‘Sometimes you need a crisis to force change. We have done that and we have embraced it’
When the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March, the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) of Ontario quickly realized that a new era was underway.
“Early on, I remembered the Winston Churchill quote: ‘Never waste a good crisis,’ and I’ve probably repeated that more times than anybody wants to hear,” says Nicole McNeill, president and chief administrative officer at MPAC in Pickering, Ont. “And it was by no means minimizing that we’re in a pandemic but I said, ‘Let this not be for nothing. How can we work differently? How can we do what we’ve never been able to do before?’”
“Sometimes you need a crisis to force change. We have done that and we have embraced it.”
MPAC administers property assessments throughout the province with almost 2,000 employees located at 27 centres.
The corporation quickly initiated regular videoconference meetings, multiple times a week, to keep that connection between employees alive, she says.
“A commitment that we made to staff is we said: ‘We may not have all the answers, but we will address all the questions; we won’t filter them, we will answer them.’ And we answered them publicly in these virtual meetings.”
The chief lesson for HR professionals is that “not making a decision causes anxiety with staff and for management teams and for HR professionals, waiting is paralyzing,” says McNeill, which prompted a new concept within the crown corporation.
“We noticed that there were many times where we would be talking about the ‘what ifs,’ what should we do and so on and we didn’t have all the answers. It was probably around April, when we said, ‘Enough is enough.’ We’re never going to get the answers [but] we have to make decisions because we can’t be paralyzed and our staff need to see that we have confidence and we wouldn’t just make decisions haphazardly. We would weigh all the factors but we’d also say, ‘If we make this decision, and it turns out that we need to pivot, we’re going to do that too. But this is the decision we’re making today,’” she says.
As a result, MPAC has become a “much more human organization and the pandemic has sped that up for us,” says McNeill.
The teleconferences also became a way that health and safety of employees could be addressed.
“We’ve had [CTV medical consultant] Dr. Marla Shapiro and we’ve had [University of Toronto infectious diseases physician and scientist] Dr. Isaac Bogoch break down the fact versus fiction of what this pandemic actually means, and answer everyone’s questions,” says McNeill.
All of the organization’s efforts has translated into better engagement ratings, she says, after May employee survey results were tabulated.
“We already had pretty good scores as an organization; employee engagement was around 70 per cent pre-pandemic and we went up to 95 per cent, which is unheard of. I don’t expect it to go any higher, I don’t think it can go any higher, but they definitely mentioned they were just so grateful.”
Engagement has also been boosted by email, says McNeill, as MPAC instituted a new mailbox for its workers called “Ideas at MPAC.”
“We said, ‘Tell us your ideas, tell us how we can do things differently.’ When we couldn’t go out into the field, which is a lot of our work, employees were coming up with ideas.”
But more work needs to be done.
“Mental health, if it’s not already the next pandemic, it most likely will be. Don’t let your people suffer in silence. Talk about it, don’t let the stigma be there because all of our lives have been turned upside down in different ways and it’s important to recognize it. We’ve heard from all of our staff, our managers have become more empathetic, our people are not ashamed to say, ‘Hey, I’m having a bad day,” she says.
“I’ve opened some of these calls and said, ‘Yeah, I have good days and bad days.’ And leaders don’t always say that. But we have dogs barking in the background. We have all the same problems. Hiding it is not doing you anything, so just be human and that’s OK.”
Maintaining culture in the new workplace is an ongoing challenge for many employers, and almost half of Canadians say they want to work from home three times a week, according to another survey.