MIRA WILLIAMSON – No one came to Karin Fuller’s last public consultation in Vancouver.

Four weeks ago, the COVID-19 alarm bells really started ringing in Canada. It was the Open Government team’s first week of consultations.

It was also the last.

The nation-wide tour to consult with Canadians about whether government information should be more accessible was postponed until at least the fall. The action plan was postponed indefinitely.

Engaging with citizens is important to #opengov, as are the health & safety of Canadians. That’s why we’re postponing consultations for our next national action plan until further notice.

For updates on COVID-19, visit: https://t.co/S2gaMJ7Q6q pic.twitter.com/yBmJxcE4Lh— Open Government CAN (@OpenGovCan) March 19, 2020

When Fuller boarded her Sunday night flight back to Ottawa, her team thought they still had to go into the office the following morning, she said.

At about 8 p.m., they were told that no one was to come in. 

“It was very sudden for people,” said Fuller. “Not everybody was well prepared because they didn’t know on Friday to bring home all things they might want.” 

So, for the last three weeks, she’s had to adapt to leading from afar, while her team’s ongoing projects are delayed, their priorities shift and they start to feel a little useless, she said.

The 50 year old’s daily routine has totally changed. She’s lost access to technology and documents. She’s breaking up dog fights during Zoom calls. She’s sleeping in. She’s becoming an unofficial counsellor. She’s being challenged in new and different ways.

This is working from home during the COVID-19 crisis.

Changing work & working changes

Open Government’s goal is to make government more transparent, accountable and responsive to Canadians. It’s a part of the Treasury Board. Fuller is the manager of outreach and engagement. She’s also my mother.

The Open Government team used to have a lot of meetings in the office, and they all worked in the same area, so it was easy to quickly communicate. She and her six team members had a WhatsApp group and often ate lunch together, she said.

Now, with everyone working from home every day, it’s putting a strain on the government’s network. 

As we work to ensure essential #GC business can continue, use the network effectively:

➡️ Only use the apps you need
➡️ Do not use streaming services
➡️ Work offline as much as possible
➡️ Be cyber safe, at all times pic.twitter.com/FU94GupWi6— Shared Services Canada (@SSC_CA) March 23, 2020

They want to keep the network clear for critical employees, so most workers can only access their emails and documents on their computers during the off-hours. Fuller’s team has switched to Google Docs, but most of their work from home has to be done without access to the documents they’ve created over the last five years. Their work phones are still connected to the network all day, but this isn’t ideal, she said.

“Almost all email is supposed to be done from your iPhone now, which is very challenging, especially if there are attachments or if you’re trying to forward something,” Fuller said.

She said COVID-19 is changing the entire IT structure of the government. 

The government of Canada has been digitized by COVID-19,” she said. “It’s just forcing the government to really leap into this space because there’s no choice. People need to be kept safe at home, and Canadians need to be served. They need to get the money that they need to survive; they need to have access to the information and medical care that they need.”

The long-time civil servant now has to monitor more communication channels because different people are comfortable with different tools. Open Government paid for a few Zoom accounts, she and her team use Google Hangouts and have a WhatsApp group, there are three different Slack channels, and she gets emails. It’s a lot to keep up with, she said.

There also needs to be more check-ins. Her team meets every morning and closes off the day with a half-hour meeting. 

“I’m having more one-on-one discussions with people just because not only are we managing a workload, of course we’re managing anxiety and stress and worry and concern,” she said. “Some people’s partners have lost their jobs. People are in very complicated situations, so there’s a certain amount of personal management that is required as well.”

Woman working at a table. Two dogs on a bed
Karin Fuller set up a work space in her bedroom. She’s regularly joined by her dogs, Libby and Freya.

Working from home, Fuller has a more relaxed start to the day. But, there are more obstacles to productivity.

There are dogs snoring or fighting on her bed. Her mother phones her every day for grocery-related requests. And, “There are adult children who wander in and out looking for attention and avoiding their homework,” she said.

Also, Fuller isn’t used to reading on a small tablet screen and misses her “real” keyboard, so her wrist hurts and her eyes are fried, she said.

“I think the workday is shorter, but it’s more exhausting just because people are feeling a lot of emotions. So, there’s the need to be supportive of that and to have discussions,” said Fuller. “There’s a different type of mentoring that’s needed than in a regular work situation because people are having existential crises right now about the planet and how we live, so you can’t ignore that just because we have stuff to do.” 

She said her team already recognized that they didn’t have a healthy work-life balance, but now that some of their projects have come to a screeching halt, they’re able to reflect on that.

They’ve been regularly checking in on their mental health and participating in remote, lunch-time exercise classes a couple of times a week to try and help.

A woman works on a puzzle.
Another way Karin Fuller de-stresses is by working on a puzzle in the evening.

Normally, the team has a lot of energy and doesn’t require a lot of coaching or monitoring, but their energy is low now, and they need more attention, said Fuller.

“We talk more than we did before,” she said. “It’s just harder for them to manage their tasks in the same way that they would normally…Usually I wouldn’t need to check in with them as much.”

Fuller said working from home has also been more draining for her.

It hasn’t been easy having their work tasks completely change with next to no notice. They were working a lot of overtime to get ready for the consultations, and now their main March-to-June job is postponed, she said.

“We had a huge drop in adrenaline and almost a short mourning period where people had to sort of reconfigure what they thought they were going to be doing,” she said.

A lot of Fuller’s team members would like to go work in other government departments for now if that would be more helpful to Canadians, she said.

“I think we’re going to get there. But it’s tough; it’s not easy. And they’re a bunch of worriers at the best of times,” Fuller said about her team.

A screenshot of a Google Hangout call.
Karin Fuller and her team talk on Google Hangouts every day.

Strategic management

Mary Crossan wrote in “Character to fight COVID-19” that there will be no turning back after this crisis.

“I don’t mean that we’re stuck in something,” said the Paul MacPherson Chair in Strategic Leadership at Ivey Business School. “I mean it more in a positive sense, in that I think the pandemic has revealed to us the enormous good that we can do when we’re activating on character and working collectively towards it, and the speed with which we can do it. And now that we’ve seen it, you can’t ignore it.” 

For example, work travel has been cancelled and people have been working from home, which has had a positive impact on climate change because air travel emits a lot of carbon pollution. Throughout this crisis, we may find that we can achieve the same productivity, but in a more sensible way, she said.

Crossan studies character leadership. She has a PhD in strategic management and has taught at Ivey for 35 years.

She said we need to learn from the pandemic and not revert back to our old ways.

“I think the conversation of the future is going to be tough,” she said. “It’s going to be ‘Well yeah, we relaxed this or that because we had to for the crisis.’ As opposed to say, ‘We relaxed this and that because of the crisis and discovered that we could still achieve what we wanted to achieve.’ ” 

COVID-19 has brought together Crossan’s main areas of research.

She writes about the 11 dimensions of character and how to activate them. Character is developed by the choices we make, for example, by being more patient, or by listening to and sharing music that embodies different dimensions of character, she said.

“If you don’t have strength of character and you’re put into a crisis situation, the crisis will overwhelm you,” she said.

She compared it to athletes making split-second decisions during games. If they’re not trained, they might not make good choices.

Crossan suggests leaders should continue checking in with their colleagues and thinking about how they might activate on character. This could be accomplished by sharing inspirational stories or emotional music and partaking in activities like yoga “that create a sense of calm and patience in the midst of the storm,” she said.

To better work from home, teams also need to have clear directions and understand not only why their work matters, but why it matters now, she said.

“I think finding the meaning in the work that you do is incredibly important in a crisis because if you don’t, there’s a lot of other things that will take your priority,” she said. 

Leaders should create opportunities for people to ask for help, if they are facing difficulties with the work itself or with working from home, said Crossan.

Finding meaning

A woman uses a tablet on her couch with two dogs.
Karin Fuller logs on to the Treasury Board’s network after work to access her emails and documents. Phineas and Libby keep her company.

“Anything is possible is what they keep telling us,” said Fuller. “So, there’s a lot of uncertainty right now in how people’s work may shift or change over the coming weeks and even maybe months.”

While a lot of work her team usually does can’t be done right now, they try and determine some main tasks every week. But, her colleagues are keen to work in a “surge capacity,” she said.

“They have a lot of skills and they’re very dedicated, so it would be my preference that they’re working somewhere where they’re really feeling like they are contributing and making a difference,” she said. 

They would be willing to stuff cheques in envelopes, stock groceries, hand out masks, do swabs, said Fuller.

“They want to help. They feel a little helpless like a lot of people do right now,” she said. “It’s just hard to not leap in when you feel like you could contribute.”

Her team is struggling to find meaning in their work right now because they know other departments are doing work that will immediately help Canadians. Their work doesn’t feel as pressing, she said.

“There’s just a lot of unknowns, which also makes managing a team very difficult because it’s not business as usual,” said Fuller. “And it’s hard to know when and if it will be business as usual again anytime soon.” 

This article was originally published on April 7, 2020 in Telling the Story using Integrated Media.

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