Cultivating resilience through culture and a focus on well-being
In conversation with Andrew Pateman of Canadian Blood Services
Canadian Blood Services (CBS), a non-profit organization that provides life-saving products and services for transfusion and transplantation, learned a lot during the pandemic about its people and what they needed to feel safe at work. Andrew Pateman, vice president of people, culture, and performance, shares his thoughts about how its resilience and workplace culture evolved.
When an organization is two-thirds essential workers and one-third remote, its leaders need to look at resilience through a multifaceted lens. The pandemic created a series of challenges that Andrew Pateman, vice president of people, culture, and performance at Canadian Blood Services, worked with colleagues to meet head-on. Aaron Groulx, Deloitte Canada’s national human resources transformation leader, spoke with Pateman about the importance of mental health and wellness in reinforcing workforce resilience during Deloitte’s 360 by Deloitte conference in April 2021. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Aaron Groulx: Tell us a little bit about your background—who you are and what your role is.
Andrew Pateman: I’m the vice president of people, culture, and performance at Canadian Blood Services. I’ve been in that role for just over 10 years, and it is a multifaceted role—I'm responsible for the organization’s strategy and planning function, and lead the organization’s Enterprise Program and Project Management Office. I also oversee a whole slate of people-related responsibilities, such as labour relations, employee wellness, leadership development, and talent management. Most of the transactional functions that might be found in a typical HR organization are found in our centralized shared services function. But most of what we would characterize as strategic functions are housed in my group.
Aaron Groulx: The last 12 months have tested our resilience on so many fronts—personal, professional. How has that impacted your organization’s view on resilience, and what disruption has it caused in how you operate?
Well, it’s been significant. We have a workforce of about 3,600 people working in nine provinces across Canada, where we serve those populations.
Andrew: Our supply chain requires two-thirds of our employees to come into a physical workplace – whether a collection centre, manufacturing site, testing lab or as part of our national distribution network, to deliver a product that ultimately serves Canadian patients. And so we have a workforce which we would characterize as essential. We have to provide them with an environment that is safe and consistent with public health guidelines, but also one where they feel that they’re part of an organization that deeply cares about their safety.
At the same time, one-third of our employees haven’t been back to an office and continue to work remotely. So we’ve also had to address some of the unique issues around how one maintains a level of engagement, resilience, connection to purpose and mission while people are working from home. That’s really what we’ve confronted—these two different populations with somewhat overlapping needs, but also with needs that are specific and unique to their work environment.
Aaron: Take us through wave one, wave two, and into wave three. How have you had to think about that?
Andrew: When we first sent everybody home in the middle of March in 2020, we were not predicting we would need to summon the degree of resilience that we’ve had to summon. When we were planning for how to navigate the pandemic, the unspoken assumption was, “Well, it’s March. There’ll be some improvements in the summer of 2020, and maybe in August or September we’ll start bringing people back to the office.”
But after we launched our return-to-the-office initiative, the second wave came and now we’re into this third wave. That has just tested the limits of our creativity about what we can do in real time and how we can continue to be present for employees, give them the degree of support they need, to make sure they have access to that support.
Finding the right mix
Aaron: How has it impacted your personal view on what you need to do for the culture at Canadian Blood Services? What’s really different?
Andrew: You know, there are just certain things about the way people are treating one another and interacting with one another that I don’t think we can change. I think they’re permanent. So, certain things like the degree to which we as leaders communicate with our employees, whether it be a town hall or other forums, has accelerated tenfold. And all of the vice presidents, myself included, have almost weekly check-ins with our entire divisions. Our CEO has frequent employee town halls. There are biweekly calls with our top leadership. The tempo and pace of communications, the degree of vulnerability and empathy—we’ve all had to share as leaders our own challenges with isolation issues with respect to our own families and caregiving responsibilities. It’s been uncomfortable for some to reveal parts of themselves, but we always want leaders to do that.
The other thing that occurred right in the middle of all of this for many of us was really the re-energization, if that’s a word, around diversity, equity, and inclusion. We significantly relaunched and redoubled our efforts there as well. And that’s really changed the conversation inside the organization. That will all have an impact on what the culture of the organization looks like; the culture will never be the same.
Aaron: I would certainly agree with you. We’ve seen, as weird as it sounds, the humanization, almost, of work through crisis. And my hope is it doesn’t go back to what it was. Can you share what were the early challenges for you and your organization in prioritizing mental health?
Andrew: We were lucky. Given the nature of our business, we have a very robust business continuity structure. And so for us, the lead issue wasn’t so much business resilience as it was mental well-being and personal resilience and how we addressed pressure points to mitigate stressors for employees. When we were doing pulse surveys early on in the pandemic, you could see almost immediate differences once the provision of masks came into place, once we had plexiglass enclosures, once we had the reconfiguration of the space in a way that made employees feel protected and safe. There was not only the real physical, actual protection, but there was the other piece—that “my employer cares about me, they’re actually taking my safety into consideration.” And once we were able to do those things, then the degree of resilience of our employees was maintained.
Lessons in resilient leadership
Aaron: And what do you think the most important change or takeaway to building more resilience in a workforce would be?
Andrew: It’s more of a recipe than it is one thing, Aaron. So you need to have good intentions. You need to have leader awareness. That needs to be balanced by tangible, real things that employees can use in the form of access to whatever support they need. I have to admit one of my worries is not enough employees who need the help that’s available are actually availing themselves of it. Maybe they’re either unaware or there’s a stigma to accessing it. These things are very difficult to know, and I worry that the accessibility issue is one of the takeaways from this that, as organizational leaders, we’ll all need to grapple with.
We have what are called leadership commitments at Canadian Blood Services, and the tagline is Lead with head and heart. I know that sounds like a cliché, but really it’s about meeting with the head, which is driving the performance, governing and building great teams, and delivering solid results, and the heart is really servant leadership, empathy, authenticity, and inclusion.
Aaron: Thank you for sharing your story and insights, Andrew.
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