OTTAWA – Senior bureaucrat Stéphan Déry spent much of a 30-year career managing federal real estate figuring out what the office is for. Nearly two years into the pandemic, it turns out the office may not be for hard work.

“Work is really what you do and not where you do it,” said Déry, assistant deputy minister for real property services at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC). “People are thinking that way now and it’s going to take a while until we find how the whole thing is going to work.”

Meredith Thatcher, cofounder and workplace strategist at Agile Work Evolutions, surveyed more than 20,000 public servants and the vast majority want to work from home for what she calls “heads-down focus work,” the deep concentration needed for writing, thinking and analyzing. Only 20 per cent prefer the office for that kind of work. The rest want to use the office to see people – meetings, mentoring, training, collaborating or socializing.

This upending of the office is creating a new workplace strategy. Barriers are dropping. Downtown headquarters are morphing into central hubs with a network of satellite offices. Office space may be geared for all government, not departments; it’s collaborative, not individual. Any shared office can be accessed with a single ID card.  And telework is no longer a benefit or an agreement struck with a manager, but based on the nature of the work.

This shift in thinking about the federal office was underway before a once-in-a-century pandemic forced thousands of bureaucrats to work at home, leaving government office towers almost empty.

Déry says the pandemic, which he calls the “world’s largest telework pilot project” accelerated the shift. It handed government an unheard-of opportunity to rethink the boundaries and physical work space for public servants, which could drastically change the makeup of real estate holdings.

Déry is the federal government’s point person for determining how much and what kind of office space 103 departments need for 267,000 employees across Canada.

As Canada’s largest employer and landlord, the government has a real estate portfolio of 6.9 million square metres, some leased and the rest Crown-owned. The largest share of office space is in the National Capital Region, where headquarters are for most departments, employing 42 per cent of the public service.

Most public servants don’t want to return to the office like it was before. Surveys show 85 per cent want a hybrid approach, a mix of working at home and the office. What they want the office for is “collaboration, creativity, community and caring,” said Déry.

Speaking tech to power

Before the pandemic, all that office space was 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.

Those occupancy rates offer plenty of opportunity to reconfigure and reduce office space, and a shift to a hybrid workforce could shrink demand even more.

Thatcher said the pandemic is forcing the biggest transformation in allocating the physical space of the office in 75 years. The government is now wrestling with how to determine the right mix of remote and in-office work – including walled-in spaces, cubicles and open offices.

“We’ve completely upended how we think about allocating space and how much space we need,” said Thatcher. “It’s not as easy as it used to be because we’re re-imagining and recreating how we think about, imagine, create, size and fit up space.”

Canada was among many countries rethinking the office before the pandemic. PSPC launched its GCworkplace initiative in 2012, which met resistance from some employees and protest from unions.

The design features of the GCworkplace are here to stay. It is built around “activity-based working,” coined by Dutch consultant Erik Veldhoen in his 1994 book The Demise of the Office: The Digital Workplace in a Thriving Organisation. It’s all about flexibility and offering a variety of spaces that suit workers’ different working styles and tasks.

The layout is a mix of areas for individual-focused work and collaborative team projects. There are desks, but they are unassigned and must be booked. There are quiet rooms and nooks, phone booths, lounges, “huddle spaces,” and big and small meeting and conference rooms.

“You choose the work point that serves you for the work you do at the present time. Sometimes you want a collaborative space, sometimes you want to be in an isolated or quiet space or a private room, and sometimes you would move throughout the day from one space to the other,” said Déry.

Then came GCcoworking, a pilot project in 2018, similar to the hub-and spoke model the U.K. and other countries adopted as part of a push to decentralize the public service, getting more employees out of capital cities and into regions.

They are designed on the same activity-based principles of GC Workplace, but the space can be shared my multiple departments. About 40 departments signed up for the pilot, which launched nine satellite offices – five in the National Capital Region, and one each in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Laval.

PSPC also has its own pilot project, dubbed Pathfinder, to see how its employees use the space in offices redesigned for activity-based working.

Déry says technology is what makes a hybrid workforce and hub-and-spoke offices work. The public service is fully mobile now, having mastered a new level of digital literacy during the pandemic that allows them to work anywhere.

Hub-and-spoke offices have a central hub where employees can work, but they also have the choice to work at satellite offices — or spokes. This gives public servants the flexibility to work at satellite offices closer to where they live, which reduces commuting times and pollution.

Also, in the face of a global talent shortage, satellite offices open up jobs to Canadians who no longer have to move to Ottawa to work for government. Outside the capital, especially in areas with few public servants, a satellite office might be a co-working office that public servants from any department can drop by and use.

But Déry also sees a role for ”space for service.” The government could pay-as-it-goes for turnkey space that comes with all the amenities rather than being locked into long-term leases. Many liken this shift from office space seen as a product to a service similar to what Uber did for cars, Netflix for movies and Spotify for music.

A big problem is that there aren’t enough of these new offices, and departments want them now. Modernizing old offices takes time and PSPC doesn’t see the savings from reduced real estate costs fast enough to reinvest and renovate offices.

Some departments are setting up their own co-working space. A department housed in multiple buildings can set up a co-working floor or use suburban office space to create satellite offices shared with other departments.

But Déry faces a myriad other challenges in rolling out the office of the future. The biggest variable is how many people will be going to the office.

The more people who work from home, the smaller the office footprint the government requires. Departments are still figuring out how much space they need, which will hinge on the outcome of talks between Treasury Board and the unions on the rules for remote work.

The pandemic upended the federal workplace. What comes next?

A key issue is whether employees will have the flexibility to decide where they work if their job is considered remote or hybrid, or whether departments will mandate that they show up to the office two or three days a week.

Some say departments are reluctant to surrender space in the face of such uncertainty, particularly because the savings go to PSPC. PSPC, however, needs those savings to reinvest and modernize offices in its old buildings.

On top of all that, the government is committed to a greening strategy so its buildings, which are big greenhouse-gas emitters, will be carbon neutral by 2050. Meeting those targets will require a weeding out of its old buildings, as well as leasing buildings that don’t comply.

But first the government is bracing for a pendulum, a big swing of workers who want to return to the office when the pandemic is over, followed by a push to go back home once the novelty of being there wears off.

Thatcher predicts a bubble of pent-up demand among public servants who want to get out of the house once the pandemic is over. They will want to return to the office to catch up with old colleagues, meet the new ones hired during the pandemic or pick up belongings locked in empty offices for two years. However, many won’t feel comfortable about returning to the office until they feel the pandemic is under control.

The state of technology will also shape employees’ – and their managers’ – preferences and behaviour in deciding where to work. Some office buildings don’t have the bandwidth to support a department’s entire workforce holding hybrid meetings.

“I could see people coming back to the office and the hybrid meeting experience will be horrible and result in managers demanding everyone to be in the office for the meeting – no more hybrid or everyone at home for future meetings because we can’t handle the bandwidth challenges,” said Thatcher.

“But there are all kinds of things that could change what happens. We don’t really have a full perspective of what a hybrid and remote workforce is going to look like in the future. We just don’t know yet.”

This article was produced with support from the Accenture Fellowship 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 her on Twitter: @kathryn_may.

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