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HR leader Assistant Secretary Stacey Nation on the initial challenges and lessons of COVID-19

In December 2019, as soon as the first news headlines about the coronavirus surfaced, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) began monitoring the situation in China.

With over 6,000 staff across 120 locations worldwide, it’s standard procedure to track anything that might impact Australia and its citizens.

“We started watching COVID-19 in December of last year, just to get a sense of what impact it might have on our global operations. The first overseas operations to be impacted were our posts in China,” said DFAT Assistant Secretary of People Performance and Support, Stacey Nation.

But even they were surprised by the speed and spread of the outbreak.

“The protection and safety of Australians is one of our highest priorities. The department worked tirelessly through January and February to support Australians to evacuate from Wuhan, China which at that time was the epicentre of COVID-19.”

Stacey has been leading the DFAT HR response to COVID-19 since it emerged – no easy task, given the size and physical range of its workforce. While the top priority has always been ensuring the health and safety of staff, Stacey said that HR work was also crucial to supporting the business.

“On an ordinary day, an employer wouldn’t send an employee into a city that was in lockdown because it had a proliferation of COVID-19. But, one of our core responsibilities is to provide consular services to Australian citizens in distress overseas. So our staff deployed into a high risk area to meet our business objectives, with our best advice as to what mitigations that should take to ensure our employees were as safe as we could make them.”

“I know that a lot of agencies are concentrating on what additional, reasonable, practicable measure they might need to take to protect workers in terms of health and safety risks during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “In some circumstances, DFAT’s operations demand that we accept those risks.”

But what does that look like on a practical level?

“It’s partly answered by an agile workforce,” answered Stacey, explaining that the sheer scale of the impacts of COVID-19 meant that nothing less than an agile, flexible approach would work.

“In order to be able to understand the rapid developments associated with COVID-19 and to respond to them in both service and policy delivery, we’ve redeployed human resources from across the agency to give us that capacity during this time. That has been facilitated by very rigorous reprioritisation exercises, and through messaging from our leadership, about what our priorities really are. So the human resources team has been given quite a lot of flexibility to deploy resources to assist,” Stacey said.

Part of this involved the creation of a new COVID-19 Coordination Unit within the People Division; a specialised unit to look after any people-related issues arising from COVID-19. This aligned with the Business Continuity Plan, which had been updated to reflect a handful of key priorities – the top of which was ensuring staff welfare.

Apart from being agile, Stacey identified one other crucial aspect to HR’s COVID-19 response so far: “The other vehicle that has allowed us to capture what is happening and be responsive to what is happening, is the development of data solutions.”

With some staff returning to Australia from their overseas deployments, questions were raised not only about staff welfare, but also ongoing business viability. Because DFAT operations are reliant on people to deliver services – including international engagement, consular, and passport services – it is up to HR to make sure there is the right number of people with the right capabilities to continue to meet government objectives.

“Where are people deployed? How has our overseas strength been challenged by the reduction of staff presence in posts? Do posts still have enough resources to do the things they’re required to do?” – these were just some of the questions Stacey had to answer.

The nature of DFAT’s workforce is one of constant movement, both domestically and internationally. That makes it challenging to capture the workforce footprint in detail at a moment in time. When making urgent high-level decisions about workforce movements in a crisis situation, it took lots of manual effort to provide detailed workforce analytics.

The process of recording and analysing workforce data in Excel spreadsheets was also quickly identified as an obstacle, and HR subsequently engaged with IT to develop a solution that enabled data to be used to gain meaningful insights.

“Now we are building databases to try and capture a range of information, and various areas are building dashboards to represent what is happening in ways that present insights and evidence that are digestible to decision makers,” said Stacey.

The necessity of information arising from COVID-19 crisis management has resulted in the creation of new data information management processes and dashboards that will have long-term benefits. It’s something that Stacey is eager for other agencies to consider before it's too late.

“That’s a lesson learned for us,” Stacey acknowledged. “When you’re in a crisis situation, you need to know how many people you have in each location, who they are, how you will divide the workforce up into people who stay where they are, and the people who come home. It would have helped to have an easily accessible, flexible and accurate database.”

“Staff welfare is a pretty complicated puzzle in a COVID-19 pandemic – this data and the dashboards will go a long way to resolving that.”

With 20 years’ experience in the public service, including two overseas postings, Stacey has seen a lot. Starting as a graduate, she has worked as a policy officer and a lawyer, been posted overseas twice (to Canada and Vietnam), and has herself managed a graduate program. Her current role as DFAT Assistant Secretary of People Performance & Support has her overseeing a diverse portfolio comprising code of conduct, anti-bullying and harassment, performance management, diversity and inclusion, workplace health and safety, and rehabilitation issues.

But managing one of her agency’s HR branches during the COVID-19 crisis has been her biggest challenge yet. One of the most difficult aspects to manage, Stacey revealed, was the rapid evolution of the crisis itself.

“Because we’re a 24/7 global operation with a network able to report on developments rapidly, DFAT is highly valued as an information source for Government, and this has contributed immensely to Australia’s whole of government response to COVID-19… The pace at which COVID-19 has spread across the world and the desire to keep on top of everything is really challenging,” she said.

“Luckily the HR professionals in my agency are extremely capable, skilled and dedicated people who have given 100% every day over the past few months to keep staff safe and support the business. I’d like to express my gratitude and thanks for their tireless work.”

But Stacey also wanted to emphasise the importance of self-care for HR professionals during times of crisis.

“Human resource areas often focus outwards into the business and making sure other areas are resourced to do the tasks they need to do. But it’s important not to forget that the business relies on people to support all of that,” Stacey urged.

“What we’ve experienced here, because of the increased amount of work required, is that people are working extended hours and on weekends, so one of the important things is just to make sure you get your own resourcing right.”

For more information about looking after your mental wellbeing, read our article how to support your team in a crisis.

Last reviewed: 
17 April 2020