Federal government departments are rethinking plans to send thousands of public servants back to the office as the new Omicron variant tightens its grip.

The Treasury Board issued new guidance Thursday asking departments and agencies to put plans to return more workers to the office on hold and to review existing levels of staffing in federal workplaces.

The stage was set earlier for the return-to-office plan with the federal worker vaccination mandate and Health Canada’s loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, which allows more employees to work together in offices. The Treasury Board never set a date for a return, leaving it up to the individual departments to decide when to bring employees back. The latest Treasury Board guidance still leaves it up to agency and department heads but asks them to consider more remote work.

It also urges public servants to get booster shots when eligible, wear masks indoors, avoid non-essential international travel and large gatherings, such as conferences and training events.

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said every step will be taken to ensure the health and safety of employees in the workplace and a “vaccinated workforce means that not only are workplaces safer, so are the communities where public servants live and work.”

Departments are planning a shift to a hybrid system, a mix of working in the office and at home. Some had started to slowly bring employees back and the return was expected to pick up speed in January. With a workforce scattered across Canada, the return is also dependent on the guidance of local health authorities. Already, Ontario has halted the return to work for provincial government workers until February. Quebec has recommended workers in the public and private sector resume working from home where possible.

The government is also in the throes of a major study into the long-term future of work in the public service. The immediate challenge, however, is getting some people back into the office and testing the effectiveness of a hybrid workforce.

There’s no blueprint for the return. Departments will muddle through, adapt as they go, much like they did when employees were first sent home to work in March 2020. The eventual return will expose what rules and policies will have to be updated.

“The rule book, the game playbook, hasn’t been written yet. We’re going from one huge experiment, which was total remote work, and now we’re doing experiment number two, which is hybrid work,” said Linda Duxbury, chancellor’s professor (management) at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business.

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The public service was forced to adapt to remote work when the pandemic hit, but after nearly two years, it has become the norm, and officials say surveys show the vast majority of public servants want continued flexibility.

Many feel they proved they were productive working from home. The public service unions are behind them, arguing for more flexibility, including that location of work should be an employee preference or right.

But Duxbury, who with Ryerson University’s Michael Halinski led a major study on hybrid work for the Conference Board of Canada, said the return to work is “uncharted territory.” The lessons learned from nearly two years of working from home during a crisis can’t be extrapolated to a new hybrid workforce. “There is no demonstrated proof of concept at all.”

Management has the legal right to organize work to meet operational requirements, which includes location of work. Duxbury said operational requirements have to be a priority over employee preference.

“This is so complicated that a one-size-fits-all approach is impossible. It will conflict directly with this whole idea of equity and that we need to treat everybody the same, to be fair. But everybody’s not the same. Jobs are not the same. And in this case, the job does matter.”

There are plenty of complaints among management and employees alike – many of whom have spoken to Policy Options on background and aren’t authorized to speak publicly – about the Treasury Board’s hands-off approach. Many want more guidance and consistency to avoid conflict and disappointment.

Duxbury argues the federal public service is too big for one-size-fits-all, with more than 100 departments and agencies, each with different mandates and cultures. Deputy ministers are accountable for managing their departments and are required to figure out how best to deliver programs and services.

Many employees – including prison and border guards, nurses, meat inspectors, spies, scientists and others – haven’t been able to work from home during the pandemic. In addition, some employees want to return to the office.

Adapting to new working lives with rules, policies and collective agreements that were not made for hybrid or remote work will leave managers with a “big balancing act,” as one official described it, to figure out how far they can go. Workers, meanwhile, will have to figure out what they can demand.

Duxbury said research shows much of that productivity during the pandemic was because of working long, unsustainable hours. Objectively measuring productivity will be one big issue to sort out.

“We do not know how to measure the productivity of knowledge workers,” said Duxbury. “We’ve cheated it for decades, which is why management didn’t want work from home because they use (presence) to decide if somebody was productive.”

Among concerns that others raise about letting workers decide where to work is that some would make decisions based on what suits their personal lives, not what’s best for serving Canadians. Workers risk losing contact with colleagues and the relevance that goes with personal interaction. Ministers could lose trust in the public service. A two-tier workforce could emerge with those in the office getting more promotions and attention, compared to those at home.

Unions are braced for a surge of complaints, grievances and demands for accommodation to work at home, as well an increase in absenteeism and mental health claims if departments are inflexible.

“Management better be able to define why you physically need people in the office in very tangible ways, so that people understand and say ‘okay, I get it. I need to be there for that.’ But if you can’t define it, there will be a lot of pushback and disappointment,” said Meredith Thatcher, co-founder and workplace strategist at Agile Work Evolutions.

But Thatcher, who is advising several departments on return-to-work plans, said departments are reviewing all jobs – not the people doing them – to decide what tasks can be done at home or in the office.

She said jobs could be categorized in four ways. If remote, they can be done from anywhere. If a job is deemed hybrid, it could be fully flexible or could require workers to show up on specific days. Those in the office full-time will work like they did before the pandemic, seeking permission to work from home when life requires them there for a repair, delivery or tending to a sick child.

This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship on the Future of the Public Service. Read more of Kathryn’s columns here.

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May est journaliste et la boursière Accenture en journalisme sur l'avenir de la fonction publique. Dans les pages d'Options politiques, elle examine les défis complexes auxquels font face les fonctionnaires canadiens. Elle a couvert la fonction publique fédérale pendant 25 ans pour le Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia et iPolitics. Gagnante d'un prix du Concours canadien de journalisme.

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