Short- and long-term supports for agencies during and after COVID-19

“You’re not ‘working from home’; you’re trying to get some work done while confined to your home during a crisis.” 6 steps to staying sane during a pandemic

Acknowledging contributions

These thoughts are not all my own. Of course, the final writing of these thoughts is my responsibility and mine alone. But I wanted to acknowledge that I had some conversations and sought some input for this document which formed the basis for a discussion.

A post-discussion thought

One key thought from me based on this experience. There is a lot at play in the sector and IRCC has a willing ear right now. So if you haven’t been bending the ear of any IRCC contacts about this work and other ideas, now is a good time to do that. They’re looking for ideas and thoughts. They’re finding voices out there. If your voice isn’t there, you’re not going to be heard by them. They like the “new” ideas emerging from some of the technical innovators in the field and beyond. Some of those ideas are great and aligned with our sector’s values. Some of those people feel contempt towards mainstream service providers as inflexible dinosaurs, etc., and IRCC will hear those voices if they’re not balanced with our own. Again, if your voices are not heard, their ideas will take hold within IRCC. So just send them updates. Send them information about what you’re doing, how it’s going, what’s working, what could be better if you had resources. But above all, how resilient you and your staff are and have been able to pivot during this time.

Don’t wait to be asked, send them thoughts. Write blog posts. Make some noise.

They are looking for any information they can get from the sector about how you’re adapting.

The situation

The immigrant and refugee-serving sector is adapting remarkably well to the sudden shift to remote work. However, preliminary results from a sector survey suggest that balance is difficult. Many have families, sharing space and time with them as they attend to home life pressures, while attempting to launch a new way of serving anxious clients using existing and new technologies, and dealing with their own anxieties about the pandemic. They’re coping, but anxious. 

The number of organizations that were prepared for remote work may appear to be surprising but it is a sector that, in some areas, has embraced remote work (pre-arrival services, SWIS/SEPT workers, Settlement Workers in Libraries, etc.). The vast majority of front-line workers who have not worked remotely previously indicate that their leadership has really stepped up and their teams are working well together.  Others indicate that they are learning as they go and would have done more technology evaluation, staff (and client) training, ensured secure access to client files, as well as had plans for better home office setups (technology, ergonomics, space, etc.).

Both workers and leaders are getting used to a new workday flow. While they balance life with families (both in-home, extended, and overseas), all are working to create some structure in their day. There are more team meetings to stay connected to each other. Many miss in-person connections, but are using video chat technology to its full advantage. For some it is not the same.

At the same time, workers feel disconnected from each other and their clients. Front-line practitioners and leaders alike suggest that clients range from feeling confused and vulnerable, anxious about employment and income, finding it difficult to access in-language materials about COVID in some cases, and feeling isolated. For those clients with technology infrastructure, remote service is working. But not always for staff. Some workers do not find technology-mediated service delivery to be adequate or equal in-person. Staff are worried that clients without access to technology might become more vulnerable.

Short term – where IRCC can play a role

Mental health

All agencies have or create access to mental health/EAP programs for staff. The current remote work and remote management is unprecedented and isn’t the future model of online or remote work for the sector. This difference should be acknowledged. According to one manager: “I’m experiencing more meetings with greater frequency than I’ve ever had in my life. It’s good in the sense that teams are actually engaging more. And, we’ve found many staff are getting to know each other better than when they were in the office. With all this comes the need to redefine expectations, outcomes, and performance management. Strategic Human Resource Management is something that community agencies frequently have under-resourced—and something funders have not properly valued.”

Virtual meeting fatigue is setting in, and everyone can’t keep up with all the funding announcements, potentially missing key opportunities. Front-line burnout is real, at any time. The longer this situation lasts the more likely the work-life balance will become further disrupted and mental health among essential service providers will become an issue.

Supporting management and leadership

How do we build management capacity to support these new ways of working, competencies of thinking on your feet, using decision support tools, ensuring consistency of approach from day to day, etc. Within an environment that has been underfunded, where wages are not really competitive with other sectors, where turnover at management levels is a challenge, this is a never ending job. How do we support professional development to ensure leadership has the capacity to model and champion what we expect from our organizations? What could IRCC funding look like to provide for this type of overhead or salaries? Agencies of different sizes and resourcing have varying levels of remote-work knowledge and capabilities. Some need help.

Staff and management get support as they roll out remote services. Technology is a viable tool for direct client service delivery and is being used in that way by the immigrant and refugee-serving sector. There is a lack of knowledge sharing and transfer of promising and successful practices within the sector around digital service delivery. This is a great time to ask agencies to share what’s working, what they’re learning, etc. Front-line practitioners and leadership are upskilling on the go, testing and implementing new technologies and ways of doing work on the fly. 

Don’t miss the opportunity to evaluate and learn

What are modalities, what are best practices, what are risks and mitigation strategies, how do we support agencies on the ground to have the time and space to debrief experiences, identify learnings, transfer them up. Then have the reverse happen, where all research and evidence can be properly integrated back down to service providers. Our staff structures do not reflect the flexibility required to do this in meaningful ways on a consistent (not one off) basis. 

In Wednesday’s Orientation to Canada Advisory Committee Meeting there must have been a dozen different technologies that agencies are rolling out and experimenting with, planning to use, sharing tips on, wondering if it could work for them. Combined with new approaches to I&O, client service, and staff coordination, that conversation alone could have lasted for hours. And meeting participants want to share, learn, and experiment together. They’re finding that they have some space to do that now, what could this look like if it was a permanent space?

This is a grand experiment that requires monitoring, evaluation, and a knowledge mobilization approach ASAP. Together with IRCC a sector-wide capacity-building approach is needed that builds on existing professional development efforts, and which is also open to exploring innovation approaches from other service-providing sectors. As well, a formalized knowledge mobilization effort & practice should be implemented to learn from what is working in the sector and build upon it with a medium- and long-term lens.

Invest intentionally in instruments and infrastructure

In the short term, IRCC needs to recognize and fund all this: regular replacement of computers, costs of software upgrades (i.e.: Microsoft 365 and others), video platforms, survey/project management tools (the free ones don’t meet sector needs), databases, HR, finance software, etc. etc. 

Adopting new technology requires training for staff and that costs money too. From one sector leader: “Over the past few years, we’ve prioritized technology and experimenting with online services. As a result, almost all staff had laptops, we had a number of business zoom accounts, used online project management platforms, we have online HR and finance programs etc. Although we tried many times, IRCC only agreed to pay for a small percentage of the costs (especially hardware) though they are by far our biggest funder. But we had made a strategic discussion to invest in technology and we used funds from non-IRCC sources (often fundraising and internal revenue) to pay for this. I know that many organizations (especially smaller ones) cannot do this.”

Technology needs are real. Everything from more hardware (laptops, phones) to VPNs and considering extra costs for home wifi. Most workers don’t have home offices. Some don’t even have a private space to do their work. If not already, agencies need to be contacted to find out what their hardware and infrastructure needs they have. This conversation is already happening, but in case it’s new information, CISSA-ACSEI Board of Directors has raised the need for IRCC to look at service partners technology tool replacements on a national scale and explore a national approach to replacement costs beyond the limited funding within CA’s. Perhaps, this is the time for a joint national working group between the sector and IRCC on Technology to facilitate and expand discussions and initiatives occurring in the sector.

Agencies address the lack of suitable policies and guidelines for technology use to serve clients (including business continuity, remote work, and privacy/security protocols). Because of the pandemic many are creating and implementing them now. This is a good time to create a roundup of policies, evaluate them against sector and other standards, and provide templates to agencies.

Is any example of what a digital world could look like out there?

Is there a sector we could look at that’s doing this successfully and replicate their success? Not that I know of, but that there are pieces to borrow from:

  • in Social Work (technology ethics, guidelines and protocols), e-health (use of secure video, client portals, apps),
  • education (the move to online education has been pretty quick, in part because many institutions already offer blended learning, including within Canada’s ESL community – I told them to jump up out of the settlement silo and look at what IRCC funds in blended technology, education, and tech support for LINC providers. Why not learn from and replicate what they already fund? It’s a safer bet, and they can look within for knowledge.),
  • I&R community (online portals, webchats, text chats),
  • as well as within distress centres/lines (which use web portals/chats, texting and other tech – look at KidsHelpPhone for inspiration, they recently adopted the U.S. Crisis Text Line model).
  • Look within at the Canadian Digital Service movement, their own Client Experience Branch (made up of techies, journalists, anthropologists, etc.) as well as Estonia, which is the go-to country to look at for e-government.

There are more. There are always more (sure, private sector factors in here too). Tell me about them!

Information, translation, communications

In-language materials are created and managed to ensure newcomer communities have access to up to date, authoritative and accurate information (this has become a key priority in the sharing of COVID-19-related information, including to combat mis- and disinformation). Connecting vulnerable newcomers with accurate and accessible information, particularly when we’re talking about digital tools, is an urgent need that requires coordination and support. There are efforts in the sector, but they lack coordination. 

Information delivery is an essential service, something COVID has certainly made it very clear. Because Public Health agencies, CRA, provincial and municipal govt, etc. do not treat newcomers as specific audiences to be understood and properly served, service providers and community volunteers everywhere are scrambling to create info resources (in all formats, in all languages) that should be created at source. The amount of energy going into duplication and searching and translating is incredible, but such a wasted opportunity.

We know a lot about newcomer information practices. But this is a great time to map how information is flowing from government and authoritative & trusted sources vs how information is received/sought out traditionally from the end-user. Trusted info is now more important than ever, and access to critical information in languages one understands is necessary to facilitate, if not establish, much needed clarity in many lives already disrupted by fears and anxieties.

Provide support and resources for agencies to build communications, outreach, and market expertise to both reach out to increasingly digital clients and communities, and create appropriate and persuasive messaging and communications products to reach them and their networks/families/friends. Communication and information are not PR, they are integral to settlement. This is an opportunity to illustrate why it matters that an organization can, for example, implement strategic communications plans with its clients and partners.

What’s a better way to share what everyone is doing and aware of that and how that could impact each other’s work?

What could a sector Knowledge Mobilization approach look like (I may have gone off the rails here with them, it’s a huge thing for me). I suggested, yes, use, but don’t forget that provinces, provincial umbrella groups, LIPs all have their own jurisdictions and local situations (settlement is, of course, local), but how could what they are doing, learning, reporting on, researching, etc., also be moved up into a national consciousness? I suggested much could be done here and it would be incredibly valuable (just look at the richness of what happens in some LIPs, on their websites, but mostly stays there, unknown to a broader audience that could benefit from it?).

It’s not just about building tools and sites like, but moving the sector culture to sharing without fear or competition, as well as the reality that Knowledge Mobilization takes intentional effort, resources and time.

Part of the problem with how IRCC funds information projects (including in-person Information & Orientation, pre-arrival services, etc.) is that most of those are accessible either in person or behind the password. And, every project creates its own unique content. Which means mass duplication of effort. Everyone has their articles about how to get health, SIN, find a job, find a doctor, etc. A huge amount of the information is duplication. Yes, the localized information is key – OHIP vs MSP, but that’s just mechanics.

A huge amount of information (how to write a resume, what health insurance is, how to rent an apartment, etc.) is the same, until you get to the 20% of it that is local and can be added. So instead of funding all this duplication, what about a centralized public system built with a sharing approach (including technical APIs), which means that the information is open to anyone (including the non-eligible) and any agency to use, embed on a website/app/project and add their own local insight and information. Update the core information, and it gets updated for everyone (imagine if they had that for CERB right now, for example?).

This isn’t out there. It’s what PeaceGeeks has essentially done with their Arrival Advisor app. It pulls content from the Welcome in BC guide and org data from BC 211 then repackages it in an app with a small needs assessment, added some translation. ChalmbersBot in Toronto, a web-based chatbot for street involved people in Toronto that bases its core content on 211 Toronto data, but repackages it in a 24/7 Q&A approach. This is doable.

Can digital expand access?

My short answer (taking into account the real digital divide) is yes. In every survey I’ve done, every agency that has introduced additional digital channels in service delivery, the answer is yes. And now, during the pandemic, the sector survey that I did with NYCH and DIA also shows that access can continue during a forced remote work situation.

The answer is yes.

Privacy, security, confidentiality also factor in, because they need to always factor in.

Employment for newcomers

Based on some recent consultations, employers feel that critical skills (‘must haves’) for employees in a post-COVID world would be:

  • Proficient digital skills (most workplaces will expect remote work from time-to-time or exclusively)
  • Enhanced language and communication skills – email etiquette and phone etiquette will become even more important
  • Demonstrated ability to work with others (in an online capacity and in-person)
  • Proven problem-solving skills (the online environment is providing many the opportunity to find new ways to provide services)

We need to double down on programs and services that build these skills in newcomers. It is vitally important that newcomers be able to compete with their Canadian-born counterparts once companies begin to hire in earnest. The only way to prepare is with lots of ‘booster shots’ of training and exposure. Programs like mentoring, conversation circles, and others have proven themselves. There should be a renewed sense of urgency on sustaining them.

We cannot allow the current situation to result in a setback to initiatives like ‘blind hiring’ and other ways to reduce unconscious bias in hiring. What can we do as a sector to better prepare employers to stay on track? Agencies need more flexibility to do more pilots or experiment with collaborative programs with employers.

Long-term – where funders can play a role

Not only does there need to be a much bigger emphasis on supporting and investing in technology, IRCC needs to support (financially and otherwise) an organization’s ability to experiment, to try new things and to work with others to plan and share experiences, etc.

Invest in technology access, literacy & infrastructure as it evolves, and client use of it changes. Will virtual service provision become part of the sector’s longer-term, permanently increasing agencies’ technology requirements, as well as human resource (technology does not mean fewer resources, at least not in the short-term investment phase. It can, however, bring efficiencies and service effectiveness).

If we’re going to successfully provide online services long term, it will take time for organizations and staff to experiment with different technologies, with developing good curriculums, with promoting the services, to learn about best practices, etc. Many staff also just need time and experimentation to become comfortable working in these different ways. IRCC needs to recognize all this in how they fund staffing, technology, program costs, in how they look at targets, etc.

Engage in conversation with the settlement sector about how funding structures might shift to better encourage, support, and incentivize innovative and collaborative practices and processes, to continue to make effective use of resources, and further build trust between funders and funded agencies.

IRCC should give a broader look to the Settlement sector & realize that the sector does include “non-traditional” players as well (such social enterprises) & not only non-profit settlement/employment agencies. IRCC should allow & encourage collaboration with such players & include them in its plans/activities, where appropriate. 

Pursue asset-based language, programming, and outreach across the sector and beyond.

Encourage all funded agencies to add technology and communications preference related questions to intake or assessment and compile data through iCARE for research and evaluation.

Help agencies be better at using feedback and data they get to make decisions. Embed a research approach in each community, perhaps through Local Immigration Partnerships (LIPs), to create a national base of knowledge IRCC and its funded agencies could tap into to distill and prepare for technology trends in a more planned way than is currently the case. Data collection/data quality and consistency/accurate and timely reporting/data utilization is something that truly needs to be modernized. We need agency, regional and national level dashboards that are easy to use and provide a basis for evidence informed planning and evaluation at the agency and regional levels. It is critical and has to be part of the story we are telling.

Questions about whether some newcomers are falling through the cracks. Recent examples: settlement folks receiving an increasing number of questions involving temporary residents, like international students, TFWs, who have relatively fewer services available to them.

Will IRCC revise 2020-2025 funding as immigrant arrivals slow and government investments are made elsewhere (e.g. income supports)?

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