OTTAWA – Treasury Board is expected to issue a mandate to require all federal public servants to go back to the office for a set number of days every week.

Several senior bureaucrats in different departments who aren’t authorized to speak publicly expect Treasury Board to introduce a new order that would set the number of days public servants have to work at the office – widely speculated to be two or three days – and spell out conditions for exemptions. Details are still being finalized, but senior officials said earlier this week they were alerted the order could come as soon as this week. That now appears to have been pushed back.

UPDATE: Ottawa orders public servants back to office

The much-anticipated announcement of a new blanket policy has been rumoured for days, sparking speculation, fury, frustration and avowals of resistance on social media among public servants who want to continue working from home. Some question the timing of introducing a mandate as Canadians are facing a triple epidemic of influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus.

Treasury Board Minister Mona Fortier did not respond to questions. Many public servants are braced for a return-to-work regime similar to that at PCO and Treasury Board, where employees are now expected to be in the office at least two days a week. Full-time off-site or remote work are allowed only in exceptional circumstances.

It’s unclear when the new mandate will come into force, but employees are expected to be given enough time to rearrange their lives to accommodate their new in-office work schedules and personal issues such as child care.

“It’s very concerning that unions haven’t been consulted on any plans for a blanket return to the office for federal public service workers. Bargaining agents need to be part of these discussions to ensure the health and safety of workers is at the heart of the decision,” said Chris Aylward, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC).

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Until now, Treasury Board has taken a hands-off approach and left it up to departments to decide how to make the shift to a hybrid workforce and bring their workers back to the office.

With more than 100 departments and agencies, the result has been a patchwork, with some requiring one, two or three days in the office and others allowing people to continue working remotely. Departments also haven’t evenly enforced their various standards.

Sources say Treasury Board’s new mandate will define hybrid work, which currently runs the gamut from working everyday at home to making office appearances once a month or a couple times per week. Standardizing hybrid work effectively introduces the “one-size-fits-all” approach Treasury Board had tried to avoid. But people in charge of the public service have been trying to nudge people toward the office for months.

Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette prodded deputy ministers last summer to get workers back to the office to experiment with hybrid. She argued then a “one-size-fits all approach” had limitations for an organization with operations as large and diverse as the government. But she was also clear that employees deserve “coherence in how hybrid approaches are applied across the enterprise.”

She also reminded deputy ministers they have two responsibilities – the management of their departments and being stewards of the public service as an institution.

One senior bureaucrat said something had to give because the lack of consistency or coherence spilled into all kinds of management problems.

Across the government, workers governed by the same collective agreements – in similar jobs and levels – could work at home in some departments but not others. Thousands of grievances and complaints have been piling up.

Some estimate at least half – if not more – of the workers expected to show up at the office for a specific number of days are either not coming in or only partially complying.

“We experimented to see what could work and learn from what would happen,” said one senior official not authorized to speak publicly. “What we learned is it’s very hard for a large organization to operate in a distributed way and make consistent decisions.”

Another official said: “In short, it’s a solution to the mess because it’s going to be the same for everyone. Everyone is going to have to work for X number of days.”

In a tight labour market, a big worry is employee recruitment and retention. As predicted, public servants have begun shopping around for jobs and moving to departments that offer the most flexibility to work from home. This new mandate could affect the recruitment of highly specialized workers, like IT specialists, who tend to prefer remote work.

Treasury Board will probably stress this mandatory call back to the office is not signalling a return of the old ways of working pre-pandemic. Hybrid is here to stay. Working from home offers employees flexibility, work life-balance and a way for managers to recruit a more diverse workforce outside of Ottawa and across the country.

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The government has hired about 48,000 people since the pandemic, many of whom haven’t worked in an office. Several managers noted they hired a large number of employees outside Ottawa in cities where their departments don’t have offices. It’s unclear what happens to them.

“We have concerns with a mandatory policy that doesn’t take into account the individual needs of workers and departments,” said Aylward, the PSAC president. “That’s why we’re negotiating for remote work to be enshrined in our collective agreements, so that workers have a say in their working conditions and an avenue to advocate for themselves if they feel the policy is being applied to them unfairly.”

The government is charging ahead with plans to reduce the amount of office space needed to house workers. The mandate shouldn’t affect those plans because, even before the pandemic, its office space was only occupied 60 per cent of the time. That means, on any given day, 40 per cent of desks sat empty with workers off sick, on vacation, at meetings or working remotely.

But politics and public perception are also at play.

The public service’s biggest disruption in decades: hybrid work

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The public service is seen as one of the last workforces to return to the office. Meanwhile, trust in government is declining and the bureaucracy’s reputation is taking a beating for service debacles in managing passports, immigration and veterans services.

This comes at a time when the public service is growing, crowding out private-sector employers for workers in a tight labour market.

This doesn’t go over well with Canadians or businesses feeling the pinch of inflation while public-sector unions are demanding raises to cover inflation and sabre-rattling about strike.

Last month, Canada’s business community, led by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, urged the government to lead the way for other employers and workers back to the office as quickly as possible.

It gathered data showing remote work hit the downtowns of all cities where the government has federal employees since the pandemic, but none as hard as Ottawa and Gatineau.

The percentage of workers who commuted to downtown Ottawa this fall compared to January 2020 fell more than 45 per cent and dropped nearly 75 per cent in downtown Gatineau.

But it also noted virtual work has been undermining its relations with stakeholders, be they business or Canadians, and Zoom meetings have not been a substitute for face-to-face collaboration and consultation.

There are plenty of anecdotes about private and other public-sector leaders attending meetings at federal offices and dismayed how empty offices are, which one manager said “leaves the impression people aren’t working.”

But it’s not going to be a smooth ride.

So far, the reaction of public servants is reminiscent of the so-called Subwaygate backlash in fall, when public servants felt the push to get them back to the office was government buckling to political pressure to support local businesses.

Employees who want to work from home feel they are more productive, have better work-life balance and resent the time and money spent on commuting, parking, buying lunches to sit in on Zoom meetings they could do from home. They feel unheard and that decisions are arbitrary with no rationale.

Remote work is a top issue at the bargaining table. Unions are hoping to enshrine remote-work provisions into the collective agreement to give employees more say in determining where they work. The organization of work and where employees work is a management right that the government is unlikely to bend on.

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

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Kathryn May
Kathryn May is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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