The federal government is mandating that federal public servants return to the office at least two to three days a week after contentious negotiations with unions over the issue of remote work, and amid pressure from Ottawa-region business groups to get more workers back into downtown office buildings.
In a memo issued Thursday afternoon, the Treasury Board Secretariat – the government body responsible for the administrative management of the federal public service – stated that the mandate will take effect on Jan. 16, 2023, with employees having to fully comply by the end of next March.
The federal government says the move will bring more uniformity to a hybrid-work setup that has varied widely across different federal departments since September.
Treasury Board president Mona Fortier told reporters Thursday that the government’s decision is about “fairness and equity” because of the disparity in hybrid requirements.
“The last six months we’ve been experimenting, and we saw that there were some organizations applying in person and others weren’t doing it the same way,” she said. “So we want to make sure that there’s fairness, there is equity, and consistency across the board and that’s how we have decided to move forward.”
To date, the federal government’s approach to where its 300,000-odd employees should work has been unclear. While Treasury Board implemented a mandate at the recommendation of the Privy Council Clerk earlier this year that employees should be in the office a couple of times a week, the board largely left it up to individual departments to decide where their employees worked.
What has emerged since September is a patchwork of remote- and hybrid-work arrangements. The Treasury Board itself, for example, expects its employees to be in the office twice a week, but other departments have left it up to the discretion of individual managers.
Unions representing public-sector workers have loudly opposed any kind of mandate from the government around hybrid work, as they seek to entrench remote-work language in collective-bargaining agreements.
Today’s announcement was met with swift condemnation from the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union representing 165,000 federal public servants. “Just arbitrarily mandating, right before the holidays, that workers commute back into the office in the face of rising inflation is completely disrespectful and a knee-jerk reaction from the government,” said PSAC president Chris Aylward in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Aylward went on to say that his members have demonstrated very effectively over the past 2½ years that they can serve the public by working from home. He cited examples of setting up and administering the CERB and CEWS pandemic-relief programs, which were “done entirely remotely.”
PSAC is currently negotiating collective agreements for more than 160,000 federal government employees. It has been pushing for language around remote work to be included in agreements so that workers are able to individually negotiate how and where they work with their employer.
“I think we need to be clear that we are not asking that all employees be allowed to work from home all the time. What we are asking for is that the process to negotiate remote work be included as part of collective agreements,” Mr. Aylward said.
Enshrining the right to work remotely into a collective agreement will effectively give employees the ability to file a grievance against their employer if they perceive that they have been denied remote work on unfair grounds. For the union, the government unilaterally imposing a return-to-office mandate is a clear violation of the collective-bargaining process.
When asked about the strong negative reaction from public-service unions, Ms. Fortier said there were conversations between the government and the unions in advance of the announcement.
“The location of work is a right of the employer and we will now go to this new approach,” she said.
It is unclear how many federal government employees work from home most of the time, but the union estimates that roughly 80 per cent of its members work mostly away from the office.
The lack of people in the downtown areas of the National Capital Region – Ottawa and Gatineau – was most recently evident in data from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. A report estimated that foot traffic in downtown Ottawa as of November had dropped by 45 per cent since the start of the pandemic, in Gatineau that figure was 75 per cent.
Indeed, business groups have for months been urging Ottawa to encourage workers to go back into the office more frequently, for the sake of small businesses that they say have been severely damaged by the dearth of people.
In November, the heads of 32 business associations, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Ottawa Board of Trade, wrote an open letter to Ms. Fortier urging her to bring employees back in the office “as rapidly as possible.”
Days later, Ms. Fortier wrote an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen strongly hinting that federal workers should be in the office a couple of times a week because “virtual interactions, while convenient, are poor substitutes for experiences that are essential to cohesive, collaborative, and high performing organizations.” The op-ed cited the chamber’s call for workers to embrace hybrid work.
Ms. Fortier did not respond directly when asked if the decision was in response to pressure from the business community, particularly in downtown Ottawa and Gatineau, which has called for public servants to return to the office.
But according to the union, federal public workers themselves are reluctant to work from the office, even a couple of times a week, because they feel they can effectively do their jobs from home without incurring travel costs.
On the social-media platform Reddit, federal government workers have set up a channel that posts an unofficial, crowdsourced list of which departments are mandating a return to office, and how often workers are expected to be on site. By Thursday afternoon, there were hundreds of comments on the channel, mostly expressing annoyance or outrage at the Treasury Board’s mandate.
Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, a union representing approximately 60,000 federal public sector workers, said in a statement that the government’s decision “does not set the stage for good-faith negotiations with the employer.”