17 February at 07:00AM
Looking Beyond the Pandemic: A Panel Discussion
This coming March marks the two-year anniversary that forced the world to shut down due to the global pandemic. Let us consider for a moment the role of a project manager. Generally, project managers work to identify risks and make contingency plans for any possible occurrence. So, it is a well-timed discussion to turn to our leaders from the Toronto Regional Chapter of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) to hear how they have navigated through the pandemic within their organizations and sectors. At PMI Toronto’s December Chapter meeting we focused our discussion on the impacts, responses, and lessons learned from the pandemic.
PMI Toronto’s Government Community hosted a panelist of experts from different areas including project management and government to discuss how the pandemic changed how their organizations approached the work environment; how they prepared for the shifts the pandemic brought; and what were the key takeaways so far. The evening’s panel discussion was a collaborative effort between PMIT’s Government Community and the Toronto Regional Chapter of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC Toronto Region).
Joseph Silva served as the evening's moderator and asked some key questions to the panelists throughout the event. His experience in his work with the Regional Municipality of York (York Region) coincided with many of the panelists approaches as well.
The guest panelists are all leaders in their respective organizations and are heavily engaged in pandemic response within their organizations and communities. The evening's panelists brought great dicussion and insights to make for an impactful evening.
A Panel Discussion
Below are some key takeaways from the night's panelists.
Q: Recall the early days of the pandemic what were some of the ways your organizations/sectors dealt with this global impact.
Denise Occhipinti: We are a two-tier government. We are responsible for public health, so we had to be ready with an emergency response. We had to shift focus and be able to deliver services and ensure we had the resources available to deploy to the front lines. Another impact was how this affected our people. So many have been impacted by the pandemic and there are so many emotions involved including a sense of loss of the workplace and adjusting to a virtual work environment.
Steve Saric: We had a robust project environment with capable project managers whose strong leadership and skills aided in managing very complex efforts at the start of the pandemic and even to this day. Our teams have been involved with the mass vaccination program. A huge compliment to the team for their leadership in this endeavor.
Samina Sami: Our approach in those early days was really to take some of the remote services and instructions and amplify them across a larger scale. We had to shift to remote environments but we had to consider those onsite as well and how to protect them too. We have services and students all over the world who required help. We were receiving over 400 queries a day. We then activated our emergency operation centre. There were some extremely busy days during the start of the pandemic.
Jerrett Myers: From the consulting industry standpoint you have to be flexible and respond to clients’ requirements efficiently. Our work shifted because our clients’ priorities shifted. The pandemic really pushed us toward a new way to approach business and service our clients.
Q: What were some of the project management initiatives that took place during this time within your teams?
Samina Sami: From the university standpoint we had to have a plan of action ready for any event. Back in 2019 our team decided as due diligence we needed to update our emergency policies and plans. One of these included a pandemic plan more with the lens of climate change the influx of infectious diseases. As a university we see a great deal of international operations with many traveling from other parts of the world so it was more about being prepared for whatever could occur. So, when cases of Covid started appearing we really examined our initial plans through an emergency preparedness lens. When the closures happened, we just put our plans into place and switched gears.
Denise Occhipinti: A key success factor is having a robust emergency management program and structure in place. From a project management perspective, we utilized the strength and skills of our PM teams and used an agile application. Looking specifically at the mass vaccinations, we were able to establish a governance built from our emergency management system. We activated the rollout quickly and we could make decisions quickly and identify risks to the program and shift our approaches to better manage the constant changes. We have become experts in pivoting.
Steve Saric: What has led to our success in dealing with the shifts brought on by the pandemic is really the support and robust way our PMs worked together and supported one another. It really goes a long way for many of our teams who were working long hours and dealing with uncertainty to have people they could rely on to get them through and support them along the way. Strong teams make organizations successful.
Jerrett Myers: Certainly, the biggest change to note is that the pandemic really pushed organizations forward to implement many of the things they had talked about doing. This includes simplifying resources, having digital signatures, and the success of remote work. Things really pushed forward quickly, and technology took a huge leap forward.
Q: What could have been done differently?
Samina Sami: As an organization we have multiple layers and cross-functional teams where things intertwine. We had many continuity tables overall. What we have done is look at our recovery model. We wanted to streamline things and shift from multiple continuity tables and functional approaches to an outcomes-based approach.
Denise Occhipinti: We learned quickly how important inventory, resources, experience, and skills are to help expedite redeployment for the future. We have never experienced something on this scale and we are still in it. We did aim to improve our communication flow within the teams. With so many different teams and roles especially at work during the mass vaccination stages communication played a significant role.
Steve Saric: You can’t be too hard on yourselves because looking back we couldn’t predict what this all meant and where it would lead. The portfolio management practices set the groundwork for dealing with the pandemic and allowed for us to make strategic decisions as we have navigated through all this since the start.
Jerrett Myers: It’s easy to look back and think we could have done things differently but we didn’t know what this was going to end up being. Just looking at the enterprise risk model we could have been a little more prepared for this overall. Having the capability to do some forecasting and respond to the signals in the environment would definitely be worth exploring.
Q: What trends are here to stay?
Samina Sami: Remote/hybrid work and educational environments are likely to remain. But then we need to consider what will happen to capital assets, real estate, and workspaces moving forward. With remote work and learning opportunities this has opened up for many people now that you don’t need to be in the same physical space anymore. This is the notion of a global nomad. We have also seen an upward trend for social movements.
Denise Occhipinti: We have great partnerships across our municipality and we will continue to collaborate with these partners to ensure rapid delivery. We also need to look to the future of public health, infectious diseases, and vaccinations. Future planning and testing will play a role.
Steve Saric: Trust in our public institutions because they matter.
Jerrett Myers: Many of the positive changes that have been introduced can be scaled up and embedded into how organizations operate.
Q: What is the key takeaway you have had from this experience?
Jerrett Myers: We were able to make things that were once thought of as impossible, possible. The innovation we have seen has been quite eye opening.
Denise Occhipinti: How do you manage expectations? How do you keep people motivated through a crisis that seems to be continuing? This would be what I would want to consider moving forward.
Steve Saric: Longevity and resilience at its core is about the people and how can we all support our communities.
Samina Sami: Cross-functionality has been the biggest positive takeaway. So many possibilities opened and hopefully this will continue. We have created incredible project management principles and we are applying them to new initiatives.
More About IPAC
IPAC will celebrate its 70th anniversary in March. Also, on February 24th they will hold the 17th Annual IPAC Leadership Summit. Please visit their website and follow them on Facebook and Twitter to learn more.