Roaming from coast-to-coast: the life of a Free Agent

What if I were to tell you that as a Government of Canada (GC) employee, there’s an exciting way to change the way you work? A way that lets you move around the GC faster and more often than you could ever imagine? A way to spread your wings and have more freedom in your career? Picture Nelly Furtado’s ‘I’m like a bird’ and you’re getting close. Despite my random analogy, there is indeed a way, and it’s called Canada's Free Agents, a work model for GC employees who are looking for something different.

A Free Agent has the freedom to choose the kind of work that matches their skills and interests. For managers, it means gaining access to a pool of uniquely qualified people they can quickly and easily staff to help support short or long-term projects. It’s kinda like how professional athletes get drafted. Except without the media coverage and fame.

Basically, the Free Agents program is a way of doing government HR in a more flexible way. A ‘free’ flow of talent, if you will. Just got a few eye-rolls from my teammates, but they’re used to my dad jokes by now.

Riding on the freeway

As luck would have it, my colleague and I were recently invited to attend a Free Agents event in Ottawa. A meeting of the minds, if you will. The takeaway? Free Agents are driven, energetic, and passionate about the program and the flexibility it provides. With so many Free Agents in one place, many were eager to share their stories and the perks of the Program.

“ As a Free Agent, I have the freedom to go across the ecosystem and choose my own job, schedule, team, and location.”

For Ericka Stephens-Rennie, it was after 10 years working in the GC that she learned about the Program. “When I discovered the Free Agents Program, everything changed.” Cue Ace of Base’s ‘I saw the sign’! “As a Free Agent, I have the freedom to go across the ecosystem and choose my own job, schedule, team, and location.” 

Ericka has had the opportunity to work in four departments since joining the program in December 2017. I spoke to her as she was about to complete her work with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in her native Vancouver. There, her work focused on “strategic foresight”, which means she looked at current and future trends to identify signs of change that would directly affect the department. And “foresight” is no exaggeration: Ericka and her team would look at how these trends could inform the Agency’s IT and business solutions 5, 10, and even 30 years down the road. More recently, Ericka moved to the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS), where she continues to flex her Free Agent muscle on the FlexGC initiative. The initiative supports employees and teams doing flexible, remote and distributed work.

According to Ericka, the people that become Free Agents “…tend to be innovative and good with change management. Quite naturally, they’re digitally savvy and like to work remotely.” 

Agents on a mission

“The traditional ways of working just weren't for me. The Free Agent program rejuvenated me by allowing me to move around and have more fun with my work.”

The more I listened to Ericka and the others, the more I realized that this model could be a blueprint for the future of work. “Becoming a Free Agent was the best career decision I ever made”, said a beaming David Sampson. A Free Agent since 2017, David works at Shared Services Canada (SSC), where he looks at mobility issues and pain points for other Free Agents. “The traditional ways of working just weren’t for me. The Free Agent program rejuvenated me by allowing me to move around and have more fun with my work.”

Frank Assu, who lives in Comox, British Columbia, is just as passionate. He’s a Free Agent at Transport Canada currently on assignment at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) as a GCworkplace Program Manager. “I have much better work-life balance and have more time for my family and outside interests.” What are those outside interests, you ask? “I’m a professional firefighter, so being a Free Agent means I can go to the fire station during my down time.” Public servant by day and firefighter by night? I'm starting a petition to get Frank into the Avengers.

Natasha Fraser loves the fact that she is truly in control of her own destiny. She’s a Free Agent at the Privy Council Office (PCO) and based in London, Ontario. “I am the manager of my own career. I choose the next steps and I create my own future.”

Although the people we spoke to love the program, it’s not without its challenges. For one, you need to be comfortable with change and instability. “It’s not for everyone. You need to be very driven, able to work in a flexible environment, and do the legwork to find the job you really want”, explained Suzanne Huggins, a Free Agent in Health Canada’s Employee Assistance Program who is based in Regina. “But the challenges are worth it because I can work in departments and fields I wouldn’t normally have access to, living in Regina.” 

No looking back

It was inspiring to hear the passion and enthusiasm in the Free Agents we spoke to. They’re real GC trailblazers because they’re showing all of us how flexible the future of work can become - and I, for one, am very excited.

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