Designing the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy calculator – a game changer for businesses

Lisa Belmore was wrapping up a job at Health Canada and preparing for a new role at the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) on Friday, March 13, 2020. As she packed up her desk, she heard rumours that businesses were shutting down. She called her new manager at the CRA who told her not to worry – her job would start, as planned, and they would “figure it out”.

That’s basically what Lisa and her colleagues at the CRA have been doing ever since. Lisa is a product manager, part of the team responsible for the design of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) calculator, which enables eligible employers to determine the amount they can expect to claim when applying for the wage subsidy. They also handled all subsequent redesigns of the tool, including its evolvement to a joint calculator for both CEWS and the Canada Recovery Hiring Program (CRHP).

“I am still so in awe of what my team, and colleagues all across the CRA, did during those first few weeks,” says Lisa. “My colleagues, who were all adapting to working remotely, knew that what we were trying to do was a huge challenge with an aggressive timeline. This forced us to create processes to collaborate more efficiently and  quickly develop products in an unprecedented way that involved including Canadians in the design process to ensure that our online services were easy to use.”

When CEWS launched in April 2020 there was no calculator. The first version of the product provided a spreadsheet that businesses could use, with the calculator launching in August 2020. Teams from across the Agency, with employees working from home in all parts of Canada, contributed to these efforts.

“The calculator really was a game changer for businesses,” says Lisa. “The math and rules were complicated from the beginning, and they continued to change as the program evolved. Without the calculator it would have been so complicated that the subsidy, really, would have only been accessible  to larger companies with accounting departments or businesses who use tax professionals.”

In the past, Canadians have said that CRA information can be difficult to understand, so making these tools “easy” to use was important from the start.

“Our goal was to make this subsidy accessible to everyone – and ESPECIALLY to the small businesses who needed it most. It wasn’t an option to make these businesses have to ‘work’ hard for the answers they needed. We had to simplify the steps so businesses had the information they needed when they needed it without overwhelming them with too many complex technical details.”

The team formed a new product development process and team structure to help move these products out faster and more efficiently. While developing the products, and after launching them, they used information from various sources to ensure the products were working and to find problems users were having so they could make improvements as they went. Feedback from users and from testing sessions, data from call centres, information on online searches and comments from stakeholders all helped them see what was working and what wasn’t.

“Small businesses have been through so much – they don’t need additional stress and we’re doing our best to make things simple. This calculator is now a joint tool for two programs -  CEWS and CRHP. The fact that it’s now helping businesses rehire employees is one of the most rewarding things I can think of.”

This story first appeared as part of a series to celebrate Small Business Week, 2021. It marks a time when small and medium businesses fought so hard to manage the circumstances of the pandemic, and the employees of the Canada Revenue Agency came together to deliver the tools and services that would help these businesses during these challenging times.

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