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The trust factor in transportation

Jennifer Gray, chief financial officer of Metrolinx, on why communication is key to building resilience and trust.

Metrolinx, a transport agency that relies on people leaving the house, has had to adapt more than most during the pandemic. It’s now getting ready for a post-pandemic world, where safety, trust, and technology will take centre stage.

Jennifer Gray, like most Canadians, figured the COVID-19 crisis would be a two-week affair. Little did she know that 15 months later, most of her staff would still be working from home. When the organization’s back-office and frontline staff return, they’ll find a more resilient, communicative, and employee-focused operation awaiting their arrival. Gray, who celebrated her eighth anniversary with the agency this past April, spoke with us recently about how Metrolinx has adapted to the pandemic, its desire to transform digitally, and how it’s more focused on employee engagement than ever before.

Deloitte: Take me back to the early days of the pandemic. What was it like for you at Metrolinx?

Jennifer Gray: You have to go back to 2018. We had a big drive around business-continuity planning and we had developed strong strategic objectives as an organization. Then flash to March 2020 and you’re in a place with stay-at-home orders. Ridership plummeted—we hit a low in the first week of April. None of our business-continuity plans that we had developed tested a global pandemic of this scale where most of our office staff would be working from home.

You also have half of an organization that’s focused on delivering frontline services and half that performs a corporate function or is responsible for building capital projects. With finance, we had to make sure that we could pay our people and pay our bills. We also needed to make sure we had emergency procurement in place to buy the things we urgently needed. We had tested several emergency scenarios, but none where we were working to make sure we could complete payroll up on laptops at home in an ‘all at home’ situation. We had daily senior-management team calls, we proactively set up our incident command centre in January 2020, and we really made sure to prioritize the safety of the public and the safety of people. I held daily meetings with my team to make sure we could deliver on our critical services. Life changed dramatically but we are proud that we were ahead of our peers on decisions to provide masks to our front-line staff.

Deloitte: So how does your team then react quickly to the things you’ve just talked about?

Jennifer Gray: You really have to go back to the plans that you made around how you deal with disruption and say, “OK, so what are the critical things for me to focus on? How do I make sure I’m able to deliver services in a safe way, from a public-facing perspective?” Then my leadership team was focused on what are the urgent things we must do to allow people to work from home for several weeks so that we can still carry out our key functions. And it’s figuring out, how do I continuously learn from one cycle to another and how do we ensure these cycles are nimble with supportive decision-making processes? A business cycle is seven to nine years; what we’re living in right now is much shorter and requires tighter processes to respond effectively to external pressures.

What makes organizational resiliency so important is that in the last year we have gone through many phases, from not knowing a lot about what’s going on with the external pandemic environment and leveraging existing plans to respond to immediate needs, to pivoting to medium term strategies.

Deloitte: What does the word resilience mean to you?

Jennifer Gray: To me, it’s your ability to thrive and recover from disruption. To be a resilient organization, to me there are many different pieces: your people, your processes, and how you get to the other side of disruption. One of the things that we’ve done a really good job of is trying to use the pandemic as an opportunity to say: “What do we want to be on the other side of this and how do we demonstrate to the public and to our shareholders that we’re a strong organization?” For example, we introduced Business Improvement Plans early last fiscal year to manage our costs down during the pandemic while maintaining a lifeline level of service for essential workers. We continue to proactively identify opportunities for innovation, efficiency, and cost savings through this program.

What do we want to be on the other side of this and how do we demonstrate to the public and to our shareholders that we’re a strong organization?

Deloitte: Would you say your organization was resilient before the pandemic?

Jennifer Gray: I think we were, but the pace had to change, as the pace of disruption changed. There’s an element to resilience where you have a central sense of purpose and then you have a sense of the bigger strategic objectives of the organization. Employee engagement is also at the heart of organizational resilience, and so we’ve put a strong focus on that over the last year. It helps when your staff is committed to meeting your organization’s purpose and goals.

Deloitte: One key aspect related to building resilience that’s been important over the last year is the concept of stakeholder trust. Has the pandemic changed your leadership view on this and how have you approached this across the Four Human Dimensions of Trust (Physical, Emotional, Digital, Financial)?

Jennifer Gray: Trust is so important, especially when thinking of both our frontline and back-office staff, which are very different. We have a return-to-work task force that I’m responsible for, and we’re looking at the things that we need to do to help our people feel safe to come back to the office. It’s important in how we communicate that to our staff. So it’s the frequency of communication to help build that trust, for our staff to know that we’re thinking about their health, their mental health, and how they’re feeling about their jobs. We have frequent town halls, and in a pre-COVID world, they’d be half a day. What has been effective in the pandemic is shorter, much more frequent touch points with staff. And that’s a really good way in which we look to build trust.

With our front-facing office staff, we’re also thinking about what we need to do as an organization to keep them safe. We’re proactive at looking at PPE supplies and making sure we’re connected with the province to get advice, and then we’re giving our staff that advice. It’s the same thing with them: frequent communication to build trust.

Deloitte: When it comes to building programs for resilience, is the board of directors involved?

Jennifer Gray: Within the leadership team, there’s a small group of us that have been tasked with really leading the charge on our organizational resilience plans. So that’s myself, it’s the head of human resources, it’s the head of our safety department, and the head of our planning department with regular reports into our Senior Management Team.

The board is very interested in resilience, especially what we’re doing for our staff. They’re interested in the resiliency of our ridership. They’re interested in the resiliency of our people, and the resiliency of our organization. They’re looking to understand what our plans are and they’re holding us to account so that we’re actually proactively thinking about all of these things.

The board is very interested in resilience, especially what we’re doing for our staff. They’re interested in the resiliency of our ridership. They’re interested in the resiliency of our people, and the resiliency of our organization.

Deloitte: What about measuring resilience? Is there a way to see if what you’re doing is effective?

Jennifer Gray: We do track some financial KPIs [key performance indicators] that I think you could use to look at financial resiliency, like financial recovery and cost recovery. In terms of organizational resilience, in particular the resilience of our workforce, one of the KPIs we just began tracking in 2020 as part of our annual employee engagement survey, measures how confident our staff feel in their ability to cope with uncertainty. We are looking to benchmark ourselves over time.

Deloitte: From a technology and innovation perspective, what is Metrolinx looking to adopt and invest in to build long-term resilience?

Jennifer Gray: We were on the cusp of launching a digital transformation before the pandemic, and we’re now looking at how to speed it up. A big focus for us is how we can communicate with our customers. We have a lot of legacy systems but are marching toward better adoption of cloud. There are a lot of technologies that we can use around how we deliver services to our customers and how we communicate with them, where we’re really looking to enhance our digital presence.

We also did a pilot for open payment this past March where people can tap a credit card to pay for a fare on the UP Express [the connector train between Pearson International Airport and downtown Toronto]. We wanted to test this new technology in a time when ridership isn’t at its highest so we can get them out and get people’s buy-in, and then as customers are starting to come back, we’re ready for a broader rollout.

Deloitte: Thinking more broadly about disruption and events that happened in 2020, racial and social inequality was at the forefront of news headlines around the world and continue to be. How has that changed Metrolinx’s view of what’s required to be a resilient organization?

Jennifer Gray: We had to decide as we were going through those events how we would respond. We’ve had really good, authentic conversations with our staff and our leadership around diversity and inclusion. We’ve had gender-based targets for quite a while-women in senior management target [for example]-and now we’re looking at how to go beyond that.

Right now, we have a cultural census that is out with staff to respond to, where we’re looking to collect information about diversity and inclusion. It’s about knowing our people and having better information about what makes up the population in Metrolinx. And based on that, we’ll be working on a refreshed Diversity & Inclusion plan. Our board is looking forward to us taking more steps.

Deloitte: How has this experience with COVID-19 prepared you for the next thing—hopefully there won’t be another pandemic, but there will eventually be another crisis.

Jennifer Gray: It’s taught us that if you can get through this, you can get through anything. And that’s resiliency. You may not have a plan that is going to address the problem that’s in front you, but you have enough of a plan to figure out what it is you’re supposed to do next.

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