Navigating a Virtual/Remote Workplace During COVID-19 with Erin and Julia from CanWaCH

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Show Notes

This is the first episode Sujani sat down to record since COVID-19 became a pandemic. And we know that it is a tough time for every single one of us. We are new to physically distancing ourselves from families and friends, and holding game night and coffee chats over a video call are just not the same…and we now have to adjust to having children and the entire family at home 24/7, and for some, the transition to working from home has been tough. We will be the first to say that we don’t like this way of living and wish things were different. But, it’s so important for us to sacrifice these things, and to bear some of this pain because it does save lives!

Given this current situation, and acknowledging that we may not be mentally ready to focus on building our careers the same way, we wanted to change things up for the next couple of podcast episodes (or more). These episodes will focus on slightly different topics ranging from tips to help you cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as fun behind the scenes reflections of PH SPOT to give you a bit of “entertainment” listening. If you have other ideas do email them to us, and we will incorporate them into a future episode. Once we feel that we are ready to get back to our regular show, we will start rolling those episodes out!

In this episode, Sujani sits down with two members from the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH). CanWaCH catalyzes Canadian collaboration among 100 Partners who are improving women’s and children’s health in 1,000 communities worldwide.

The interesting part is that CanWaCH is a completely virtual workplace with 22 employees across Canada. Given they have been working in a virtual workplace for a number of years now, we reached out to them so that they could offer up all of the lessons they’ve learned to help you, your organization and employees manage working in a virtual environment as a cohesive team. I talk to two individuals from CanWaCH’s team – Julia Anderson who is the Chief Operating Officer and Erin Jex, the Gender Equality Officer at CanWaCH.

You’ll Learn

  • About the physical environment that Julia and Erin work from to give us a picture of their workspaces (Julia lives with 8 other people, and Erin has 1 other person)
  • The makeup of the CanWaCH team, and their environments
  • Whether COVID-19 has changed anything for them or their team, with respect to working from home
  • The technology and tools that their team uses which enables them to work collaboratively and efficiently (and tips around this)
  • The challenges they still face, despite having been a virtual workplace for a number of years
  • As management, the importance of setting your intentions right from the beginning and reiterating it (constantly); and equally important is the trust you must build with your team
  • Onboarding a virtual team member; how orientation is set up for these employees
  • Tips and considerations to build relationships with your team members given the absence of regular face to face interactions
  • The silver lining in working from home, and what they enjoy about a virtual workplace

Today’s Guest

Julia Anderson, Chief Operating Officer, CanWaCH

Julia is CanWaCH’s Chief Operations Officer. She previously served as the organization’s Acting Executive Director (2018-19) and Senior Director of Programs and Operations. She is responsible for day-to-day management of CanWaCH’s program portfolio, including managing program deliverables, human and financial resources, reporting, and liaising with CanWaCH funders.

She works closely with the Chief Executive Officer and the Board of Directors to implement the organizational strategic plan and long-term fund diversification and sustainability plan. Julia holds a Master of Arts degree in Canadian and Indigenous Studies from Trent University where she focused her studies on the role of civil society in Canada’s international cooperation activities. Julia has over 15 years of experience in the international development and not-for-profit sectors. She has worked with youth from across the globe on international development policy-related issues and held senior human rights positions. She is also an active volunteer working with the New Canadians Centre to support refugee resettlement and has served on the board of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation and as the Vice-President on the Board of Directors of the Ontario Council for International Cooperation.

Erin Jex, Gender Equality Officer, CanWaCH

As CanWaCH’s Gender Equality Officer, Erin works to build relationships with member and non-member organizations who have expertise in gender transformative approaches and to work with them to drive the development of a capacity-building series focused on rights-based approaches and data-driven decision making. She has a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and Modern Languages and a Master of Arts Degree in Political Science with a Specialization in Women’s Studies from the University of Ottawa. Most recently, Erin completed an International Youth Internship Program in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In this role, she developed monitoring and evaluation strategies to improve women’s economic empowerment in the education and health sectors. Erin is passionate about women’s reproductive health, youth engagement and community development and is currently involved with her community through Circle of Health International and as a French tutor. In her spare time, she loves being active and enjoys hiking and playing sports – especially soccer, hockey and golf.


Other PH SPOT resources:

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Episode Transcript

Julia 0:00
What Erin has- has said and what I’ve tried to communicate is just put people first and especially in this time take care of each other. And, you know, let’s make, let’s make that the new normal, really taking the time to check in, ask questions, and demonstrate that we’re humans first and, and part of being human is producing and be productive in the workplace. But that’s, that’s only part of it. And, yeah, that’s what we’re focused on. And that’s what we’re excited about. Hoping that people can experience that the way that we do every day in our virtual work.

Sujani 0:36
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva from PH SPOT.

Sujani 0:55
Hi, everyone, thank you for joining me today on another episode of PH SPOTlight, a space for you and me, and everyone else in public health to share our stories and inspire each other. My name is Sujani Siva, the host of PH SPOTlight, and I’m here to help you build your public health career. So this is the first episode that I’m recording since COVID-19 became a pandemic. And it’s been a tough time for every single one of us. We are extremely new to this physical distancing concept, especially physically distancing ourselves from families and friends, or now trying to hold game night and coffee chats over a video call. And some of us have children or our entire family at home with us, which is completely new. And for some the transition to working from home has been tough as well. I’ll be the first to say that I don’t like this way of living. But I know how important it is for us to sacrifice these things and to bear some of this pain because it does save lives. And so given the current situation and acknowledging that many of us may not be mentally ready to focus on building our careers the same way, we wanted to tailor the next couple of podcast episodes to be slightly different from our typical episodes, we want to deliver some tips maybe that could help you at the moment, perhaps share some fun behind the scenes reflections of PH SPOT, and just change things up a little bit. So if you do have ideas for us, do email them, and we’ll definitely consider them. And then once we feel that we’re all feeling a bit more ready to get back to our regular show, we’ll start rolling them out.

Sujani 2:53
So here’s our first one. I sat down with two members from the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s help, otherwise known as CanWaCH. CanWaCH catalyzes Canadian collaboration among 100 partners who are improving women’s and children’s health in 1000 communities worldwide. But the cool part is that CanWaCH is a completely virtual workplace with 22 employees across Canada. Given that they have been doing this virtual workplace thing for a number of years now, we reached out to them so that they could offer up all of the lessons that they’ve learned to help you or your organization, or maybe you’re leading a team of employees to just help us manage with working in a virtual environment as a cohesive team. So I talked to two individuals from CanWaCH’s team, Julia Anderson, who is the Chief Operating Officer, and Erin Jex, she’s the gender equality officer of CanWaCH. As the CEO of CanWaCH, Julia is responsible for the day to day management of CanWaCH’s program portfolio, including managing program deliverables, human and financial resources, reporting, and liaising with CanWaCH funders. She works closely with the CEO and the board of directors to implement the organizational strategic plan and longterm fun diversification and sustainability plan. Julia comes with over 15 years of experience in the international development and not for profit sectors. And it was super valuable to have that management perspective on this conversation. Erin is CanWaCH’s gender equality officer, where she works to build relationships with member and non-member organizations and to work with them to drive the development of a capacity building series focused on rights based approaches and data driven decision making. During our conversation, both Julia and Erin shared their personal experiences working in a virtual workplace and the tools, the mindsets, and expectations that help them do this. In addition, they also talk about how things have changed as a result of COVID-19, even for them. Some of the topics we chat about, like onboarding a new employee virtually, or how management needs to clearly set the intention right from the beginning, where topics that I had not even considered speaking to them about. But I’m happy that they talked about it, because for many of us, we wouldn’t have considered them until they became a need in our organization. And so just having the knowledge and the awareness around some of these topics will make you more prepared when a similar situation presents itself. And so with that, here’s our conversation.

Sujani 5:41
Thank you so much, Julia, and Erin for joining me on PH SPOTlight to talk about what has become a lot of people’s realities in such a short time. And I think it’s a reality that we’ll have to face for a number of weeks, if not months. And so, working from home or working on a remote team is a topic that everyone’s kind of dealing with at the moment. And given that your entire team’s norm has been this sort of a setup, we are truly grateful to share your insights and tips so that it could help a lot of our listeners who may be transitioning into this new reality. And so I thought to begin our conversation today, we could set the stage a little bit for our listeners. And perhaps you could both let us know, sort of into your physical environment from which you work from so, “Do you live alone?”, “Do you have kids or pets?”, “Do you live in an apartment or a house?”, “Do you have roommates maybe?”. And so I think this will just give our listeners a sort of way to connect with you and picture your physical space. Because I’ve heard sort of in the conversations I’ve had that these elements have either helped people with the way they’re working at home, or it’s been a barrier. So maybe I can start with you, Julia, if you want to take it from there.

Julia 7:00
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for having us both on. We’re Can- At CanWaCH, fairly passionate about our virtual workspace, so love to share. And I think- I think as you said, this is an important moment to talk about what we’ve learned over time. So I live in Peterborough, Ontario. So outside of any major urban center. With- There are eight, I was counting right as you were talking, eight people who live in my home and a couple pets as well. So two young children and then my three older children who are young adults, as well as my aunts and my partner. So we’ve got quite a few folks around summer elsewhere right now in self- self isolation because they’ve been traveling. But generally, it’s a pretty busy, busy house with lots of different schedules. Because they’ve got everything from ages five, to let me see, five to 57. So lot- and lots folks in between.

Sujani 8:04
Awesome, I think we’re going to have a lot of questions for you around how you’re managing the various schedule. So we’ll get back to that. And how about you Erin, how’s your physical environment like?

Erin 8:15
Yeah, I just want to echo Julia and thanking you for inviting us on today. I have a completely opposite situation to Julia there. I also do live in a small town, I live in Port Hope Ontario. So fairly close to Peterborough, and just about an hour east of Toronto. I live in my own home with my partner, and our giant eight month Bouvier puppy. But otherwise, there’s just the dog and my partner who does shift work. So it’s sometimes around when I’m working during the day and sometimes not. But fortunately, right now, there’s just us two in the home. So not so many schedules to kind of try to work around.

Sujani 8:57
Okay, and how is CanWaCH kind of set up? Because I think I was reading somewhere that you guys are made up of maybe 20 individuals? And are each of your team members sort of situation very similar? Or would you say that everyone comes from a very diverse background?

Erin 9:18
I would say that it’s very diverse. We definitely have a range of young professionals. So I think our youngest staff member is in their mid early to mid 20s and lives alone in a bachelor apartment, and then all the way up to people with children and small children at home. Different pet situations. I believe one of our newest staff members lives with roommates. So that’s kind of an exciting new thing on the team to navigate as well. So it is quite a mixed bag of who lives with whom and the different family dynamics that exist within our team.

Sujani 9:54
I think for me, it became very apparent especially in the situation that we’re in that every person and the way they’ve kind of navigated, COVID, and working remotely is very different. A lot of people are able to make it work for them. A lot of people are quite frustrated. Just because I think something that’s different now is that children are also home, they’re not at school or at childcare. And I guess maybe, Julia, you could speak to that a little bit more. How have you sort of managed your time and perhaps your productivity and how you take meetings with kids around?

Julia 10:37
Yeah, it’s a- it’s funny, because everyone has been saying, “Oh, you guys, like you have this virtual thing down. Because you’re, you’re always virtual, this isn’t a new phenomena for you.” And while I am very grateful that we haven’t had the technology learning curve, that so many people are just navigating their way through which we have actually, over the past four years, I’ve on boarded, you know, probably 35 people, we have a team of 25. So as people have come and gone, I brought, I was the first- first person hired into the team. So I’ve brought everyone else on since. And so I’ve helped people navigate this process of moving from office to virtual or moving from, you know, whatever situation they’re in into our virtual work environment. But today’s reality is very different, because we’re not- some of those things that have become normal for us. For example, having a conversation at the beginning of when a staff comes on talking about child care and elder care, and making it really clear that when you work with CanWaCH, the expectation is that from your home office, you’re not managing children, you’re not managing other care responsibilities in domestic labor, we talk about it sort of that’s- that’s another full job, we recognize the domestic labor as a job. And you know, when you’re working with CanWaCH, you can only do one, well, of course, that’s out the window at this point, including in my own home, where I, you know, my, my children aren’t going to school like they normally would, my older children are not going to work like they normally would. So there’s, there’s noise and all kinds of things. And I think the biggest sort of lesson that I would pass on from both our experience before and our experience now is just to try to be really clear. And this is what I’m trying to do for myself, be really clear with myself about when am I working, when am I not working and trying to set myself up as best I can with the you know, makeshift childcare arrangements, which do by the way includes Paw Patrol, cable and TV more screen time than normally get. And, and but just try to be clear with myself that for this hour, or for this two hours, you know, I’ve got this arrangement, and I’m going to take those really intense or maybe more confidential meetings or things like that. And then for these other hours, I’m not actually even going to be on my email, and I’m going to be clear with my team, that I’m not available that I am actually undertaking childcare responsibilities, I’m going to try and give- give times that my one other colleague who has kids said, the kids, they can smell it when you’re trying to do too many things. So as much as possible. That’s our new normal, is trying to renegotiate and make arrangements on the fly. But as much as possible, just be clear with our own selves and with our team about where we’re at. So no hiding, we get it, we know what’s going on, you know that it’s tough. You don’t need to- no need to pretend you can do everything to yourself or to us as a- as an organization. Just do your best and show up when you can. And yeah, I think we’re muddling our way through.

Sujani 13:47
I think that’s what I really respected in some of my colleagues as well in my day job is that everyone’s been extremely transparent. If they’re away from their desk, they let everyone know they say, “Hey, I was busy playing with the kids because I had to.” and I think you just have to add that level of transparency. And it’s a culture shift, right? Within that team that everyone respects that everyone has child care, elder care, or just needs a break because this whole situation is just very different then the transition hasn’t been easy. Maybe for you, Erin, has the current situation with COVID changed anything for you the way you’re connecting with your team members? Has it been challenging or the same?

Erin 14:36
I would say in terms of work like, which is what’s impacting everybody is kind of some of the broader objectives and timelines have shifted. But what I’ve really noticed is a really actual positive change within my team and the way that we interact with each other. Kind of like Julia touched on is everyone’s being really open, really honest, and transparent with the situation and that they’re in, in their home lives as well as how they’re feeling personally. So I find within my team, everyone is really being more intentional with checking in, you know, we might have connected maybe once a week. But now we’re really trying to set 15 minutes aside at the end of the day to stay connected and really give each other the grace and understanding that this situation is complicated. And navigating the situation is really difficult. And just trying to be really, really positive with our interactions. And it’s actually been so, on my team we’ve on boarded two new members within the last month and a half. And so this situation has actually gotten us to be closer together, because we’re taking the time to get to know each other. It’s not always just about coming together to talk about work or a project. We’re really kind of sharing jokes we’re sending memes to each other on our kind of chat groups. And we’re really feeling like we’re building a team. So we’ve become a lot closer in the last month because of everything that’s going on. And I really appreciate the support that they’re giving me. And I hope that they’re kind of feeling that same, that same feeling back from the support that I’m trying to offer them.

Sujani 16:07
I think when I was just thinking about the current situation and reflecting back to SARS, for example, that was decade or more than a decade ago, two decades ago, I think it was and I think what we have right now is the technology that wasn’t available then. And I think it’s been a very, very important part of the way everyone’s working. And I think Julia, you had mentioned that you guys haven’t had that barrier or that learning curve with tech. What kind of tools are the bread and butter of your team at the moment?

Julia 16:44
Yeah, we use and love a virtual platform called Glip, which is owned or powered by I don’t know how they frame it, RingCentral, which is also the same folks who own zoom and, and other things, too. But there’s others as well. Mic- Microsoft Projects Office, like there’s these different platforms that offer both a project management tool. So within Glip, we have the ability to have teams, we see when someone is there or not there. We organize notes, calendar events, and everything can be organized via essentially what is a project management software. But we also- it facilitates conversation, because you have chats, which would be similar to like a Facebook chat, where you see, you know, so the team is webinar, or podcast, today’s podcast and Erin and I would be part of that team. Because we’re both involved, you know, the colleagues who want to feed into the conversation, maybe there’s a couple others or comms person or something, they’re both going to be involved, then we’re going to share the questions that you asked us to prepare in that team and a document, we’re going to call each other the video function is built into that team. So when I hit click, call everyone on that team, it’s going to video call all four of those people that I was discussing. So it’s a really, it’s reducing a lot of the clicks. And the biggest thing that I recommend or have recommended to people that are moving into this is pick a software. So if you want Skype to be your your call software and you want Google- the Google platform to be your- your project management software, pick those two and just stick to them. So eliminate the decision making about “Okay, are we going to have this time?”, “Are we going to have this call on Skype?”, or “Are we going to call?”, “How are we going to talk on the phone?”, oh, try to eliminate as many of those little decisions and also technology mismatching. So you have Skype, and I have zoom and you know, I don’t have it downloaded yet. So it just takes more time, pick a software for better for worse and stick with it and learn it, right, because they all have their strengths and weaknesses. But at the end of the day, don’t waste time. Just try to get the best one, just pick one that that’s good enough. And then learn it and all commit to learning that together because I mean, I knew nothing about Glip when I first signed on, I know a lot about it now right after four years, and team members have all come along that journey as well. So we kind of know its quirks and strengths. And that’s been just built up over time. So that may be a big recommendation whenever Glip goes down, which is quite occasional, but it has happened. I can’t believe how much time we waste going “Oh, okay, so what’s your phone number again?”, “Oh, no, we got an email and we never email each other.”. Like, you know, just figuring all that stuff out so I could picture if you’re new to this, and you’re trying to figure that out for 100 people. I would say management come in pick one software that works good enough and just do it just everyone commits to it.

Sujani 20:01
Yeah, no, I think at the beginning, we were doing exactly what you just explained right now. It’s like, should we use a call function on Slack? Should we use Zoom? Should we just call each other and that does waste a lot of time and adds a lot of frustration. Erin, do you have any other tools or things that you’ve been using?

Erin 20:21
Yeah, one thing that we also really live by is our calendars. We really ensure that we put every little meeting, every even, schedule ourselves 15 minute breaks, everything in their calendars, and everybody has access to those and can see them. So that it’s just establishing this really excellent communication, even without having to speak to each other. So I know that oh, if I really want to connect with Julia, I can take a look at what our day looks like and be like, okay, she’s got 15 minutes at four o’clock, let me see, I’ll send her a message and see if she’s able to talk with me quickly or something. And then that way, you’re kind of avoiding that email tag or chasing after someone to get back to you. So that’s been really, really helpful for- for myself, personally. And it also is really great in terms of building on your team, you can take a look, I usually have all my team members’ calendars open on my own calendar. So I can take a look at what’s going on in their day, if I need support on a particular project. Or if I want to bring them into something, I can just quickly, at a glance, take a look and see who’s got what going on. So that’s been really, really helpful for good communication and kind of helping to set some boundaries as well. So I know that Julia’s got her lunch blocked off, I’m probably not going to reach out and send her a message because I want her to make sure that she’s doing her own self care and kind of taking a bit of a break. And stepping away from the computer, which when you work from home, can be a little bit challenging at times, because work is so accessible. And it’s really easy to work through lunches and work through breaks and turn on your computer after dinner. So we really do live by our calendars. And it’s really helped.

Sujani 22:00
Yeah, that’s a, that was a really good question that I wanted to ask you both is now that you have to be a bit more flexible with your schedule where you are doing a bit of childcare or additional self care in between your workday, how are you guys putting an end to your work? And is it just natural that in the current situation, work is going to bleed into your quote unquote, the rest of your life?

Erin 22:30
One thing CanWaCH has done and has really stuck to is establishing core business hours. And we do recognize that during this time thing, in flux, things are a little bit flexible. But for the most part, we do try to keep things and internal and external meetings kind of scheduled within this 10 to- 10am to 3pm period. And it kind of works and kind of has to work for CanWaCH because we do have team members all over Canada, so within different time zones as well. So we really want to be aware that we’re not going to schedule an 8am meeting, which I do sign on the to work at 8am. But my colleagues in Vancouver are probably not going to be awake or would not be happy about having to sign on that early for a meeting. So we really do try to stick to that 10am to three. But as you said things are in flux. So we are being flexible. But I think for the most part, people are taking the time to make sure that there’s an end to their day, people might be signing on a little bit earlier just to get work done before they need to run to the grocery store or you know, pick up some medication at the pharmacy for a family member or before their kids wake up. But for the most part, if you were to sign on to Glip right now, we would probably see no lights on and that’s a good thing people do generally tend to end their day before the dinner hour and kind of wrap up that way.

Sujani 23:51
I know for myself, sorry. Go ahead, Julia.

Julia 23:54
No, no. Yeah, I was just going to add I think, to me this- this raises a really important point- points about trust and about trust in the era of COVID and home offices and questions about productivity and efficiency and what effectiveness is I think a lot of organizations in traditional management style measure productivity by bums and seats and how much time minute by minute you’re putting in and of course some- some you know lawyers and things have that’s how they work but for the average workplace, the average business are not for profit. It’s actually not I mean time is like such a poor indicator for effectiveness efficiency or what you’re putting in and and I think what I hope we haven’t CanWaCH, as one of the, the leaders of the organization I hope we have kind of established with our team, the trust to say you know, we see our team is like this high performing. I call them the A team. So we don’t have a B Team, we’ve just got an A team. And so I know that you know, you’ve got more high performance in your pinky. And if you take a two hour lunch, because you need to go do yoga, that doesn’t affect my sort of recognition of the work that I know you’re putting in. And even if that was three months ago, that you did a lot more because we were super busy. And right now we’re, we’re a little bit slower, or we’re going to be slower in three months. Like it all- it all balances out. But I think that requires a lot of trust between the management and also the staff, because we’ve got a lot of super high performers. And I think they themselves look and go, oh, man, like, sometimes we get people who start and they say, I didn’t want to get up and go to the bathroom, because I was worried that you might need that wasn’t, you know, we’re like, not only like, we see what you’re doing, we see what you’re contributing, we trust you, you got to trust you. And you got to trust us that we have kind of measurements that are more robust and more sophisticated than whether or not you’re on the screen at every minute. And I mean, I just I think of my colleagues who right now are just under immense amount of pressure with other obligations. And I have to say, I keep you know, trying to say that, look, you don’t have to be producing the same amount, like don’t put that on yourself. But they are like these team members are just doing more and less hours. It’s not the expectation. But it’s certainly overseen and I think I hope that what you know, in a month or two months, I hope that’s what what comes out of this is that the staff and the staff of the organization say wow, like the management team and Julia as as the CEO, really, they trusted me to get it done, I did my best I really contributed. And in the end, that’s, that’s good enough for all of us. And we’re all really proud of what we’ve took time, even if it’s a little bit less, a little bit more, little bit less today, a little bit more tomorrow, like I have a lot of faith in the team. And I think- I think managers have to wrap their head around new ways to understand productivity, new ways to understand, and staff, especially high performers also need to wrap their heads around that.

Sujani 27:05
Absolutely. And I think you mentioned this a little bit already, but how can management have that conversation with their staff about hey, listen, your productivity might not be the same as it was a couple of months ago. And we understand that, do you have tips for management, you being sort of like in a C-suite? Level? How would you approach those conversations?

Erin 27:28
Yeah, I think, and I love Erin’s reflections on this too, but I think just say it over and over again, like, you know, and just keep repeating it and action and know, like, you know, every time something doesn’t quite get done with the timelines, it’s looping back to that person and saying, “Hey, I got you, that’s okay.” As opposed to “Oh, wow. Like what could have we done differently?” No, like that. It’s okay. It’s okay, that we’ve not got that done, and I’ve got your back, whatever that means. So both in action, and then just in like, rogue repetition of the same thing over and over. And then reinforcing, I think, I hope what we do is reinforce the winds that are kind of the- the- the addition of all the contributions of the team, and really come back to the fact wow, this is adding up to a, you know, profound performance overall of the organization. And you’re all- I can see all of you in that. And that’s what I hope, we are able to communicate, and it’s certainly authentically what I feel about the team and what I see. But a lot of it is just saying it over and over again.

Sujani 28:40
Erin, do you have anything else that you would add to that?

Erin 28:44
No, I would just echo in that. I feel it as part of the team I’ve worked with CanWaCH now for just over a year. And although I’ve only met my colleagues in person, a handful of times, the amount of support and trust that I feel virtually through the screen, it is a palpable feeling you can you can feel the level of care that people have for one another and the check ins, and you know, creating space and creating the time for that, creating that connection, you can really see it and that does translate into the work that we do and the trust that we have to get that work done and to support our colleagues in getting work done if they’re not having a great week or a great day. And also to help you know support our directors and upper management as well. And I feel that it trickles down to there’s an immense amount of trust and care within the CanWaCH team. And I think it’s very reflective in the work that we do and the way that we are built as a team and support each other.

Sujani 29:42
I’m so glad you use those words like that you feel it through the screen. I think a lot of people who were used to seeing their colleagues face to face on a daily basis are really struggling for those like emotional connections. And so are the face time that they had with their colleagues. I don’t know if either of you could comment to that. But do you have ways that people could replace that face to face time through technology? Or maybe its behavior change or a mindset change? I don’t know what the answer to that is. But I’ve heard a lot of people struggle with that right now.

Julia 30:19
Yeah, I think we’re very intentional about this. CanWaCH and have been over the years and some of the things that we do, and we asked everyone, when this sort of crisis started to ensue to I think Erin mentioned this a couple of times around what we’ve upped the ante on and a couple of those things are just watercooler chats. So reaching out, Erin mentioned the end of the day reaching out, and being in so when your virtual, you have to be a little bit more intentional, you don’t bump into people, you know, you don’t just sort of walk by their desk and remember them, you have to think about it a little bit, you have to be a bit more intentional. So one thing that we talked about from the day one when someone starts is okay, so how do you intentionally create social bonds, right, and one of the ways you do that which you do, no matter where you are, is about talking about things that are not related to the office. So whether it’s your cat, your dog, your kids, your- you know, your favorite TV show, it can be whatever what you eat for dinner, having those conversations at first virtually is a little awkward, because you’re like, oh, man, like I set this meeting up. And now I’m talking about my dinner and wasting time or something like that. So we tried to say from day one, that’s not wasting time, everyone who starts has to set up a water cooler and chat with absolutely everyone that they work with. And the intent of those water cooler chats are to find out something about them that they can then follow up with or connect with at a later meeting. And every meeting has started with how are you ending here today? With how you doing today? And when we’ve asked that question we’ve heard everything from well, let me tell you that this weekend, I got engaged. We’ve heard about, you know, deaths in the family, we’ve heard about really difficult stuff, we’ve heard about people’s cats and dinners, right? Like and people can pass but we start every meeting like that, just like just kind of like you would do as you come into a boardroom. And that to me, from a management perspective, that is not wasting time. That is every minute of that is time well invested. And I will go an extra 15 minutes on any meeting to kind of give that space. But then I think what Erin was referring to of just like, just do a bit more of that when times are tough, right, just do a bit more of that when things are difficult. And I think I don’t know, the team has all kinds of different, like social groups that have formed and connected for different reasons. And I think, you know, just being intentional about encouraging that and saying like, yeah, if you want to sit and have lunch with someone, virtually, and just talking about nothing to do with work, like, that’s awesome, right? Yeah. Erin, I don’t know, if you have other- other thoughts on?

Erin 33:11
Yeah, no, I completely agree with you, Julia. Like, for example, not all of our teams on Glip are exclusively devoted to work. I personally belong to one where we only share pictures of our dogs. So that’s the kind of connection that I think we were kind of hinting at is that it does go beyond just this work relationship. And you really do have to make an effort and make that- that- that specific time to reach out to people, especially those that you don’t see across path- paths with on a regular basis and the work that you do day to day. And, you know, I feel a very close connection with all you know, 25 of our team members, because everybody has it kind of in their mindset to reach out and connect with people outside of your little team bubble. And you know, talk about your interests and talk about things that are going on. But it is difficult, especially when you first start and you’re kind of thrust into a virtual work environment. And if you’re a little bit introverted, it’s not as natural as it would be bumping into someone, you know, going to get a cup of coffee. So once you get over that kind of initial hurdle of this is a little bit awkward, but everybody feels that little sense of awkwardness. So it’s not just you. But yeah, that really personal one on one connection or just like sending a funny GIF or a funny meme to somebody can really brighten their day. I love it when you know people pop on the immediate thing that we all do when we sign on them in the morning is say good morning to each other. And that’s just a really intentional way of reaching out and being like, “Hey, I’m here. I’ve signed on. Good morning. How’s everybody doing today?” Just like, lets you all know that like I’m here, I’m present and I’m ready to go.

Sujani 34:51
I really liked that. I’m going to start implementing that right away. Actually. You both talked a little bit about onboarding birch. Totally. And it wasn’t a topic that I even thought about or had even considered. But I think that might become something that a lot of organizations might have to consider in the next little while. So how do you guys do that, like the virtual onboarding, because at least every single team I’ve been part of has, there’s always been a face to face onboarding portion, or at least, at some point, I do get to meet the team face to face when I’m going to start that job. So it’d be nice for us to hear how CanWaCH goes about onboarding their team members?

Julia 35:39
Yeah, I can speak a little bit to that, because I’ve seen the evolution of it over the years. And Erin can maybe speak to it from the perspective of the experience of it. And I think the four, the four components that are really important is establishing time to norm for the person to set up their physical office space. So that’s part of the orientation package with some, some tips and some thoughts on like, you know, set up a space that you- that is your office versus carrying a laptop all over your house, no, you know, don’t enforce that in any way. But we, we make some recommendations about setting up a space that’s specific, that’s comfortable, this kind of that has good light that has good internet connection, that has a printer, like all that kind of stuff. And then. So that’s one component, we give people time and their first two weeks to do that. So there’s actually if you need to go out, and you know, we just hired someone, and she had to go buy an internet booster, she realized, it’s not working well, she has time to do that. And that’s trying to set the tone, that you know, you’re not you may not be in an office, but we want you to be comfortable. And we’re thinking about the time that it takes in your home to invest in that. And you should do that on work time. That shouldn’t be something that you do at night. And it should be something you do as part of your your day to day job. Generous norming. The other big pieces the watercooler chats through when your first tasks, when you come in, is to set up a 15 minute meeting with everyone on the entire or within your entire organization. And that 15 minutes, so that takes there’s what now 25 people so that does take some time. But the idea is that gets used to calling a meeting using the calendars that are in referred to making sure that you can kind of associate the person’s face to their role, because you’ve had to find them and that kind of thing. So watercooler chat with absolutely everyone, and lots of reading and orientation material on the software, but also just on the substance. So we kind of encourage people to go back and forth, you know, read about the depth and the breadth of what CanWaCH does, but also read about how we do it, and how we use our virtual or virtual space, and then lots of time with your team and your manager. So we spend time, the sort of HR team spends time and welcomes you. But then you spend a fair bit of time with your manager, you do a history thing that’s consistent. So everyone who comes through that two weeks has had a fairly similar exposure to the key people within the organization, their own team. And by the time they- they’ve been on Glip. And on Zoom, like on the video calls enough that they- they’re pretty normed into it. They know how we work and how we pass things on. And kind of the- the quirks of the way that we operationalize our day to day work, because they’ve had to have a lot of practice. So that’s some of the components that I think are important. And I think just being intentional, any organization that shifting right now, I would say come up with an orientation package literally, like just come up with a package and a process doesn’t have to be perfect, but come up with something that everyone follows. Even if you’re two weeks into it, not too late, right, like come up with a sort of, here’s, here’s our intention, here’s what we’re trying to do. Here’s the norms we’re trying to send. And those can develop over time and be refined. But I think- I think the key word is intentional and thoughtful about what you’re doing.

Sujani 39:21
And Erin I’m assuming you may have been on boarded virtually as well. Do you have any reflections on how that how you felt in that process?

Erin 39:32
Yeah, for sure. I think one of the things that I found the most helpful is that CanWaCH kind of has this policy of when you’re on a call with someone you turn on your video, and it is immensely helpful because in a virtual working environment, you’re not able to kind of read body language, take social cues. You know that someone wants to interject in a conversation or if you’re in a bigger meeting with multiple people, it’s sometimes hard to get, you know, feel comfortable to get your point in or trying to contribute that way. So when your video is on, it’s still not the same as being in the room, but you still have that better sense of like, oh, someone, you know, you kind of see their eyes light up that you that they have an idea to share or, you know, you get to see them smile or nod that they’ve heard you. You know, it’s- it’s hard when you’re just on a call and you know, you’re listening, you’re actively listening. But if the person can’t see that you’re actively listening, sometimes you’re wondering, are they still there? Are they multitasking? Have they stepped away from their computer on me, so that as a can watch policy that was set out during orientation was immensely helpful for me, and really helped set like a precedent of- of what to expect and how to work and how it was very helpful in working with other people on the team. And, yeah, I would just say, like, for me, I was an introverted extrovert. And the hardest part was to get that level of comfort to just reach out to people to ask questions, who to ask questions to, am I bothering someone, I think that’s the biggest thing is, you know, you can’t look into someone’s office and be like, Oh, they’re just doing XYZ, kind of look at their calendar, you see, they have a gap, but am I going to bother them if I reach out? And as you know it within that first week, those water cooler chats just helps solidify that base relationship that you’re like, no, I’m not bothering someone by you know, knocking on their virtual door, to ask them a question about XYZ. It’s a very welcoming space, when you kind of get to establish those base relationships. So you have that level of comfort when you’re working to reach out to who you need to reach out to to move forward with projects.

Sujani 41:41
No, absolutely. would you guys say that there are still things you’re constantly challenged with? As a virtual team? Like, should people just assume that you guys have it all figured out? And it’s a well oiled machine out there at CanWaCH?

Julia 42:00
I would love to say so. Yeah, I mean, I think many of us I think I can speak for most people and say we would have trouble transitioning back to an in person workplace, right. Like the benefits of in childcare, like all this current situation aside that benefits. I mean, Erin lives in Port Hope it’s this gorgeous town, you know, right on the water. Peterborough is the best Ontario city and in my opinion, both doing amazing, interesting, globally relevant work from our like, small town, you know, and we’ve got people who live out in the country, very rural. So the kinds of benefits around that the efficiency of zero commute, like, all those things, and actually, I would encourage people to think about those to take some joy out of those things. Like, where are your sweat pants, and you know, you gotta wear for us, we have to wear a nice kind of top on top. But other than that, like, you know, where’s my pants or slippers? Do your hair how you want, you know, like, it takes some joy out of those things that are new efficiencies, right? Like all that time you spent picking out your outfit or doing this or doing that whatever those were just driving or commuting to work. You don’t have to do that right now. And where’s- is there joy? And certainly we take a lot. I think the biggest challenge corporately, and I think what I would struggle the most with, when I’m thinking about this situation is over the four years that I’ve been hiring people, I can watch, I learned how to hire people for the virtual workspace. And I’ve learned that the sort of composite skills that you need to do your job. So let’s say you’re a data person, and you may be the best data person that Canada has ever seen. But you may not do well in a virtual workplace. And I think there is a specific type of skill set and personality to an extent, although we have a real diversity of personalities. But there’s kind of a problem solving, I’m not going to get stuck because of a small technological problem. I’m going to work through things. Self starting, like being able to focus on tasks, despite whatever’s going on at home. Like all those things are a bit of, from an HR perspective, Human Resources perspective, something that we’ve learned how to look forward through the recruitment process and the hiring process. And then also to recognize if someone’s not doing well, we know the kinds of questions to ask about is this really because they don’t have the skills to do their job or is this about the virtual workplace? So I think that’s a huge challenge for people right now because they have then, you know, that wasn’t part of the human resource, kind of approach to hire, train them, and now they’re thrown into this situation. So the only advice that I would then give is that recognize that it is the skill set that can be cultivated. That is something important that needs to be learned. So if you were going to throw your employee into a brand new job, you know, they used to do scaffolding, and now they’re going to do painting, you’d probably teach them how to do the painting. So in a similar way, like how can you build up the skill sets, the composite skill sets that help people succeed in the virtual workplace, and recognize and value that that’s going to take time? You know, in addition to the fact that they’ve got potentially domestic, you know, situations that they’re doing a lot more domestic labor as well. So I think that’s the advice that I draw out of that experience. For folks who don’t have the luxury that we’ve had of recognizing, oh, this is just what we’re going to hire for.

Sujani 46:02
And I think it’s- it’s always going back to what you’ve been iterating back, constantly is the intention that you can’t just do things the way you were doing it. Previous to a remote working environment, I think management and team members certainly have to be a lot more intentional. Now that the situation’s changed. Yeah. Erin, anything that you would add in terms of challenges that you are still facing within sort of a remote working environment?

Erin 46:37
Yeah, well, for me, actually, this is the first job that I had. I graduated from university and kind of luckily, fell into this role. So I’ve not worked or commuted to an office before. So I, my kind of only working experience is this virtual workplace in a work from home. But I think one thing that is a constant kind of struggle or a battle is this idea of productivity, and you know, what counts as being productive? And I think it’s a larger question that a lot of people grapple with, even in, you know, a non work or non virtual work environment. And really kind of taking a look at that there’s different types of productivity, you know, doing research and background environment, scanning for a project is just as valuable as turning out a policy brief, like, not everything is export, or output oriented. And to really, especially right now, give yourself a little bit of grace. If you’re not as output oriented, as you might might have already been in the- in the past or in your non virtual workplace, productivity ebbs and flows. And I think CanWaCH is really good at recognizing that. For example, for me, like I’m a morning person, so when I get up, I usually try to do all my heavy thinking and kind of writing work right in the morning, and I block off time in my calendar, to do that. But then in the afternoon, I like to have meetings, I like to slow things down a little bit, because you know, I eat lunch, and I get sleepy. And that’s just how I work. But some people are the exact opposite. So we kind of work within this flexible place where that’s not really a problem. And we’re able to adapt our own work schedules to how we just naturally feel. And you know, some days, it’s not worth, you know, spending three hours to try to get a policy brief out when you know, you could do it in 45 minutes, if you were in the right headspace. And you come back at it the next day, and you just turn it out, and it feels good. And I think that just getting used to that idea that every day is different, you feel different every day. And you kind of how you bounce and how you jive with your teammates is different every day. And that productivity really does just ebb and flow. And right now, it might not be at its all time high because there are other priorities and other things going on in our lives that are kind of taking away from that direct work brain, right? So I think for me, that’s what I- that’s what’s top of mind for me kind of when it comes to work and start my Monday morning is like what is going to be productive this week for me. And that always is in flux. And it was changing.

Sujani 49:07
And I think just thinking about the silver lining and all of this I’m really hoping that organizations that have been adamant about having bums and seats really think about productivity in that lens that you just explained. And hopefully there’s a culture shift or more and more organizations kind of opening their doors up for virtual work. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m hoping that more and more companies are going to be having opportunities that are remote. Have- Have you or your teams talked about that, like post COVID, do you think organizations are going to consider that?

Julia 49:49
I think so like I- It all depends. I think smaller organizations like ours that can adapt and build the technology around them surround them sort of, you know, land themselves in a technology that works. It’s pretty, it, you know, it’s pretty hard to beat from a, from a green perspective, from a work life balance perspective from a, you know, if you can build in that social connection and do it, do it well, it’s hard to beat. And I think from, you know, I have worked with Northern indigenous communities. And when I started with cameras, I was like, oh, my goodness, like, the opportunities to connect with Northern and remote communities and have like, really meaningful, well paying interesting jobs, like, you know, just there’s, the possibilities are really boundless, you know, endless in terms of what we could do for this country and for rural and remote communities. If we really thought about virtual work intentionally and did it well, I don’t, it takes time. You know, like, even when we started four years ago, the first hiring that we did, my instinct was just what we need for to hire someone, you need to do it in person. So we were like, flying people all over the country, flying ourselves all over the country, because anyone could be hired from anywhere. Because we had to do interviews in person interviews are like, you know, you got to do you know, the team, like something different. And, and then we realized, “Okay, why are we interviewing this person in person, when we will never, like, we may not see them again, in person for six months, like, it’s not part of their day to day.” And actually, it’d be more effective if we had them tried if video technology and as kind of like a bit of a, get a sense of how they interact with the technology, not that it’s pass fail or anything, but if someone you know, is is super nervous about it, and we try to problem solve with it, and they just can’t get through it, then maybe they’re not going to be a good fit for virtual workplace, right? Which actually hasn’t happened, because it’s very simple. But you know, that kind of thing. And- but it took us a while to let go of that. And there’s other examples of that ,,writing checks, right? Like, we wrote checks. And so I would be driving out to the, there’s two signers and I would drive to her, but you know, and now we just do everything online. So I do think that even for us, when we are established as a virtual workplace, we still had to, like get over it in our own heads, and find the technology and the workarounds. So I can only imagine for organizations making the transition that- that you know, you- you really have to want it and you really have to build it. So that it’s fit for purpose to get it to the place that I think we’re in, which is like, amazing, and awesome and lots of potential. But I am hopeful. I am hopeful that more. There’s a lot of organizations out there that are 2025. Can you imagine if they could recruit talent from across this country, from the north, from the south, from the small towns to the big towns? You imagine it from Housing First, like there’s, you know.

Sujani 53:10

Julia 53:11
But it’s, it’s exciting to me that there could be that as a silver lining.

Sujani 53:16
Absolutely. I’m with you on that. I know our listeners probably want me to keep asking you guys more and more questions about this. But I do know that you’ve got a series of webinars lined up for folks. So maybe Erin, would you mind sharing what those webinars are going to cover? And where people could go to find details for those?

Erin 53:40
Yeah, for sure. So CanWaCH is having a series of webinars, kind of like a more informal coffee with CanWaCH type that’s kind of covering anything from navigating virtual workplaces, to you know, shifts in your own organizations programmatic work with the COVID 19 pandemic, and kind of everything in between there. Everything can be found on our website, to look up when the webinars are up and coming and what’s going to be coming next. We also always record all of our webinars and create an outcome document from them. So anything that’s been done in the past is easily accessible, for rewatch, or to watch for the first time. And one thing that we’ve also done is we’ve created a couple of resources for everyone available to everyone. Kind of an FAQ about navigating the virtual workplace. This is building off of our webinar that we did last week, and just kind of we took crowd sourced all of the questions that were asked in the webinar, you know, pulled forward the most often asked and answered them for everybody. And then we’ve also created an educational guide with kind of information and educational activities for some of CanWaCH’s members. And this is geared towards, you know, any age any child to young adult, kind of in the school age range to kind of help with some of that child care at home. So that’s also something that’s available on our website.

Sujani 55:15
Oh, it’s fantastic. I’m going to include all those links. We do weekly newsletters, so I’ll put those in there. And we’re also thinking of setting up like a COVID resource page. And maybe I can link up all of those webinars. So people have that there as well. But thank you so much, Julia. And Erin, I mean, you’ve shared a wealth of knowledge and, and I think this is really going to help a lot of individuals transition into working from home.

Sujani 55:46
Hope you enjoyed that episode with Julia and Erinn from CanWaCH and took away on the value that they were able to share with us, especially the tools, the lessons learned and some of their experiences. And so if your team has transitioned into a virtual workplace due to COVID 19. Please do share this with some of your co workers because I think they too might find some value in this episode. And as we mentioned, at the end of that conversation CanWaCH has a number of resources to help teams transition into a virtual workplace. So if you want to get any of those links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to pH And we’ll have everything there for you. And so until next time, thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight and for the invaluable work that you do for this world. And just remember that we’re in a difficult time right now. So be kind to yourself, be kind to one another. See where you can help out, check in on your neighbors, any of your elderly family members or friends, because we’re in this together and I know we’ll get through this.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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