OTTAWA- Treasury Board is introducing a new “common hybrid work model” that requires all federal public servants to return to the office for two to three days a week.

The mandatory order will only apply to departments in the core public service and be rolled out by the end of March. A prescribed two-to-three-day return means public servants will now spend between 40 and 60 per cent of their work time in the office every month.

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said the government experimented with voluntarily hybrid since the summer but found departments needed more consistency. Some departments required in-person attendance and others didn’t, which created problems for managers dealing with fairness among workers.

“We realized there were inconsistencies in the system,” said Fortier. “Bringing in this common approach of two to three days in the workplace … will help with having in-person teamwork and collaboration. But also, the one factor it will really help is the fairness and equity issue,” Fortier told reporters Thursday.

Until now, departments could set their own return-to-office policy, which ran the gamut of one, two or three days in the office while some continued to let employees work remotely. The decision to return workers up to three days per week was expected to be announced last week but was delayed as details were finalized.

The new common model ends that hands-off approach and ushers in a one-size-fits-all policy intended to impose consistent rules for all hybrid working.

Departments that have yet to set a minimum number of days for employees have until Jan. 16 to implement the order.

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Back-to-office order for public servants expected soon

Thousands of employees working in the government’s 27 separate agencies, such as Canada Revenue Agency and Canadian Food Inspection Agency, are not included. The agencies, however, are “strongly” urged to follow suit.

Federal unions are outraged they were not consulted on the mandate, especially when remote work is a top issue for them at current collective bargaining. They want to enshrine remote work provisions into contracts.

Fortier said unions were briefed this week on the mandate and gave input, but location of work is a management right the government holds.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada is seizing upon the uproar to mobilize employees for job action with initiatives like strike training. It argues remote work should be negotiated and the order is a violation of workers’ collective bargaining rights.

“We demand that the government halt their plan. PSAC is reviewing all our options in response to this announcement, and will take the necessary steps to protect our members’ ability to work remotely,” PSAC said in a statement.

Unions aren’t fighting for the right to full-time remote work. Pre-pandemic, working from home two or three days would have been a dream come true. As one PSAC official explained, workers want “a say in working conditions and a way to advocate for themselves if they feel the policy is applied to them unfairly.”

The order lays out exemptions, which will be decided case by case. Those who are unable to work in the office, such as persons with disabilities, can seek accommodation as spelled out under Accessible Canada Act or the Canada Human Rights Act.

Operations that worked remotely before the pandemic will be exempt, as will other employees hired pre-pandemic to work remotely. Indigenous employees whose location is key to community work get a pass. There may be some short-term exceptions for illness, temporary assignments or other “extenuating circumstances.”

The decision-making for most exemptions will be bumped up to assistant deputy ministers.

Deputy ministers, however, can make a business case for specific service or operation to be exempt, such as call centres which use remote workers. The Canadian Digital Service’s employees began working remotely before the pandemic and will continue with the policy.

In a tight labour market, a big worry is employee recruitment and retention. Chief Information Officer Catherine Luelo will decide which hard-to-find talent, such as IT developers, could work remotely.

Employees who picked up and moved during the pandemic or who the government hired to work remotely in towns without federal offices will be exempt from the order if they work more than 125 kilometres from a worksite.

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The announcement sparked 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 waves of influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus. Departments are advised to follow local public health advice and prevention practices, such as masking, social distancing, handwashing and staying home when sick.

Treasury Board tried to avoid a blanket order, but departmental return-to-office approaches were all over the map, creating all kinds of knock-on management problems. The government was also out of step with the provinces and other large employers who have already brought employees back to the office for prescribed days.

But senior officials said declining public trust in government and service cockups, from passports to immigration, played a role too.

A big question is how departments will enforce the mandatory return without resorting to heavy-handed monitoring. Departments can already track who enters the office and whether workers log onto their computers at home or in the office. Deputy minister are responsible for ensuring how departments keep track of those who report to work in the office and those who don’t.

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

The pandemic sent 85 per cent of the public service home to work, triggering the biggest disruption in public service’s history. The return-to-the-office is shaping up to be nearly as radical a change for workers who like their newfound power and control over their workday.

After nearly three years, many public servants say they feel more productive and less stress with the work-life balance and child-care options working from home provides. It’s also cheaper: no commuting, parking, restaurant or takeout lunches.

Not surprisingly, the news threw many public servants into a lather. Some anonymously vowed on social media to quit, retire, move or refuse to follow the order. Some argued it’s time to pushback, go on strike – legal or not. They heap blame on the political pressure of struggling downtown businesses and promise to never patronize a restaurant, coffee shop or even use transit.

Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe issued a statement praising the government’s decision for ending the uncertainty that hamstrung downtown businesses reliant on the federal workforce.

“The federal government is the largest employer in Ottawa, and having clarity around the future of its workforce is critical for our local economy,” Sutcliffe said. “When public servants return to government offices, it will be beneficial to both our public transit system and our downtown.”

Some worry this is the first step to a full-time return to the office, but the government stressed “hybrid is the future of the public service” and is here to stay.

Until now, all the focus has been on where public servants work and how many days. The next big question is what this means for the future of work. Employees won’t be happy if they are sitting in offices all day for virtual meetings they could do at home.

Another challenge is whether the government can use hybrid work to modernize and try to keep pace with a world moving faster than it is.

But even the recent attempt at a flexible office was slow to take hold. Many workers were not showing up for the expected number of days or only partially complying.

The lack of consistency spilled over into a growing number of grievances and complaints. Workers protected by the same collective agreements – in similar jobs and levels – could work at home in some departments but not others.

As feared, public servants asked to return to the office began shopping around for new jobs and moving to departments that offered the most flexibility. To what lengths they will go to avoid the ordered return may be the next human resources headache for the federal government.

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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