A big unanswered question around the furor over forcing Canada’s public servants back to the office for three days a week is how to instil traditional values and ethics in employees who aren’t in the office together every day – especially when thousands of new hires may have never worked in the office or been trained on those values.

Privy Council Clerk John Hannaford made the renewal of longstanding values and ethics a top priority when he took the job a year ago. The core values are respect for democracy, respect for people, integrity, stewardship and excellence. The challenge is to build a culture around those values to guide the work of public servants in a rapidly changing world.

The government announced in early May that public servants must work in the office for a minimum of three days a week by Sept. 9. Executives are required to work four days in the office.

The office mandate is a polarizing issue that goes beyond worker and management rights and goes to the core of the very role of the public service.

“I think it’s one of the biggest tensions the public service has faced in the last quarter century,” says Zachary Spicer, an associate professor of governance and public administration at York University.

“I can see the logic of reinforcing the responsibility of being a public servant by being together. I buy that argument, but I don’t have a lot of data to back it up.”

Last week, unions vowed a “summer of discontent” to pressure the government into reversing the order. Treasury Board then upped the ante by arguing that the very notion of the public service is at stake.

Treasury Board maintains that three days a week in the office maximizes the benefits of working in person, such as better collaboration, onboarding new recruits and building a performance culture “consistent with the values and ethics of the public service.”

Christiane Fox, deputy clerk of the Privy Council Office, who is spearheading the ethics discussion across departments for Hannaford, says the move to three days is “very much about who we are as an organization.”

“We’re better if we have more in-person time. It doesn’t mean only in-person time, but it does mean a bit more than we were doing.”

The government says it is searching for the right balance between in-office and remote work to foster a positive public service culture. But how much time do people need in the office to have a sense of shared purpose?

“I don’t think the government has made the case on the value of coming to work,” says Lori Turnbull, a professor at Dalhousie University’s faculty of management.

At the same time, she wonders: “How do you build a culture when people don’t come to the same office? I’m not saying you can’t. But the transmission of cultural values has to come from somewhere.”

The public service values and ethics code was built on the work of a deputy minister task force 30 years ago that produced the Tait report, which is still considered the bible of what it means to be a public servant.

“The first principle is (that) we’re here to serve the public interest,” says Ralph Heintzman, a values and ethics expert who co-wrote the Tait report.

“We’re here to serve Canadians and the democratic government. The issue (of hybrid work) should be approached from that perspective, not from that of individual workers. It might turn out the right answer is somewhere down the middle and a mixture of work from home and the office.”

Longstanding values, generational shift

Hannaford began the ethics exercise with the premise that traditional values still hold and it’s time to reaffirm those principles and their application today, given the public service’s massive growth and generational shifts.

Millennials are quickly becoming the largest cohort of workers. At least 40 per cent of public servants today have worked only for the Trudeau government. About 80,000 were hired over the past five years. However, many were not onboarded in the same manner as previous generations and some haven’t even set foot in an office.

Much of the debate has raged about the impact on worker rights and preferences. Unions give short shrift to the idea of increasing in-office presence to improve performance and build culture.

Nathan Prier, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, told the CBC that in-office work should be for operational reasons, not “some patronizing, vague HR idea like teamwork or collaboration.”

Public servants say many offices don’t have enough desks or lockers, meaning some of them end up working in hallways and cafeterias. They complain they spend their office days on Zoom calls they could do from home.

Remote work during the pandemic gave public servants newfound power and control over their time – and they’re not letting go without a fight. They feel more productive, enjoy better work-life balance and have more child-care options. Plus, it’s cheaper: no commuting, parking, restaurant or takeout lunches.

What does it mean to be a public servant?

Spicer, who teaches values and ethics, expects the government will face clashes between “individual values and organizational values.”

“There hasn’t been a lot of weight put behind ethics … and we now have a lot of younger folks coming in who don’t have the same kind of understanding of what it means to be a public servant, what it means to act purely within the public interest,” he says.

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Spicer says many have a weaker connection to the notion of public service. Some still have the “spark” and see it as a calling. Others, however, see it as little more than a secure and steady job with benefits. Then there are advocates who want to advance a cause, such as climate change or sustainability.

The last group is more likely to quit if they don’t see progress, if their advice isn’t taken or if a change in government takes policy in a different direction or undoes policies, Spicer says.

New recruits are also more culturally diverse. Many have experience in the private sector, other levels of government or are transitioning between sectors. They tend to be professionals, bring expertise from their respective fields and often identify more closely with their profession’s code of conduct than with traditional public service norms.

The era of social media and gig employment

Spicer says they grew up on social media and juggling different jobs. Many see no reason why they can’t voice their opinions on social media or pursue a side hustle while working in government – both of which were traditionally frowned upon and are still controversial.

Public servants claim to be more productive since they began working from home, but a consensus that government needs fixing has emerged. It is too big, slow and risk-averse to deliver its basic services, let alone get ready for the world’s crises. On top of that, trust in government is dropping.

Turnbull says the political timeline “is already so much faster than the public service timeline” and working from home slows that down. The “values-transmission question” is urgent, especially with so many new public servants, she argues.

Fox says the government is committed to a hybrid work model, but departments must be more deliberate about creating a workplace culture that reflects “who we are.”

“We’ve got to have more emphasis on our environment and our learning within so people feel that they’re part of something larger and they understand the responsibilities that come with that.”

Linda Duxbury, a professor of management at Carleton University and expert on work-life balance and remote work, counters that both the unions and the government are misguided in the battle over hybrid work.

She argues there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that people need to be where the jobs can be done. A meat inspector must go to a processing plant and a customs officer must go to the border, but many other public service jobs can be done from anywhere.

However, she added that public servants’ complaints about time and money spent commuting and on lunches and child care are not the employer’s problem. These gripes also don’t fly with Canadians.

“Your job is to serve the public. So, are you serving them? Are you serving yourself?” she asks.

Duxbury says both the government and unions need to “stop with the stupid rhetoric” and start designing jobs to get the best work done. “There is not a simple solution here, so stop talking as if there is.”

This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship on the Future of the Public Service. Read more about that here.

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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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