With COVID-19 restrictions easing, there’s renewed hope across the country that workers will soon be returning to offices that have been sitting mostly vacant for nearly two years.
Governments have led the way in many jurisdictions by announcing return-to-office plans for public-service workers, which business leaders hope will propel other industries to follow suit.
In Ontario, more than 60,000 government staff will be expected to return to in-person work for a minimum of three days a week starting April 4. The proof-of-vaccination requirement for staff is slated to end that same day, except for in high-risk congregate settings, Ontario Secretary of Cabinet Michelle DiEmanuele said in a memo sent to staff.
Employees were allowed to voluntarily return to the office as of last Tuesday, and just more than half of the staff in front-line positions have continued to work onsite throughout the pandemic. The hybrid arrangement is expected to be temporary.
“We remain committed to providing employees with flexibility. I encourage you to connect with your manager before Monday, April 4 to discuss what returning to the workplace could look like for you,” Ms. DiEmanuele said in her note to staff.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said last Thursday the government ordered provincial employees to return to the office by April 4 after the province’s broader work-from-home mandate was lifted March 1.
“I hope and expect that as soon as possible we’ll see those government office towers back with productive public servants and that will further support the downtown cores in getting back to normal,” Mr. Kenney told reporters.
The Alberta Union of Public Employees said about 5,000 of its members are headed back to the office in light of the provincial policy shift.
The government, AUPE said in a note to members, advised the union its return-to-work plan will happen in stages, with all staff expected to return by April 4.
“A hybrid model where some employees will be able to work from home for a maximum of two days per week will be rolled out department-by-department and branch-by-branch,” the memo said.
Susan Slade, AUPE’s vice-president, noted the hybrid option is not guaranteed for all employees. Staff, she said, will have to apply to work a hybrid schedule and managers will make the decision. This could put some people, like those who are immunocompromised or medically ineligible for a vaccine, in danger given all of Alberta’s COVID-19 precautions are now gone, she warned.
The province also repealed its vaccine mandate for government employees on March 1, and members on unpaid leave were expected to return to work that day.
“At-risk workers may not qualify under the employer’s eligibility,” she said.
Office staff at oil and gas companies in Calgary are also starting to return to the office with a handful of major companies, such as TC Energy and ConocoPhillips, offering hybrid models to give employees the option of working remotely two days a week.
In British Columbia, the mandatory work-from-home order was lifted in mid-February with public-service employees also making a return to the office. The government of Quebec is in the process of gradually bringing bureaucrats back to their desks for at least two days a week, between Feb. 28 and April 4. Mandatory remote work for non-essential workers in the private sector also ended last Monday in the province.
Business leaders in Ontario said the hybrid return plan for the public service is a clear sign of confidence from the government that businesses can resume to a sense of normalcy.
Ontario Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer Rocco Rossi said he’s hopeful other industries, such as banks, will follow the lead and propel a major return to urban centres. This could in turn increase business at local shops and restaurants who have been struggling to stay afloat. Small businesses have been struggling with the uncertainty around restrictions and many are facing mounting debt, some in excess of $200,000, Mr. Rossi noted.
“This sets an example and grants permission to say it is not irresponsible to be asking people to come back to the office,” he said in an interview. “The government can say to small businesses, ‘Hey, you’re allowed to reopen up, you don’t have to use the vaccine passport any more,’ but if the foot traffic isn’t there, then that’s just a recipe for going bankrupt faster.”
Unions affected by the shift said they are concerned by the mandate and lack of flexibility in returning to the office.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union said the change doesn’t give workers enough time to adjust to the changes and sort out family needs, such as child care. Neil Martin, central employee relations committee chair for the union, said a gradual, voluntary return would be best to ensure employees feel safe and comfortable returning.
“We were surprised with the three-day minimum requirement starting in April. We had expected the employer to be more gradual in their approach,” Mr. Martin said. “We’re supportive of our members returning to a normalcy, we just thought on the human side of things we need to be a little more gentle with the approach.”
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With reports from Kathryn Helmore and Eric Andrew-Gee
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