By Jade Hines

The BRIDGES 2022 forum, presented by Toronto East Quadrant LIP on February 24th and hosted by Manjeet Dhiman (SVP, Services & Strategic Initiatives at ACCESS Employment), spoke to the lessons we must take from the COVID-19 pandemic. As we enter a period where many hope to leave the pandemic behind, its changes to our organizations and methods will persist: the need for efficient communication networks; trust in each other; and persistence in identifying the need for, and enacting large changes, are the new hallmarks of effective social services in the 2020’s. As Dr. Agnes Thomas, Executive Director of Catholic Crosscultural Services (CCS) said during the opening address, “We are not going back to what it was two years ago, we are going forward.”

The pandemic’s effect of splintering teams made information sharing king, and the loss of collaborative spaces meant that social programs not only had to move online, but also develop efficient methods of using technology to facilitate communication. Lee Soda, Executive Director of the Agincourt Community Services Association (ACSA), explained how it was not enough for the ACSA to distribute laptops, webcams, and other technology to its workers, but that effective communication required constant updates and check-ins. “Monthly meetings became weekly meetings…” Daily ‘huddles’ were implemented, and all layers of management constantly updated themselves on the status of their team members and their projects to ensure that no one was being left behind. The quick distribution of tech was only one part of the puzzle, to help team members be effective in an unfamiliar environment, detailed, daily updated knowledge became the keystone of many programs.

Communication’s vital importance was at the heart of every speaker’s presentation. When the pandemic hit Toronto in early 2020, the city immediately recognized the need to engage communities and organizations, and to facilitate communication between them. Vera Dodic, manager of the Toronto Newcomer Office for the City of Toronto, said that “We were very much aware that the city’s role in mobilizing the community sector, in facilitating communication and information exchanges is where we should put our focus.” Toronto is a city of immigrants, 51.2% (according to the City of Toronto) of its residents were born outside of Toronto, and so the ability to connect and engage with the myriad of community groups and social services within it became Toronto’s first step in responding to the crisis. This collaboration also gave many organizations an opportunity to be present and ‘at the table’ during discussions, and many that presented at BRIDGES found that ensuring they had a seat was vital to their success, to both advocate for their community’s needs, and stay in the loop of important information.

This emphasis on knowledge and trust could conflict with some traditional styles of management, where a bottom-up approach superseded top-down methods of managing a team. As Tereza Coutinho, manager of Community Impact at the United Way of Greater Toronto, explained: the pandemic brought “all hands-on deck”, but the isolated nature of each person’s work required managers to trust in their team members to get the job done. Simultaneously, the pandemic required teams to use every person at their disposal and for them to act with a level of autonomy that many organizations had not seen before. However, with the embrace of new communication technology and methods, the organizations present at BRIDGES thrived. New methods of managing also included anonymous ways to give suggestions to management and recognizing each person’s unique needs as their work and home environments merged. “Teams that went remote meant that a new kind of trust had to be established between frontline workers and staff.” Soda explained, stating that there was great success with this model and that if team members were provided with tools to make communication fast and easy, they could rise to the challenges COVID-19 imposed.

An additional challenge for social services, one that many in the for-profit sector likely avoided, was that clients often lacked access to technology. Despite the ability to distribute laptops and software to team members, many community members were left without. This challenge was compounded by the forced isolation many people found themselves in, juxtaposed with the fear of venturing out and meeting people due to the virus. Soda described how the ACSA had to be persistent in their outreach: they created phone trees to help people access services, and even (safely) went door-to-door to check-in on people. The latter of which was difficult (due to fears of contracting the virus), but the ACSA’s persistence paid off, and they were able to reach many community members who otherwise would have been abandoned. Furthermore, identifying the need to provide groceries and supplies to people who suddenly lacked an ability to procure them themselves, became a highly successful program. A program that met a need that wouldn’t have been identified if the ACSA wasn’t persistent in ensuring that the needs of its community members were met. This also makes it clear that our clients and community members deserve a seat at the table, and that the best way to ensure that we serve them to the best of our ability is to listen as they express their needs. If we only rely on telecommunications and internet platforms, we risk allowing gaps in our service to form.

Soda put the key to success succinctly, “Pivot, change, and move.” The pandemic was outside of every person’s experience, and it upended traditional methods of managing, thinking, and communicating. In a field suddenly filled with unknowns, survival meant understanding that information was vital, that persistent and effective communication was necessary to deliver services, and that in-person community engagement cannot be ignored. In 2022 we know how to utilize our resources far better than anyone did in 2019, to attempt to bring-back our pre-pandemic methods would be a mistake. Have faith in your communities and each other and we will rise to meet future challenges with trust, communication, and empathy. As Dr. Agnes Thomas explained, despite everything terrible the pandemic brought, “the values of compassionate justice, and generosity of spirit have proven to endure.”