Summary Report – Independent Workplace Review of Montreal Client Support Centre (CSC) (July 2022)
Office of Internal Disclosure
The purpose of this report is to provide a summary and recommended next steps emerging from an independent workplace review conducted by the Office of the Senior Officer for Internal Disclosure between January and March 2022.
Employees and management in the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) Montreal Client Support Centre (CSC), a work unit of over 500 people, expressed interest in conducting an independent workplace review.
The stated objective of this review was to assess the current health of the work environment; review management actions undertaken since a workplace assessment was conducted in January 2020; and determine the extent to which the implemented measures have addressed the challenges identified in that assessment.
An independent consultant with expertise in large scale workplace assessments was retained to lead this exercise and report back to the Senior Officer for Internal Disclosure (SOID) on the information gathered through this process. Over the course of three months, the consultant conducted their review and analysis based on one-on-one interviews with people of various backgrounds, including both employees and management.
Participants were informed that the information they provided would be confidential and that their identities would not be disclosed. Therefore, while the full report cannot be released since it contains extensive protected and personal information, we are pleased to share the key findings and recommendations that emerged from this exercise.
The scope of this review did not include a formal investigation or a validation as to the accuracy of the information provided to the consultant. However, all active CSC staff were offered an opportunity to participate and the review had a response rate of 25-30% of the active workplace population, which is sufficient to provide an adequate representation of the views, opinions, and perceptions of the entire group. Throughout the process, opportunities were provided for individuals to come forward with information about specific incidents that might be considered misconduct or wrongdoing, and any such reports would have been addressed through a separate process as warranted.
The following points summarize the key findings identified by the consultant based on their interviews with employees and management. The findings fall under eight areas: work, teamwork, work processes, employee development and retention, physical conditions, direction, quality of leadership and mental health:
- Participants enjoy their work and enjoy the flexibility in choosing shift times.
- Although working from home is positive for the overall health and wellness of participants, many still feel isolated and experience a lack of communication while working from home.
- Many participants reported that the workload is demanding and that time between calls is inadequate. Some reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to the stressful and emotional nature of the work and a lack of accommodation for personal needs.
- Participants feel supported by their colleagues but noted a presence of cliques that have a negative impact on cohesion within the workplace.
- Opportunities for career development and advancement, personal growth and lateral moves to different categories of employment are limited. Participants have lost trust in the staffing process.
- The workplace has a turnover rate of 25-30% and, at any one time, about 11% of the workforce is on leave without pay. Participants with various levels of seniority and various periods of service also feel insecure as it concerns job security.
- The evaluation process is described as strict and unfair, and the process has made employees anxious and fearful in response to supervisor feedback.
- Training provided is not sufficient and leaves participants feeling poorly equipped and abandoned when they begin their jobs, including crisis line agents who require specialized training due to the type and level of distress experienced by many callers.
- Communication provided by management was reported as incomplete, late and inaccurate, affecting employees’ ability to complete tasking. Participants also perceive a lack of transparency related to decision-making.
- There was no evidence of a formal process for communicating changes in policies or procedures to employees, and their workday does not include sufficient time to learn about such changes.
- Participants feel unsupported in their need for recognition, accommodation, honesty and transparency, inclusion and consultation concerning the realities of their work.
- There is a perception that problems experienced by participants in their daily work could, in part, be resolved with more functional equipment and increased resources.
In terms of management actions undertaken since a workplace assessment conducted in January 2020, and the extent to which the implemented measures have addressed the challenges identified in that assessment, the following observations were shared by participants:
- Since 2020, there have been at least eight new initiatives planned or implemented, including a Mentorship program and a Wellness Committee. The reported initiatives appear to target training and support for employees, two of the reported concerns, but few initiatives appear to target operations and communication, which were identified as prominent root issues.
- Only about one third of the participants in the current exercise were employed in this work unit prior to the 2020 workplace assessment. Those who were members of the work unit before that assessment said that they have not seen any changes or that the changes were not significant.
- Participants reported that they have noticed additional efforts made by management to communicate with employees.
- Participants reported receiving emails concerning mental health, free fitness courses, calls from psychologists, and courses surrounding mental wellness. Participants perceived these initiatives as superficial; they feel they do not have enough down time within their workday to read these emails, and that the mental health calls were inconveniently timed.
- Results of the current assessment suggest that measures taken to correct negative conditions identified in the January 2020 assessment have not generated material improvements.
The following points summarize the recommendations put forward by the independent consultant to address the key findings in order to foster a safe, equitable, collaborative and anti-racist workplace:
Address the Root Cause
- Study and consider as a solution the implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) (for example, IBM’s Watson Virtual Assistant)
- Identify and implement strategies to increase satisfying conditions within the workplace, such as recognizing achievements, improving the work processes, and providing opportunities for increased responsibility, advancement and personal growth.
Engage Employees in Hybrid Tasks in Hybrid Environments
- Implement hybrid work tasks and a hybrid work environment. Increase the variety of work where possible, and schedule employees to alternate between work periods at home and in a physical office so they can continue to enjoy the convenience of remote work while diminishing the negative impacts of isolation. Any changes made to the work should be within the parameters of employees’ work descriptions.
- Carefully plan and methodically conduct a gradual return to the office. Arrange discussions between employees and leaders to assess and address concerns prior to the return to the office and throughout the reintegration period. Provide mental health assistance for those who may require it during this transition.
- Require that all supervisors at every level complete prescribed training before beginning their leadership role. Training must address: roles and responsibilities of being a leader; wellbeing of subordinates; communicating with subordinates and superiors; delivering feedback; recognizing employees; instructing and mentoring subordinates; motivating employees; and, leadership principles.
Address the information gap between decision makers and employees:
- Create an anonymous feedback drop box or other mechanism that enables employees to express their concerns and feedback to management as they arise;
- Offer the opportunity for employees to rotate through a voluntary liaison role where possible. This role would be responsible for facilitating the transmission of information between leaders and staff. This would satisfy the need for increased responsibility but the opportunity must be rotated to ensure fairness and inclusion for those employees who wish to participate; and,
- Ensure that team meetings are held weekly at every level, where possible.
- Establish a formal staff development plan correlated with quality assurance to provide more instruction at all stages of employees’ careers, and to provide ongoing training for new tools, policies and procedures as well as relevant training prior to commencing new roles.
Apply adult learning principles to all learning activities. Adult instruction should:
- Be self-directed and autonomous;
- Give students the ability to apply the newly acquired knowledge;
- Recognize and build on previous experience;
- Ensure instructions are clearly applicable and appropriate to their roles or desires; and,
- Be individualized whenever possible.
Given characteristics of the adult learner, traditional online courses that simply present information by video or text and then quiz to assess retention of the information presented are not recommended for training that involves sensitive topics or for courses aimed at developing “soft skills” such as interpersonal communications, unconscious bias or culture change.
- Provide in-person, facilitated unconscious bias/racism training to employees and management, led by an instructor with experience in the fields of human rights, equity and anti-racism.
- Establish a formal feedback mechanism with realistic targets that reflect what can reasonably be achieved at a given time considering the volume and nature of the work and also considering employees’ accommodation requirements. Leaders reported that they struggle to tell their superiors that demands are excessive and that expectations are not realistic.
Response to Recommendations
The senior management team at IRCC, led by the Deputy Minister and the Associate Deputy Minister, agree that it is essential to ensure a safe, equitable, inclusive and an anti-racist workplace.
Address the Root Cause
Recommendation 1 – Study and consider as a solution the implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
IRCC is currently in the definition phase of its Digital Platform Modernization (DPM). This once-in-a-lifetime modernization exercise of the immigration continuum does include, as part of its business capabilities model, components that will assist staff in managing client interactions (client support and feedback). The Digital Client Services (DCS) of the Client Experience Branch (CEB) will continue gathering business requirements for the tools required by Client Support Centre (CSC) agents to enable better client support, including consideration of AI solutions used in the industry.
Until DPM is ready to move to the implementation phase, CEB will continue identifying opportunities in the shorter term to invest in better equipping CSC agents with the modern tools they require to complete their day-to-day tasks. These include furthering investments in existing Robotics Process Automation (RPA) technology, pursuing targeted improvements to the WebCART platform and investing in a CSC Contact Management Solution (CMS) as an interim stop-gap solution. This CMS solution is part of the Budget 2022 announcement tied to Advancing the Modernization of Client Support Services at IRCC, which seeks to stabilize client support technology and tools.
Recommendation 2 – Identify and implement strategies to increase satisfying conditions within the workplace
In early June 2022, CEB developed and shared with all employees a Branch work plan aimed at fostering a safe and inclusive workplace. This work plan, which details more than 30 initiatives targeted to improve workplace wellness, is CEB’s commitment to employee well-being and it aims to improve employee development and retention by analyzing practices and listening to employee needs.
The work plan was developed in collaboration with employees and is based on feedback received through various forums and surveys, including: consultations with members of the CSC United Shades committee, results of the antiracism, equity, diversity and inclusion survey (AREDI) conducted in January 2022, Branch results of the Public Service Employee Survey (PSES) 2020, Branch Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 staff retreats, as well as the departmental commitments to combat racism.
Initiatives included in the work plan are aligned to the five key pillars of the Operations Sector People and Wellness Strategy, which are: wellness, diversity and inclusion; enabling our workforce; career development; communication; and, leadership. Furthermore, the CSC has created an internal working group dedicated to improving employee well-being, including deliverables and concrete initiatives to be adopted throughout the fiscal year and beyond. CEB is confident that enacting a workplace culture shift meant to improve workplace wellness, anchored in a detailed work plan developed with staff, shared in an open and transparent fashion, will increase satisfying conditions.
Engage Employees in Hybrid Tasks in Hybrid Environments
Recommendation 3 – Implement hybrid work tasks and a hybrid work environment, and increase the variety of work where possible
CEB has contracted call-center industry leading consultants from Price Waterhouse Cooper to conduct a CSC business process and operational model review in order to find workforce management improvement opportunities and best practices that would help maximize operational effectiveness and diversify employee tasks.
Items under review and being considered include unblocking calls, improving forecasting methodology, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) conceptual redesign, and a service improvement strategy. The goal is to use the insights gathered during the exercise to maximize agent capacity across CSC channels (phone and email), including the concept of hybrid and universal agents. It is expected that the final report with recommendations will be ready for senior management review and consideration in early Fall 2022.
Recommendation 4 – Carefully plan and methodically conduct a gradual return to the office
COVID-19 restrictions have started lifting across the country, and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat announced that federal staff could return to the office on a voluntary basis beginning April 1. IRCC’ Future of Work team has been working in the background to prepare for IRCC’s transition to a hybrid workplace model in full swing after Labour Day: a flexible workplace model designed to support a workforce of both on-site and off-site employees. IRCC is ready to embrace a hybrid workplace and workforce, anchored in the position assessment that was conducted last Spring. As a Branch, CEB has designated all positions as part of the assessment exercise, including those at the CSC, as remote.
Now that the validation exercise is complete, IRCC is moving to the next phase of the Future of Work implementation, which is for managers to engage in conversations with employees about the assessment of their position, as well as available flexible work arrangement options. Final work arrangements will be based on an agreement between employees and managers that meets the needs of employees and CEB’s operational requirementsFootnote1; this should provide flexibility for staff to alternate periods working from phone and physically from the office, along with planning for in-person team meetings to enhance the sense of belonging. Later this summer, employees will also be asked to sign a telework agreement and CEB will engage in a reorganization of the office setting to include individual desks and shared work space, as well as maintaining conference rooms and technologies for videoconference to embrace the new hybrid workforce model. Ongoing dialogue during this transition between employees and managers to assess and address any concerns prior to the return to the office and throughout the reintegration period will provide opportunities to adjust work arrangements for CSC employees and will support IRCC in identifying what works for the department as a hybrid organization.
Additionally, CEB has included in its people management work plan measures meant to reduce the negative impacts of isolation by involving staff-led committees in various activities, for example the creation of a virtual cafeteria where employees can meet for lunch and to connect, and reinstatement of social committee activities including in-person gatherings in light of the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and in alignment with governmental public safety measures.
Finally, CEB plans on bolstering the mental health resource offerings that exist within the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) by extending mental health counselling services for CSC agents with Health Canada while taking into account the need for the services to be conveniently timed for employees.
Recommendation 5 – Require that all supervisors at every level complete prescribed training before beginning their leadership role
CEB recognizes that leadership is built from the ground up and permeates across every level of its organization, and that they need to better equip all leaders with the training, tools and support they need and require to manage the most important resource, which is employees. Key deliverables have been included in CEB’s people management work plan to create the time and space, and to ensure access to content in order for all those in a supervisory position to complete the IRCC mandatory training as early as possible as they take on their leadership role. Training must address: roles and responsibilities of being a leader, wellbeing of subordinates, communicating with subordinates and superiors, delivering feedback, recognizing employees, instructing and mentoring subordinates, motivating employees, and, leadership principles.
Furthermore, an internal working group has been initiated and is dedicated to ensuring the training curriculum meets the needs of the CSC management team. Additionally, a multi-year CSC Management training plan is being established to address leadership skills and principles. The CSC also plans on resuming its three-day Operational Team Leader training, which complements the training curriculum developed by the CSC Continuous Learning Unit in collaboration with our Operations team, and it will be delivered by seasoned Team Leaders with training experience. This will be offered specifically to new Team Leaders as an introduction to the role, and will be separate from the CSC management training plan which is more focused on leadership skills and ongoing development.
Recommendation 6 – Address the information gap between decision makers and employees
The Client Experience Branch holds a weekly 30-minute Strategic Chat with all employees, where the Director General (DG) provides updates on key departmental decisions and initiatives that impact the Branch and explains outcomes from ADM and DG level meetings attended, as well as a look-ahead at meetings to come. In addition, relevant presentation material shared with the DG in various forums and meant for mass distribution is made available to all employees. For those that cannot attend, each meeting is recorded and made available to all employees immediately following the meeting.
Included in CEB’s people management work plan are measures meant to directly address the information gap between employees and management, for example: holding bi-annual Branch all-staff retreats; monthly virtual coffee chats with the DG and CSC Director; an open dedicated Microsoft Teams Channel with all CEB employees where management addresses key Branch questions and engages in a dialogue with employees; and, DG and Branch AREDI Advisor recording weekly podcast videos as a means to communicate important Branch decisions in an interview setting and making them available to all employees. All measures are meant to ‘work out in the open’, and be as open and transparent as possible in ensuring that information flows at every level at all times.
Finally, CSC management will continue ensuring team meetings are held at every level on a weekly basis and, where possible, will consider rotating employees through a voluntary liaison role responsible for facilitating the transmission of information between management and staff. This would be done to increase employee engagement and responsibility, and would be rotational to provide equal opportunity for all employees that express interest in participating in this voluntary role.
Recommendation 7 – Establish a formal staff development plan correlated with quality assurance to provide more instruction at all stages of employees’ careers
CEB follows departmental guidelines for mandatory training for all employees regardless of level; it is each sub-delegated manager’s responsibility to ensure that each employee has completed the training included in their development plan in a reasonable amount of time after their appointment, by creating space and time to do so. Furthermore, the CSC has had in place a formal staff learning plan for all agents for a number of years, which includes key elements of learning to enable them to offer the highest quality client support and best in-class client experience. To ensure staff development is a continued and shared responsibility between management and staff, CEB leverages sections D (Learning and Development Plan) and G when required (Talent Management Plan) offered via the Public Service Performance Management (PSPM) tool as a mandatory requirement for all employees. On-going discussions on performance occur at key points in the year, and regular discussions on career development are expected to be held regularly between employees and their supervisors.
Specifically meant to address staff concerns in this area, the CSC has further refined the CSC agent learning curriculum embedded in staff development plans, based on quality assurance principles and current operational context. For example: all new CSC hires receive 3 days of facilitated crisis intervention and training on matters related to working in a call centre to reinforce coping skills, and all existing CSC agents receive 2 days of facilitated training on coping skills annually as required by the Collective Agreement. Additionally, the CSC is considering further investing in staff career development plans by increasing the training period for new hires, increasing side-by-side and coaching with mentors, exploring ways to reinstate regular reading time and info-sessions for staff, and developing tailored training to agents that respond to clients on the crisis lines by soliciting the help of an external Specialized Organizational Services (SOS) program to deliver ‘911’ training.
Lastly, additional initiatives are included in CEB’s people management work plan as a means to create time for staff to invest in their careers and provide some resources and opportunities to support them in this investment (i.e. 30 minutes per week per agent career investment + living learning library).
Recommendation 8 – Apply adult learning principles to all learning activities
Over the course of the current fiscal year (2022-2023), CEB will participate in various working groups being developed and led by the IRCC Learning Academy meant to establish departmental National Training Standards focused on embedding Adult Learning Principles in all training offerings, such as: Analysis and Planning, Design, Development, Evaluation, and Implementation. Furthermore, investments included in the Budget 2022 announcement tied to Advancing the Modernization of Client Support Services at IRCC will allow for additional modernization of internal CSC training content, based on lessons learned with the Learning Academy exercise of applying Adult Learning Principles, during fiscal year 2023-2024.
While CEB transitioned and adapted as best as it could to a remote and virtual work environment during the pandemic, CEB recognize that online instructions and training are not always conducive to significant values development throughout the organization. CEB will continue ensuring that all staff have access to the tools (ex: WebCART), information and support they need to complete their daily tasks both from home or from the office as per IRCC Future of Work guidance on resumption of activities, including in-person gatherings in light of the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and in alignment with governmental public safety measures. CEB will also resume targeted in-person training in the Fall as a means to not only maximize value development but also to create a sense of belonging among team members and to reduce isolation. CEB will also continue partnering with the IRCC Learning Academy to determine which course content is more conducive to an in-person approach vs remote online learning, and will consider piloting virtual chat rooms using Microsoft Teams when it is deemed that online training is the best approach as a means to enhance the experience and enable employees to share feedback and questions that mimic a group learning session.
Recommendation 9 – Provide in-person, facilitated unconscious bias/racism training to employees and management, led by an instructor with experience in the fields of human rights, equity and antiracism
All CEB employees, including those newly recruited, must complete all IRCC mandatory online unconscious bias/racism training offered by the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS). As well, all human resources sub-delegated managers, as well as all assessment board members, must also complete the CSPS online inclusive hiring practices for a diverse workforce (H205) training before September 1st 2022 or they will not be able to participate on assessment boards as active members.
Based on a recommendation from the IRCC Anti-Racism Task Force, the CSC also commits to further explore leveraging the Ready-to-Use Workshop: Unconscious Bias as a means to address staff concerns that have been raised in this area, to enroll CSC managers in IRCC’s foundational anti-racism training, and for its senior leaders to participate in IRCC’s Anti-Racism Coaching Program. The CSC will collaborate with the IRCC Learning Academy and the IRCC Anti-Racism Taskforce to identify bilingual instructor(s) with experience in the fields of human rights, equity and anti-racism to facilitate piloting some of these workshops and to identify additional facilitated unconscious bias/racism training opportunities for staff.
Recommendation 10 – Establish a formal feedback mechanism with realistic targets that reflect what can reasonably be achieved at a given time, considering the volume and nature of the work and also considering employees’ accommodation requirements
As per the Government of Canada (GoC) Values and Ethics Code, the system of Canadian parliamentary democracy and its institutions are fundamental to serving the public interest. Public servants recognize that elected officials are accountable to Parliament, and ultimately to the Canadian people, and that a non-partisan public sector is essential to our democratic system. As such, performance targets are developed based on information from numerous sources which include Minister mandate letters, Treasury Board submissions, and mandatory and/or core commitments established by central agencies or by Deputy Ministers. CEB will continue advocating for the right balance of targets (quantity) and quality of service with the goal of offering to all clients a best-in-class experience. This will mean, at times, trade-offs where lowering targets on certain priorities will be accepted to ensure GoC priorities are delivered to Canadians while keeping in mind that CEB’s top priority, and as communicated to staff during the Spring all-staff meeting, is employee well-being.
As well, the Operations Sector and CEB recently announced to all CSC employees the removal of the sunset clause from existing term employees’ contract as of April 1, 2022. Through a Budget 2022 proposal, ongoing funding in the amount of $38M was provided to IRCC to stabilize the CSC workforce, which had been temporarily increased due to Budget 2019 temporary funding. In addition to removing the sunset clause, CEB and CSC management also announced that they are taking additional steps to actively stabilize resources at the CSC by considering immediate indeterminate appointments at all levels, including stabilizing resources across teams and additional PM-03 team leaders.
CEB has numerous formal feedback mechanisms that exist, either in official forums such as their weekly Branch Strategic Chat meeting and Branch all staff retreats (ex: using Qs & As via MS Teams, MS Teams chat, Sli.do survey and anonymous Qs & As function), during formal feedback seeking exercises (ex: Branch AREDI survey held in January 2022) and informally through open and transparent engagement sessions with staff (ex: AREDI podcast/video shared via dedicated MS Teams channel). Furthermore, all Branch managers underwent a comprehensive 360 evaluation exercise over the past 2 fiscal years as a means of enabling employees to provide constructive feedback to our the Branch leadership cadre. As well, ongoing feedback is always part of regular weekly team meetings and discussions on performance management throughout the year, where staff are asked for feedback on what tools and support they need to meet their performance objectives.
Additionally, CSC management is considering creating an anonymous feedback drop box or other mechanism to enable employees to express their concerns and feedback to management as they arise. In some situations, anonymous disclosures may not be actionable (for example, it may not be possible to investigate an anonymous allegation of harassment, discrimination or wrongdoing without an identified discloser or complainant), but an anonymous reporting mechanism would provide an opportunity to highlight ways to improve the workplace. It is important that staff always feel safe to speak up without fear of reprisal, and this solution is aligned with measures included in CEB’s work plan that are meant to foster a safe and inclusive workplace.
Through frank conversations about how to build an equitable and inclusive organization, broad engagement with employee networks and allies, grassroots efforts of employees motivated to make a difference, development and reinforcement of accountabilities, continuous communication, and the leadership of many at all levels of IRCC, we are increasingly building positive momentum for change.
In addition to IRCC and CEB’s support for the Clerk’s Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity and InclusionFootnote2, the IRCC Anti-Racism Value StatementFootnote3 is the Branch’s pledge and commitment to significantly advance efforts on antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion. It is CEB’s way of demonstrating dedication to advancing racial equity for employees and for clients. Furthermore, IRCC’s Anti-Racism Strategy 2.0 and action plan are just a few steps in a long series of steps that IRCC is taking to bring real and lasting change and to ensure that our actions speak louder than our words.
On behalf of the IRCC senior management team, the Senior Officer for Internal Disclosure wishes to thank employees and managers for their participation in this review, and to acknowledge their commitment to working together towards a healthy, productive and inclusive workplace where all can contribute and participate.
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