Secondments and Acting Assignments: The Benefits and Challenges of Temporary Placements

by Sky Jarvis

Sky Jarvis is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.

As a youth knowledge gatherer with CPCIL, I have had the pleasure of getting to interview several park Leaders from across Canada. One of the common questions I would ask these leaders is what they enjoy most about working in their positions within in a federal, provincial, or territorial park agency and what sort of advice they would give to younger people. All five of them talked about how much they like the diversity in tasks throughout their careers. I heard how it was always important to let your boss know about the areas you would like to develop and what interested you so that when opportunities became available, they would keep you in mind. Secondly, most of the park leaders said that the advice they would most want to share was an encouraging message to youth and young professionals to not be afraid of trying new things. To not be afraid of failure or feeling like you are “falling behind” when you take new and unexpected opportunities; these side experiences can be amazing opportunities for personal and professional growth. 

Secondment (noun): the detachment of a person from their regular organization for a temporary assignment elsewhere. 

Acting Assignment (noun): a situation where an employee is required to temporarily perform the duties of a higher classification level for a specified period of time. 

Value of Collaboration for Individuals, Teams, and Agencies

Temporary positions such as acting assignments and secondments, allow individuals to gain new experiences. By leaving a familiar role to join a new team, participants are exposed to a whole new set of experiences, tasks, and responsibilities, allowing for the development of new skills. These opportunities can stimulate personal growth and facilitate professional development at the individual level. Professional growth can be observed through enhanced confidence, empowerment, and an improved sense of capability, understanding, and effectiveness. These benefits not only stay with the individual(s) who participate in these opportunities but also have the ability to influence the team and agency through the permeation of new skills and perspectives once they return to their substantive role.  

“It’s very much top of mind for me to think about how people can take these opportunities and then bring back what they’ve gained to their actual jobs, to influence things and create spaces to collaborate” – Jared, 2022 

Temporary positions can build capacity by making space for knowledge acquisition and translation amongst team members and departments through two-way learning experiences. Secondments can be applied to a team setting  to develop knowledge and skills through the inclusion of an expert from a separate agency (Gerrish and Piercy 2014). The Chartered Institute of Professional Development (2021) highlights the role of secondments as a tool for talent development in organizations with flatter management structures by expanding the capabilities, skills, and knowledge of team members within an organization. 

“From a management perspective, it’s good for your team because it encourages them to try new things and explore their strengths.” – Jared, 2022 

Temporary positions can also be employed to assist with the creation of bridging relationships between agencies and organizations that may otherwise be disconnected. This approach is common to several sectors, such as healthcare (Hamilton and Wilkie 2001; Bullock et al. 2013) and education (Loads and Campbell 2015). O’Donoughue Jenkins and Anstey (2017) emphasize the importance of building these inter-agency relationships in meaningful ways that enable them to last into the future. They recommend regular communication and collaboration through annual secondments as one such tool for driving changes in the long run. By developing a reciprocal form of collaboration, such as secondments, both organizations will benefit at the individual and team levels (Hamilton and Wilkie 2001; Bullock et al. 2013; Gerrish and Piercy 2014). 

“For example, I have a colleague who works for Parks Canada, they took a year and a half secondment with Health Canada. These organizations are not related by any means, but she left for a year and a half to gain this new experience. During that time, her role in Parks Canada still exists, and eventually, she’ll come back and can share her experiences with a different organization.” – Jared, 2022 

PROS of temp positions 

In a paper written by Dryden and Rice (2008) they highlight a range of advantages that secondees are perceived to receive from participating in temporary positions with a host organization. These advantages ranged from improved sense of motivation and education to increased job security and career development, to experiential therapy associated with getting to “try new things” and “taking a break from the day-to-day tasks”. Furthermore, personal participation in temporary placements can help agencies with succession planning by enabling members to gain the skills and knowledge that will benefit their career position in the long run even when promotional opportunities in the short run may be limited. 

CONS of temp positions 

Interviews are a great way of getting and documenting individual perspectives on a temporary position including challenges that they faced. Debriefing interviews create an opportunity for managers to understand how to better support their staff on this pathway to personal and professional development by better understanding the personal experiences of their team members. Some interviewed secondees have identified the need to balance two workloads, most commonly associated with part-time positions, as a major issue that leads to increased stress and burnout (Gerrish and Piercy 2014; O’Donoughue Jenkins and Anstey 2017). Other potential barriers to the successful implementation of secondments as an effective learning tool can include a lack of planning, limited consensus on defining desirable outcomes amongst stakeholders, and limited metrics for evaluating whether the placement was actually successful in achieving its intended outcomes (O’Donoughue Jenkins and Anstey 2017).  Based on the literature review I’ve done it seems like the barriers that have been identified could be mitigated through increased planning before the process, in order to provide structure and points of contact for people who may be participating in a temporary placement like an acting assignment or secondment.  

“It’s [like] moving water; sometimes it’s moving laterally and sometimes it moves vertically.” – Jared, 2022 

Recommendations to Support Temporary Staff 

1. Managerial involvement and support throughout temporary placements are beneficial. Management can support staff and help negotiate workload adjustments while the new worker(s) adjust to their new role (Gerrish and Piercy 2014). Training should be made available to managers so that they can identify and better support staff who may be showing signs of stress and/or burnout.  

2. Mentorships from experienced project leads and/or persons who previously held this position within the host organization or unit can assist with the acceptance and integration of temporary workers into existing teams (Gerrish and Piercy 2014). Persons in the host organization who are strong leaders or those who have held the position or a similar position should be identified prior to the temporary position starting in order to provide support and advice to the new worker. Diversity and inclusion training could be offered to department staff prior to the arrival of the temporary worker to build empathy around the feelings and stresses of starting a new role in a new job with a new team.  

3. Clear pre-defined metrics informed by participants, involved agencies, and stakeholders can be used to evaluate the success of temporary placements in achieving the intended results. This process of monitoring and evaluation allows for organizational reflection on the values, benefits, and challenges of such opportunities in a way that they can be adapted and improved using collected data and suggestions. This could greatly improve the uptake of secondments and acting assignments in agencies and businesses that may be skeptical of the ability of these approaches to create tangible and verifiable benefits.  

4. A well-planned de-briefing session, including an interview that involves management, team members, and individual participants, may be helpful in gaining insights, assisting with knowledge transfer, and providing closure to the participant(s) after the experience ends. This could help maximize any potential benefits associated with these types of opportunities.  

Evaluating Success

Gerrish and Piercy (2014) held focus groups and interviews with 19 individuals involved in secondment opportunities which consisted of secondees and managers from the participating agencies. This resulted in the identification of five criteria that were proposed for the evaluation of success at the individual, team, and organization levels (Table 1). Originally there were six metrics proposed, based on a secondment consisting of clinical and academic participants. Their impacts have been shortened and coupled under the “enhanced service delivery” instead of “healthcare service delivery” and “education service delivery” so that it could be more easily adapted and applied to a parks and protected areas agency context. Secondments taking place across agencies will likely reflect the aforementioned swap of persons from drastically different government agencies or departments and are intended to generate benefits and improvements for all individuals, teams, and agencies involved. 

Table 1- Six metrics for evaluating the success of a temporary position from Gerrish and Piercy (2014), described and critically assessed to determine potential ways in which these outcomes can be applied to similar positions within the context of a parks or protected areas agency in Canada.  

In most of the literature assessed it has been common to use interviews as a form of individual and organization reflection (Dryden and Rice 2008; Gerrish and Piercy 2014; O’Donoughue Jenkins and Anstey 2017). Such opportunities open up space for discussions and cording of personal experiences, highlighting benefits, skills, and insights gained from the experience and a chance to learn more about the challenges faced from both sides- to better support the individuals who participate in temporary placements. If not already doing so it would be beneficial to have persons who participated in a temporary position undergo a short interview consisting of a mix of open- and close-ended questions in order to learn more about the challenges and benefits of these experiences and what has been gained. 

Furthermore, interviews are beneficial in collecting qualitative data on whether the placement was successful in achieving its intended outcomes, and if it wasn’t how the participant(s) and their team(s) could be supported in achieving these goals and translating their newly-gained knowledge back into their original roles. It would be interesting and potentially beneficial to see agency-to-agency relationships being formed between park agencies, indigenous agencies, and academic institutions in a way that is respectful. This could help with relationship- and capacity-building, but also allow for the dissemination of knowledge between agencies that have seemingly limited avenues for communication and collaboration. 

I encourage anyone who has read this post and wondered about how they could do a secondment or what that may be like- to try this experience and let it be known that you would be open to trying something new and sharing your experiences perspectives with a new team. I think you will find it to be a rewarding experience! 

If you have participated in a secondment or temporary assignment, we invite you to share your advice in the comments below. 

References: 

Bullock, A., Z.S. Morris, and C. Atwell. 2013. Exchanging knowledge through healthcare manager placements in research teams. The Service Industries Journal 33 (13-14): 1363-1380. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02642069.2013.815739?casa_token=qlXyT2dOz2YAAAAA:nVk_pwnKHT_I58mgETZWPEEcp4iNzzHHS3cwC22ylPKCsNH5NisH13cwbS88tDEMmxV6IC9z7BO5ivA 

Chartered Institute of Professional Development. 2021. Talent Management Factsheet. https://www.cipd.co.uk/Export/ToPdf?path=%252fknowledge%252fstrategy%252fresourcing%252ftalent-factsheet 

Dryden, H., and A.M. Rice. 2008. Using guidelines to support secondment: A personal experience. Journal of Nursing Management 16 (1): 65-71. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2934.2007.00794.x?casa_token=95HUh92SQskAAAAA:IEeZVBiBPNU-drYJTpQK5Qgh1r97FYFsnAwWY3Hjz55G8-i4Z0kZcHsEVw8A6r9E3vDrtiM-1juEgzTp 

Gerrish, K., and H. Piercy. 2014. Capacity development for knowledge translation: evaluation of an experiential approach through secondment opportunities. Worldviews on Evidence‐Based Nursing 11 (3): 209-216. https://sigmapubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/wvn.12038?casa_token=fnUWDfBwbMsAAAAA:LH4AczEOKTaMy4FfQF_PTo4Si27AcEhwH2VvRvpQg91iQUdRSaisDxTL3ThZrc2mtfMCPsZy8gfPU6wZ 

Hamilton, J., and C. Wilkie. 2001. An appraisal of the use of secondment within a large teaching hospital. Journal of Nursing Management 9 (6): 315-320. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.0966-0429.2001.00257.x?casa_token=P2vzXBYNS5sAAAAA:dxRNeuElUHzjBJKEuIhM0AFBT9QcRhuqsa5QEQUqqwz7R3i8wviO1_4zIx8nblj9ItvLN_RudIgHNdbG 

Loads, D., and F. Campbell. 2015. Fresh thinking about academic development: Authentic, transformative, disruptive? International Journal for Academic Development 20 (4): 355-369. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1360144X.2015.1083866?casa_token=PwYpGVzPjUEAAAAA%3AJf_2ZeOGu2Ohsh5yWIGSIbbKb8AsUTZ7Jis47P_YUx045i3KeYLg5npW3rs_A4XZ2_vT3jDQdhY_UMQ&journalCode=rija20  

O’Donoughue Jenkins, L., and K. Anstey. 2017. The use of secondments as a tool to increase knowledge translation. https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/250482/1/01_O%2527Donoughue%2BJenkins_The_use_of_secondments_as_a_2017.pdf