Director-General  QU Dongyu

2020 in review: Focus on staff well-being drives FAO forward

A challenging year - with triumphs!

©FAO/Alessia Pierdomenico


Italian Red Cross volunteers conducting mandatory temperature screenings upon arrival at FAO headquarters. ©FAO/Pier Paolo Cito / FAO.

29 December 2020, Rome – Since assuming office in August 2019, the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, QU Dongyu, has emphasized his core belief that staff are the most important asset of the Organization, referring to them as a “FAO family”.

“As you know, I started my first days as FAO DG by walking to every office in the FAO building, talking with colleagues and shaking the hand of each employee,” Qu recalled during the last session of the FAO governing Council in 2020.

“One of my key priorities continues to be making FAO more efficient, dynamic and inclusive. For this we need to empower our employees and aim at creating a happier and more positive workplace,” he added.

In fact, Qu has continuously taken measures to improve morale and satisfaction of such a big family - made up of more than 14 000 employees in over 180 countries and territories around the world - as well as to promote and protect the well-being of staff, particularly in the face of the severe test posed by COVID-19.

Staff and COVID-19

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Director-General's goal was crystal clear: ensure staff health and safety, and work continuity. “Staff health and safety are my Number One priority,” he said on many occasions. 

As COVID-19 spread rapidly around the world – slowing down and restricting many socio-economic activities – measures were developed and put in place immediately at FAO, all in accordance with guidelines and protocols set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the host country authorities.

As early as late January, the Director-General convened a Crisis Management Team which met daily to assess the situation and develop precautionary measures.

FAO employees were encouraged to maintain physical distance in the office, lifts, cafeterias, and other common areas. Guidance was given to FAO offices around the world to review all travel plans and limit travel to the most essential and safest areas.

At the beginning of February, further guidelines were established to enable employees to telework from home for a 14-day period upon returning from regions of high risk (as defined by the WHO and Italian authorities). In addition, FAO conducted daily temperature screenings - with the support of the Italian Red Cross - of all employees and visitors to headquarters at the beginning of March.

In early March also, Italy confirmed that cases of COVID-19 had risen sharply, and the Crisis Management Team went into overdrive. FAO swiftly postponed or cancelled large gatherings scheduled for the months ahead.

Following closure of all schools in Italy, employees who were parents were able to choose to work from home. The option was also made available to expectant mothers.

All measures were developed with constant engagement with staff representatives. In FAO's Regional Offices - again in accordance with WHO guidelines and national prevention and control measures - similar precautions were put in place.

“FAO plans have been driven by the principles of caution, adaptability and flexibility, supported by close monitoring and observation of the measures in place at each stage to enable early adjustment or correction, as required,” Qu said.

As the pandemic spread, almost all of FAO’s global workforce worked from home. "The virus has stopped some of us going to our workplace, but it hasn't stopped our work," Qu said.

In November rapid antigen swab testing for COVID-19 was available to employees on FAO headquarters premises in a "drive-through" modality. The testing service was extended in early December to accommodate colleagues at other UN agencies based in Italy, UN staff's immediate families, plus delegates of member countries.

At the end of a challenging year, it's fair to say that FAO employees are today doing well, thanks to the early and decisive actions taken in response to the pandemic. As of late-December, FAO's global workforce COVID-19 infection rate remains at very low level and more than 90 percent of those previously infected have fully recovered.




Left: FAO Director-General holds the Second Virtual Town Hall meeting: Dialogue with employees in Decentralized Offices. ©FAO;
Right: The FAO Women's Committee First Year Anniversary Celebration. ©FAO.


A sense of “togetherness”

2020 will be also marked as the year when FAO staff around the world got closer together, despite COVID-19 restrictions and thanks to the digital world. 

The sense of "togetherness" was tangible and remarked upon when FAO Representatives in 130 country offices joined other senior colleagues in the regional and subregional offices and at headquarters, in April, in an online meeting. It was a historic first for the FAO representatives to be in one meeting.

Two major virtual Town Hall meetings between staff and the Director-General also took place. The first, in June, was with 2 200 Rome-based employees, when Italy was still the epicentre of the pandemic. The second was for all colleagues around the world. Over 4 300 people joined the event from across different time zones. “With that, I set a new tone at FAO: town hall meetings, open exchanges and frank dialogue,” Qu told the FAO Council.

During these meetings, the Director-General reiterated his hearty appreciation for colleagues, highlighting how everyone was “strengthening each other, inspiring each other, and standing together.” The Director-General told colleagues, “We are in this together, and we will get through this together, in brotherhood, sisterhood, in solidarity, as one big family!”

Employee Satisfaction

In July, at the opening of the 164th session of FAO’s governing Council, the Director-General said, "My door is always open... I am from the people, by the people and for the people."

Under his guidance, FAO launched an Employee Satisfaction Survey at the end of 2019. The results were shared with colleagues in June 2020. In response to the survey results, Qu designated one of the three Deputy Directors-General as “champion for change,” leading an organization-wide exercise to come up with concrete action plans.   

Consultations have been taking place in FAO offices worldwide, with brainstorming and listening sessions involving colleagues at all levels, to propose actions to senior management to address some of the workplace concerns highlighted in the survey.

“Our ability to act, in our shared best interest and for greater collective impact, has never been more important,”  the Director-General said.

Under Qu’s leadership, FAO has also strengthened measures to combat all forms of harassment, sexual exploitation, discrimination, and abuse of authority. The Director-General has established an internal Task Force on Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PSH) and Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA), which is chaired by a Deputy Director-General, assisted by the Director of Human Resources, the Ethics Officer, the Ombudsman and the Inspector General.

Fresh Initiatives

Upon taking up his office, the new Director-General created various mechanisms to strengthen a sense of shared purpose. He established a Youth Committee and a Women’s Committee.

The volunteer-based Committees, made up of FAO colleagues from offices around the world, came into their own this year, playing a critical role in connecting and motivating FAO colleagues during lockdown.   

The Youth Committee devised programmes and initiatives such as Innovation Wednesday to encourage others at FAO to exchange and discuss new ideas. The Director-General himself participated several times in the Women’s Committee Virtual Teas, which brought together female colleagues from diverse backgrounds and experience, placing the empowerment of women at the centre of FAO. 

These two Committees proved to be instrumental in bringing employees closer together during lockdown. “The role both committees have played in the past months in strengthening solidarity and team spirit among the employees is exemplary,”  Qu said.

In addition, in June, the Director-General also brought together over 400 young employees to learn from the experience of five FAO retirees in a virtual event designed to promote inter-generational knowledge and inspiration exchange. 




Left: The FAO Youth Committee First Year Anniversary celebration. ©FAO;
Right: The FAO Employee Recognition Awards 2020. ©FAO.


Recognition of Employees

On 17 December, FAO staged its second annual Employee Recognition Awards ceremony - this time in virtual form.

An initiative of the Director-General, 200 employees -100 young, and 100 "young at heart" and seasoned – were selected through an FAO-wide poll, recognized for their achievements in the areas of innovation, knowledge sharing, operational effectiveness and efficiency, teamwork and collaboration, and for diversity and inclusiveness. Ten FAO teams, many cross-cutting, were also recognized for outstanding work in 2020.

To show his own personal congratulations to the awardees, the Director-General presented them with his own handwritten Chinese calligraphy.

“Our employees are our greatest asset and new gold mine. The young are the future and the more experienced colleagues provide context and guidance”, Qu said, highlighting that “together we can accomplish the thinkable and the unthinkable!”