(This article has been translated into French.)

OTTAWA – Treasury Board president Mona Fortier says she won’t issue a blanket mandatory order for all federal departments to allow employees to work from home for the rest of the pandemic if their jobs can be done from home.

In a letter to unions, Fortier said such a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work for some 100 departments and agencies. Each department has a different mandate and operational requirements. Also, deputy ministers are responsible for their departments, including the health and safety of employees.

“Recognizing that each department will have its own operational requirements, there can be no one-size-fits-all approach, and as it has been the case throughout the pandemic, there are some public servants whose work cannot be done remotely,” Fortier wrote in her letter sent in late December.

Fortier was responding to a Dec. 17 letter from 13 unions that asked the Treasury Board’s Office of the Chief Resources Officer (OCHRO) to send a clear order to deputy ministers that employees who can work from home (telework in government parlance) should be able to do so, now and for future waves to come.

The 13 unions argue that working from home, if possible, should be mandatory for the remainder of the pandemic as it was when public servants were first sent home to work in March 2020.

With the vaccine mandate in place, departments had been slowly phasing in back-to-office plans and bringing people back to the office when the highly infectious Omicron variant hit. As the Christmas break approached, the government issued new guidelines encouraging departments to put plans to return more workers to the office on hold and to review existing levels of staffing in federal workplaces.

The guidelines urged departments to “consider increasing remote work as required.” Departments were asked to be flexible, adjust plans if transmission rates increase and take into account local public health advice. It also urged 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.

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For now, the unions’ concerns are moot. Public servants who can do their jobs from home are doing so as Omicron tightens its grip. They worry, however, about what happens in the coming months, with no end to the pandemic in sight.

Dany Richard, president of the Association of Canadian Financial Officers, said the Omicron rampage makes it even more important for the government to take a clear stance on managing a hybrid workforce for the coming months.

Such viruses may be here to stay, making some workers more anxious about returning to the office for fear of infection. They would rather work at home than risk commutes and sharing office space.

“Everyone has gone back to telework now, which is great, but it’s only a matter of time before they start lifting (COVID-19) restrictions and we will be faced with the same problem all over again,” said Richard.

The unions’ long game, however, is that employees will permanently have the option to work remotely as the government shifts to a hybrid workforce as the pandemic eases and moves to the new normal. That’s a big and controversial change, however, which would mean rewriting rules, policies and collective agreements.

Unions and some managers alike have questioned OCHRO’s hands-off approach, leaving it up to departments to decide how they want to move to a hybrid workforce.

“We have seen inconsistencies across departments about how telework should be applied due to Treasury Board’s vague guidelines and lack of direction,” said the union letter. “Our position is clear and consistent with your prior position: if public service employees have the option to telework, they should telework whenever possible.

“This will ensure that employees can stay safe and abide by public health directives, all while continuing to maintain the high and undisrupted level of service they have been delivering throughout the pandemic.”

Unions want departments to get a handle on what work can be done at home and what must be done in the office. The only way to do that is to direct departments to assess all jobs before they start bringing employees back to the office.

Read more by Kathryn May on the future of the public service

After that, they should ask employees whose jobs could be done from home if they want to work remotely.

“Someone could live in a one-bedroom apartment, have three kids and want nothing to do with telework and to want to work in the office, said Richard. “We need to have that dialogue and make that assessment even before we look at re-entry to the office.”

With the lack of direction, Richard said departments are all over the map. Some have return-to-work plans and have assessed jobs to see what tasks can be done at home and in the office.

Some want workers back in the office a couple days a week while others have decided to wing it, bring people back and see what works.

It’s created confusion that could lead to conflicts, complaints and undermine employee safety.

Departments may all be different, but the work of accountants or data analysts, for example, is similar wherever they work, said Richard. It won’t take long for employees to complain that they can’t work at home when colleagues in other departments can.

“The departments that scare me are the ones that are waiting because they don’t know how this reintegration will work and aren’t making the assessments,” said Richard. “This is why we want OCHRO to make these centralized decisions and say ‘you need to start assessing every single position.’”

There is no date for departments to resume their return-to-workers plans.

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 is a reporter and 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 covering 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. She is also the winner of a National Newspaper Award and a Canadian Online Publishing Award. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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