can actually drink my coffee out of a normal cup, not have a travel cup or travel mug.

Valeria 
You bring up the environmental impact on that one, too.

Simon 
Of course. I've been doing the [highway] 417 for the past three days because I've been in town on training and going to see you guys and then I'm going to Stratosphere [networking event]. What are all these people doing? You know, they're all in their cars. And they already seem stressed. They seem annoyed. It's polluting. They're already angry.

Todd
It's insanity, everyday.

Valeria 
I have to say that I've been teleworking for a bit now, two to three days a week. And I love it. To me, it's time, the value of time. I don't waste an hour commuting one way and then back another way. Little things like that, being able to spend the time to have breakfast with my daughter before I bring her to daycare and then come back and I'm still online by 8, 8:30. Being able to not have to deal with the stresses of traffic. If I want a coffee, I just walk up to my Nespresso machine. I don't have to take a giant walk all the way to Tim Hortons or wherever or Bridgehead. But I think it's those little things also that people don't actually consider. I just want to rewind a bit because I want to share a bit of an anecdote.

A few months ago, I interviewed for a team. It was a team working on a very innovative project. But it was [led by] a young manager, a new manager. And I asked about teleworking and they said no. They said, "Unfortunately, we can't really promise that you'll be able to telework even one day a week for certain." That kind of blew my mind. In the moment, what I realized what was coming from this person is a level of uncertainty. They just didn't have the confidence yet to be able to manage that. It was too much uncertainty for them, because they were just still too new in that position. That's one thing.

Another thing that I wanted to bring to you, and I'm going to ask you about this, I was recently having a conversation about this with a senior executive. One point they brought up was, "What about those conversations that happen after you've turned off the WebEx, that are important to this person? You know, we have a conversation, other people are gone, the people that weren't there, and you know, we have important discussions. You know, the in-person passing." This was another thing that the young manager had brought up to me, that their director really values being able to just "off the cuff" find you and have a conversation on the file. So I'm just asking you, What do you think about that? That's one of people's excuses. Is it valid? Is it not?

Simon 
You said so many great things. Let me start with kids. I read something lately, and it's going through Facebook: from the day you have a kid, you have about 18 summers to spend with them. Eighteen. My daughter's 11, my son's nine. I'm down to about another eight or nine, maybe. And they are going to grow up and do something else. That's one thing. Time is valuable and time, you know, you were talking about time at home, but the fact that you can actually cook yourself meals at lunch, take a two-minute break, throw something in the oven, and by the time you actually hang up or close your computer, you have great food on the table. Not just whatever's the quickest that you can do, because then you have got to go drive them to their sports [game], and you left the office at five and made it for six to whatever daycare, and then, you know, they have a class at 6:30 or seven, then you rush, rush, rush, rush, rush.  I agree, totally agree, with you on that.

In terms of managers who don't feel comfortable about teleworking,  I hired a manager. When he came in, he said, "I don't like teleworking, I'm not comfortable doing it."

I said, "Well, that's your choice. I totally respect that. But I'm telling you, all your employees, I've told them they can telework, or work remotely or be mobile, and they're all assigned to the activity-based workplace. It's unassigned seating, so good luck finding them, if you don't use the tools."
So he came in and, you know, he was coming into the office Monday morning at 8:30 on the dot. He was there, logged in, and [would] leave at 5:30 on Friday, whatever. And then he [said], "I'll try it."

"You'll try what?" [I replied].

"I'll try working from home one day." So, I see him and he's online and on video. And he's sitting in his kitchen at the kitchen counter on a stool. "So how do you like it?"

"Well, it's not as comfortable as I thought it'd be." [laughter]

"First, get rid of the stool! Buy yourself a chair, get set up."

So then we talked to our admin in our group and he got set up. He was telling someone the day before yesterday, he says, "Before I met Simon, no way I was going to telework. I would never work from home. I used to be anxious about the fact that I was going to work from home, because I'm going to miss the water cooler conversation, I'm going to miss the meetings, I'm going to miss the body language, I'm going to miss all of these things that are so important in the office." And [now] he says, "Today, on the day I have to go to the office, I'm anxious because I know in the morning, I'm going to be rushed. And I'm going to rush my kids. I know I'm going to get to the office and I know I'm not going to be as productive. I know I'm going to be disrupted. And then I know I'm going to need to rush out. And I know I need to rush my kids back home. And then I know I'm not going to eat well, and all that."

But he tried, at his speed, with the support. One by one, step by step. And then when he was properly trained on how to manage his own employees' teleworking, he was happy.

So the last part of the very good comments you made was, But what about these conversations after a meeting? Water cooler conversations, bump-into conversations? My team's fully mobile. Very rarely will we have a meeting where more than two or three of them are in the same room. Very rarely. So the likelihood of that happening is actually low. But what about with other meetings? Well, that's when it gets to the awareness of how to better manage. If you're going to start mobile working, supporting teleworking, and everything else, as soon as you have one employee doing it, you should support everybody. Here's why.

It's the same thing as if you have one employee in another building, just one. Because if you're the kind of manager that will, at the beginning of the day, go around and say Hi or [do] a stand-up meeting, [what if] you have somebody [another employee] in another meeting, then what happens? They miss out. What about if you're a manager who likes to have little roundabout [chats]? This is where it gets to be awareness training. I know the Canada School is moving slowly into training managers on mobile worker management, and telework management, which is a great initiative, but these [problems] can be overcome. It's a matter of credibility, and the onus is on the actual employee being mobile because there are a lot of meetings and a lot of topics that, you know, "If you don't talk to Simon about it... you've got to be careful. It will not happen if he doesn't know about it, and you show up to the meeting and you surprise him, he's not going to be happy about it. So why don't you give him a call and tell him that we've talked and just brief him on it?" Okay, great. That's all I need. It's the same thing with everybody in my team. We have clear mandates in our organization. Those clear mandates, if you're talking about something that touches our mandate, we'll make sure that we're aware of it. People know us and they know they can reach us faster than having to walk to our office. Just send an SMS message, a text message, whatever.

Natalie 
I think you touched on something critical there: that it's not by email. The picking up the phone, mobile working—we have, my whole team, all of us have mobility. I speak to them on the phone more than I've spoken to any people in a decade on the phone.

Simon 
Here's another thing that I'm going to try, and I have no idea what this is going to give and lead to. I met with some very smart folks from Policy Horizons. If you want to meet and you want to go visit an organization that is extremely mobile, super well organized, go meet them. They have fun doing it. So when we met with them, I actually bought similar technologies to the one they're using. For example, we have projectors or video-conferencing systems, like I see in this room. The good old big TVs, and camera sets and fairly poor microphones that [pick up] paper shuffling on the table. Anyway, that's usually what we are able to buy. Over there, they showed me the new technology. It's an [interactive wall projector] that people can interact with from anywhere across the country on the same piece of work. So if a bunch of people from different departments are working on a TB sub [Treasury Board submission] or a Memorandum to Cabinet, they can be working on a document while some [other] people [can be] in a boardroom doing it as well. So it's this interactive technology. Okay, that's pretty cool. We're going to try it doing a proof of concept, but it works very well at Policy Horizons. But the one thing that I bought, that I am even skeptical of, but I trust my colleagues, we are trying this technology: robots.

Natalie 
Oh, I have some on order for our team, too. The telepresence—

Simon 
The little Segway telepresence robots. They said, "Simon, we were more skeptical than you were about this, but these robots are changing the way we telework." And we were visiting their offices, and then at some point two robots bump into each other, or seem to— 

Valeria 
They were actually hugging and saying hello!

Simon 
Well, first, we had to get through all the jokes: network malfunction, bad driver, whatever. So we went through all of these, and then the guy looks at us, and he goes, "No, that's the bump-into conversations you were talking about that are so important." There you go. They were actually face to face talking to each other! And that's it. We were amazed at this. So we're trying this technology. But everybody I talked to about this, except you two, usually look at me going, "You bought what? To do what? Simon, this is going to be a toy that you're gonna be racing through the [halls] with Todd!" Okay, well, the likelihood that I [do that], for sure, is very, very high. [laughs] But that being said, it seems to be a technology that we've underutilized. We have service points for all our departments but we usually oblige people to be present, be on site. Well, guess what? That's the future. When you think that a Service Canada person could actually be remote working from one of the reserves—wouldn't that be cool?

Natalie 
Yes. Although [you know] what would be disappointing? If the next time I get to go to a really fun and exciting conference somewhere, my boss makes me send my telepresence robot! [laughter]

Simon 
OK, there's a downfall to it. It's true, it's true. So those [robots] are coming. We're going to do proof of concepts on those, for sure.

Valeria 
And they're actually not that expensive. How much, do you know?

Simon 
It's like $2,000, $3,000. If you look at a teleconference or video-conferencing system in a boardroom, you're talking about $10,000 to $15,000, plus the setup. Where I work, we have this beautiful building, and we have many floors in that building. And there's three conference rooms equipped with video conferencing. One of them, only an admin assistant is smart enough to make the video conferencing system work. It's one of those.

Natalie 
We all have equipment and rooms like that, where [people say], Oh my goodness, somebody call someone. There's 20 people in the room and no one can get anything to work. It's awful.

Simon 
But think of it. You can have almost ten people with those little robots going around before you have to book one video-conferencing system to be installed in a boardroom.

Natalie 
I'm just imagining myself walking down the hall, [with] all these robots talking to me. It's awesome. I can't wait.

Simon 
But you know what? At Policy Horizons, they said, You don't understand how much people love these robots. First of all, we don't have enough. I think they have only six. But they're increasing their numbers. Second, at Halloween, they dress them up. [laughter] At Christmas, they dress them up. I'm telling you these robots, they have names for the robots, too. One's called Susie.

Natalie 
One's called Polly. I had an altercation with Polly once, but anyway—[laughter]

Valeria 
I feel like I'd be dangerous managing one of those robots. I'd go up to people from behind and say, "Whatcha doing?"

Simon 
I'm gonna try that for sure, too.

Natalie 
I'm not going to lie. When we get our telepresence robots, I'm gonna borrow one for a day, for sure.

Simon 
The best part of where I work is that senior management's looking forward to trying them out. I think our ADM is probably the most excited kid on the corner to try one of those robots, and we're looking forward to having them.

Valeria 
How are you going to share these lessons learned? Or what are you doing to share what you've experienced?

Simon 
I do a lot of mentoring. It's amazing. I used to do a lot of mentoring of people who are a bit like me and my wife. We're considered go-getters with beautiful careers. I ended up as an executive when I was, what, 26, 27, 28? I don't know. And then EX-3 [when] I was 37, 38. What a great career. Okay, but I worked hard for it. Now that I took a step back, and that I'm enjoying life—and trust me, people wonder, how do you have time to do this? I finish work, I can actually have supper, go to the gym, come back and go fishing, all in the same night. And my son may have a soccer practice or something else and my daughter has whatever sport practice, too. When you're trying to put all this together—when I took my step back, it was a bit of a shock, because my wife is a DG, I was a DG. What are those two young ones doing? They're crazy. But then I started going to these forums and you know, getting involved differently in different communities and stepping outside of the ones I knew and trying something different. I started getting requests for mentoring from people who did not know what to do if they didn't want to go up [the career ladder], because, okay, don't get me started on talent management plans. And on performance management—

Natalie 
We'll be here until tomorrow. [laughter]

Valeria 
That's a different show everyone.

Simon 
We're still supporting this useless PMA stuff. [sighs, laughter]

Todd 
Preach, preach.

Natalie 
This is my favourite rant on the planet, I'm just saying.

Valeria 
I just want to say that they're both moving in their seats and getting very excited at this topic.

Simon 
The funny part is, everybody you talk, to all the way up to senior ranks, agree—but nobody's doing anything about it. I don't know why. Anyway, that being said, we usually manage talent. The talent discussions are based on what? Competencies and ability to be promoted. Those are usually the two axes that people look at, mainly. Why? Because I know that Todd is this uber-smart, lovable, delivers kind of guy. And he's been in this position for, what, a year and a half, two years? Oh, so he's getting ready for promotion.

Todd 
Hmmm.

Simon 
So—

Valeria 
That was a weird response.

Todd 
I can't salivate, it's radio. Okay. Go ahead. Keep going.

Simon 
Usually, there are more factors that go into these conversations, but really, you look at it from two angles because the organizations—the turnovers and everything else, people are retiring. Of course, we are in the race to make sure we have the right people at the right time in the right jobs. Therefore we're looking at, Do you need an assignment on the side to develop more competencies? Because then we are seeing you as the future this or the future that. But what happens when you're not interested? What happens when you say, Thanks, I appreciate the compliment, but I don't want my manager's job. Or, I certainly don't want my director's job, because I've seen that the manager works long hours [and] the director works longer hours. Very rarely do I see a director general who does not have to devote a certain amount of hours on the weekend to catch up and maintain. So when you're not interested in those, then you become an anomaly. You become this great person [and] we'll just leave you there.

Don't leave the person there! Continue to invest, continue to develop, continue to send them to conferences and everything else. Some people started calling me, and calling my wife, saying, How did you guys do this? What do I do? I have this wonderful person who was talking to me last time. She's this young, bright woman, engaged, getting married, thinking about having kids and her husband is this young, bright man. And they're both in the movement, going up the ladders. But now they're worried: what if we have kids? What happens to this; what happens to that? So the last time I was mentoring her, I said, Why don't you invite your husband? And then I heard that they were talking, they were inviting friends over and talking about the mentoring sessions and what I said.  I don't mentor very well, I coach more. I ask questions. I'm always humbled by the fact that Usain Bolt has a coach. If the coach was better than Usain Bolt, he'd be running. Keep that in mind when you mentor someone or coach them. So I ask a lot of questions. But then what I realized is, it's still just my perspective and my questions. So I asked [my wife] Jen, if she wanted to join in and she did. And the next thing we knew, there were eight people involved because she invited friends, too! It's just wonderful to see these changes happening and these folks moving forward and asking these questions.

Anyway, enough about PMAs. But in terms of talent management, and mentoring and what it does, and how do we advocate: we do this, we do these podcasts. A lot of people ask me to go to their management teams. I talk about it, I talk about mobility, I de-mystify, I listen to [people who say], But Simon, we meet with clients. Oh, sacrilege! You certainly don't want to meet them on video conferencing! You want to be face to face and disrupt them and have them come over and walk or you have to go over there and walk and everything else and make it inefficient. So we talk about it. But I think the best part that we do is—I'm so proud of my team. My team is so disruptive, so present, and mobile. I don't know, even my admin assistant, people thought my admin assistant would never be able to telework. An admin assistant—she needs to be in the office. She teleworks at least three or four days a week. And she helps all the other admin assistants do their stuff. I'm just proud of my team at every level, everybody does their part. And that brings genuine credibility to the fact that it works. Hopefully, I won't have to do podcasts like this soon because it'll just be part of everyday life.

Natalie 
Exactly. Well, thank you so much Simon. This has been a wonderful, wonderful conversation and I look forward to the next one.

Valeria 
Thank you very much. Keep sharing, keep doing the good work.

Simon 
Thank you. I appreciate it.

Credits

Todd Lyons
Producer
Canada School of Public Service

Valeria Sosa
Project Manager, Engagement and Outreach
Natural Resources Canada

Natalie Crandall
Project Lead, Human Resources Business Intelligence
Canada School of Public Service

Simon Gascon
Director, IT Research
Employment and Social Development Canada

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