Federal government departments are restarting plans to bring thousands of public servants back to the office as provinces lift pandemic restrictions that forced them to work from home.

Treasury Board recently issued new guidance outlining the terms for departments and agencies to resume the plans that were abruptly halted when the Omicron variant took hold around Christmas.

The return to office will begin immediately, but Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said increasing the occupancy of office buildings will be phased in slowly while departments prepare their workplaces, including new or updated precautions such as masking and social distancing.

Provinces are in various stages of dropping pandemic restrictions so departments will be asked to consider local public health conditions, such as outbreaks and rising infections, as they stage office reopenings. Ontario is lifting most restrictions this week. Nearly half of the total public service is in the National Capital Region.

“It is my expectation that organizations will continue to be agile and demonstrate flexibility as necessary, in their planning to align to the evolving public health context,” she said in a statement.

Treasury Board hasn’t set a single date for returning to the office, leaving it up to the individual departments to decide when and how quickly to bring employees back.

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Sources from several departments, who are not authorized to speak publicly, say the return will be phased in through the spring and summer to give employees the chance to rearrange their lives in terms of practical matters such as finding child care. They expect a big ramp-up by September.

Treasury Board is the employer of the federal public service and Fortier is also an Ottawa area MP. Treasury Board has been under pressure from city and local businesses to get workers back to downtown Ottawa offices or at least offer a return plan.

Departments are planning this return around a shift to a hybrid workforce, a mix of employees working in the office and at home. The big question is whether departments have the technology to handle a workforce that will be divided between remote and office locations.

“Wanting to return is one thing, having the agreements in place with each employee, necessary technology in the office and bandwidth to the buildings, clarity of pandemic, health and safety guidelines, all that will take time,” said Meredith Thatcher, co-founder and workplace strategist at Agile Work Evolutions.

Another big worry is whether the lifting of restrictions will trigger another surge in the pandemic. The highly contagious Omicron sub-variant known as BA.2 is gaining a foothold in Canada could complicate reopening plans now underway in most provinces.

The federal government’s latest guidance still requires all public servants to be vaccinated but only recommends booster shots. Employees must, however, wear masks indoors, even when physical distancing, and outdoors in crowded situations or if distancing is impossible.

Those who aren’t fully vaccinated or have approved vaccine exemptions will be screened and forced to take rapid tests to help prevent anyone with the virus from going to the office. Testing will also be done at higher-risk workplaces such as prisons or the Canadian Coast Guard.

Employees who have COVID-19 symptoms or test positive should wait 10 days before returning to work. Those in “close contact” with someone infected should not return to work for 14 days.

The guidance warned employees that they should not stigmatize others if they choose to take extra precautions.

The return comes as unions are gearing up for the next round of collective bargaining. One of the first at the table is the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the largest of the 17 unions. Its top priorities are creating a better work-life balance for remote workers and “right to disconnect” provisions giving workers the right to say no to calls and texts after hours.

The union’s surveys found 75 per cent of its 165,000 members are working from home and 90 per cent of them want to keep it that way. The survey also found that public servants want new protections in their collective agreements, such as “the right to disconnect.”

It’s unclear how this right would be implemented. The union argues that working at home during the pandemic has blurred work and home lives. They want a firm line drawn between work and off-work hours.

PSAC wants employees to have the right to choose whether they want to work remotely. The union has also proposed a process to ensure their requests for remote work can’t be “unreasonably” denied and that they are properly equipped to work from home.

PSAC argues workers are unfairly shouldering costs the employer should bear – office supplies, office furniture, higher energy and internet costs. It wants the federal government to provide remote workers with computers, software, furniture, an ergonomic assessment and a $100-a-month allowance if they work a least 75 hours a month from home.

The union maintains the pandemic permanently changed how people work and the government should be a leader in ensuring work-life balance for workers.

This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship on the Future of the Public Service. Read Kathryn May’s previous articles on the future of the public service.

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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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