TiHS Episode 11: Madison Watson – online service means a shift in how you do your work

In this episode I spoke with Madison Watson – Director, Pre-Arrival Settlement Services, YMCA-YWCA of the National Capital Region. The Y is running a online pre-arrival service for newcomers to Canada. I’m a huge fan of the idea of pre-arrival services for new immigrants to Canada. Getting information into their hands before they arrive should cut down on the time it takes for them to get up to speed and settle into their new communities. Recently Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) funded 24 projects across the country.

Most are in their second year of operation and there is a lot of interesting innovation happening. Many different approaches and experiences. The idea of them is so important, especially considering the digital literacy and use of social media, social networks and messaging apps among newcomers.

What did we talk about?

Madison leads the Ottawa YMCA-YWCA’s Build ON service. It’s unique as it is focused specifically on newcomers looking to work in the skilled trades in Ontario, Canada. The offer one-on-one consultation help, connections with mentors, videos and online resources to help newcomers get ready to work in Ontario before they arrive.

I asked Madison what it’s like to shift from a predominantly in-person service culture to an online-only service. I was interested to learn about not just the front line worker perspective, but also what it’s like to shift into online services from the management perspective.

There is a lot anyone looking to move services online can learn from the YMCA-YWCA of the National Capital Region. Madison provides a refreshingly candid overview of some of the challenges they faced in the shift to online services.

Importantly, she also discusses how the original online service has already changed over time, as they learn more about the nature of online services, as well as what clients are looking for, technology they’re using, and where the middle ground between a service portal and messaging apps is.

If you take a key message away from this conversation, it is to be prepared to adapt. Where you start may not where you end up in terms of online service provision. Being flexible and open to change is important.

I think it’s important for service providers to talk about these fundamental shifts in service provision. They’re new. No one is an expert yet. But there is also a lot of experience and expertise out there. There is so much we can learn together, if we share and discuss.

Madison is part of a group of other pre-arrival service providers who talk regularly, creating an informal Community of Practice. There is much the entire human service sector can learn from them all as other organizations move into the online service space.

I really appreciate Madison taking the time to have this frank and open conversation with me, as she and her team are working to figure out what an online service can be, how to manage online workers and the experience of constant change in technology.

Here are some of the questions we discussed:

  • What led to YMCA-YWCA of the National Capital Region decision to start offering online services?
    What has the experience been?
  • From a practical perspective, how do you manage the online services and daily interactions? How interactive and resource intensive is it?
  • You’ve managed in-person staff and online-only staff. What kind of shift do staff need to make to work online? What about managing them?
  • Have your pre-arrival services resulted in other technology in service innovations in the organization?
  • How have your online services changed and evolved over time?
  • What kind of feedback have you received from clients about offering online services?
  • What challenges have you had providing pre-arrival services?
  • What have some of the successes been?
  • What advice would you give to other human service organizations thinking about moving services or courses online?

Madison shared some very useful and practical resources and guidelines that they have created to help guide their pioneering work online. You may find them useful:

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