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Canada’s top bureaucrat set the tone for the future of work in the federal bureaucracy recently by asking employees in the powerful Privy Council Office to come to the office two days a week, allowing full-time remote work only under “exceptional circumstances.”

In a Sept. 13 memo, Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette laid out the guiding principles for the shift to hybrid work that she expects executives in her department to implement before the end of September.

PCO is the nerve centre of government as well as the department of the prime minister. Charette, as head of the public service, is setting the example for deputy ministers in all departments on the much-delayed return-to-office — along with strong signal to get on with it.

“We have an opportunity now to define and shape our new working environment — one that facilitates collaboration, attracts and retains talent, and is fair for all and rich in experiences and learning opportunities,” she wrote in the memo.

“We need a hybrid approach that is clear and flexible, that acknowledges the nature and unique requirements of PCO, and that adopts and balances the best aspects of being in the office and the advantages of remote work.”

Charette, who signed the memo with Deputy Clerk Nathalie Drouin, called PCO’s work supporting cabinet and the prime minister a “team sport” built on working together and in-person. The new guidelines mark the “next phase” for the future of work in PCO.

In an interview with Policy Options, Charette extended her vision for the PCO to the rest of the public service, saying she believes the hybrid formula is the way of the future for government office work.

“I believe one hundred per cent that for the future of the public service, we need to think about some degree of in-person attendance. Otherwise, I seriously worry we’re actually short-shifting our employees,” Charette said.

“Is it all in the office? I don’t think so. Is it all working remotely? I don’t think so. What is it? It’s got to be built.”

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Federal public service leaves work-from-home decision to departments

Charette’s guidelines are only for PCO. Although she is head of the public service, the authority to decide how public servants are managed rests with Treasury Board as the employer. The board has taken a hands-off approach, leaving it for departments to decide how to make their workforce hybrid. The results have varied as wildly as the different operations.

PCO employees returned to the office in June to experiment over the summer with the kind of in-person presence needed for its work. That summer test-drive, followed by an employee survey for feedback, led to the new guidelines.

Managers decided the nature of PCO’s work required employees to be in the office at least twice a week. In practice, all employees will be coming to the office for the “equivalent “of two days a week. Branches are encouraged to have all their work units in the office at the same time, but teams have the flexibility to organize themselves.

Charette asked managers to be flexible and to take employees personal circumstances into consideration when enforcing the minimum attendance to “preserve elements of work-life balance that so many of you have come to value.”

The government has tried to get public servants back to the office for more than a year, but plans were delayed. By spring, many were balking at the idea of going back and digging in to continue working from home.

Charette doubled down to get return-to-office plans back on track when she prodded deputy ministers to experiment with a hybrid system over the summer so they were ready to roll out plans in September. Labour Day became the next target for a broad-scale return.

Several departments got off on the wrong foot at townhalls with their employees which snowballed into online resistance dubbed Subwaygate.

Now that Labour Day has come and gone, the question is whether public servants are returning to develop the “new normal” or is there a worker rebellion afoot?

Many expect the flu season and another Omicron subvariant wave will delay plans again. Others are bracing for a quiet resistance – rather than outright rebellion. They expect some workers will stretch, even defy, guidelines, to see what their managers will do about it. Many managers are as attached to remote work as their staff and will be reluctant to discipline.

“Mark my words, we will be the same situation by Christmas and probably the spring,” said one senior bureaucrat who is not authorized to speak publicly.

Unions complained from the start that Treasury Board’s approach was too wishy-washy. It bred inconsistency, confusion, inertia and now resentment among workers who believe they proved they can work remotely and want things to stay that way.

But Charette is holding firm. She acknowledges that figuring out a hybrid model for government won’t be easy. It will take a lot experimentation. It means re-thinking everything – security, office design, space and upgrading infrastructure.

She believes the hybrid model is critical to keeping the public service’s “institutional capacity.” Public servants were able to respond quickly to the pandemic because they drew from a huge reserve of skills, relationships and trust built by years of working together in-person.

She argues departments have to invest in team-building and collaboration because that reserve is being further depleted as people leave, move, or new recruits are hired. How can relationships and trust be rebuilt if people never meet face-to-face?

There will be plenty of glitches. Not all buildings have Wi-Fi.. There are not enough meeting rooms and boardrooms with the bandwidth to handle meetings with people in the room and others in remote offices across the country.

She said a mandatory order, forcing everyone back two or three days a week, would be the easiest approach, but that won’t bring departments any closer to finding the ideal mix of in-person and remote work to run their operations

Charette said she expects managers will bring employees to the office for a “purpose” and for the time it makes sense to be there. It’s widely expected that remote work will be for the hard, concentration work that needs quiet. The office will be for softer tasks such as collaborating and brainstorming.

“Does it make sense for people to come to the office to sit in front of a computer screen and be on (Microsoft) Teams calls all day? Absolutely not,” said Charette. We have to be purposeful. Managers need to be purposeful about what they are bringing people into the office for.”

She understands how employees have become attached to the flexibility of working from home. They rearranged their lives. They feel more productive and don’t want to go back to commuting and the confines of 9-to-5 office life.

Federal civil service resumes return to office

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

But Charette said the public service’s first job is “delivering value for taxpayers.” That means finding the best mix of in-person and remote work to accomplish that goal while balancing accountability and the concerns of employees.

Office workers account for about half of the public service. Front-line workers — from border and prison guards to inspectors — have been coming to the office and other workplaces throughout the pandemic. The government also hired thousands of new employees, many of whom haven’t set foot in an office during COVID.

The pandemic accelerated the government’s move to digital technology. Zoom calls, using new Teams collaboration tools and time-saving modernizations such as electronic signatures are now routine.

Charette wants to build on those successes, but doesn’t think virtual tools are good enough to provide all the services Canadians need. They will, however, help break the capital’s hold on jobs and open up coveted policy jobs to Canadians outside of Ottawa.

“How a solution works in Prince Edward Island may be very different than in Calgary. Having those regional perspectives and understanding have to influence our policy thinking as well.”

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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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