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British Columbia’s public service will be returning to the office as the provincial government rolls back options to work from home that have been in place since March, even as the Provincial Health Officer calls for vigilance in the workplace due to rising COVID-19 infections in recent weeks.

A new pandemic directive dated Oct. 8 to the province’s 35,000 civil servants says most employees will now have to return to the workplace at least part-time.

“Our workplaces are safe. Together we will ensure they stay safe," states the the 22-page COVID-19 response update for the public service. "Ministries have now developed workplace adaptations and safe workplace procedures to allow us to continue operating safely while also allowing more employees to return to their regular places of work.”

The directive was issued in the middle of a provincial election campaign, when the government is in caretaker mode, meaning the action is being executed by senior bureaucrats at a time when political decision-making has been suspended.

The directive says the change is needed for the sake of performance.

“While the public service has shown remarkable flexibility and resilience since the pandemic began, there are potential negative impacts to individuals, teams and organizational performance resulting from full-time remote working over the long-term,” it says. “It’s important that we adapt in ways that balance continuing to minimize transmission of the virus with the need to restore some of the benefits of interacting and collaborating in the workplace.”

The shift was approved by B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry. Dr. Henry this week urged British Columbians to avoid large family gatherings for Thanksgiving, noting that the threat of COVID-19 is rising just as flu season arrives. “Support your family by keeping your celebration dinner small,” she said.

For the workplace, Dr. Henry said employers need to ensure pandemic precautions are maintained, urging them to monitor people for COVID-19 symptoms when they arrive for work, and to keep workplace meetings mostly virtual.

But she also said government workers can return to their offices.

“There is a COVID safety plan for each building, for each unit, and there are measures in place to ensure that ... we don’t have large meetings like we used to, that things are still done in a combination of remotely and in the office," she told reporters.

Statistics Canada, in its labour force survey released on Friday, found many Canadians continued to adapt to COVID-19 by working remotely in September. There were 4.2 million people working from home that month – more than twice the average before the pandemic.

The provincial government did not track how many of its staff elected to work remotely, either for health reasons or because of child care challenges that have emerged as a result of the pandemic.

Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union, could not say how many of her members are currently working from home. She said some members are worried about heading back into the office now, but her union approved the change.

“Our members span the full spectrum, some are anxious to get back to the office, and we have members who are concerned, which we fully understand,” she said.

She noted that many public servants were not given the option to work from home because of their type of work – those in front-line service positions, including social workers and corrections officers.

“I think there are compelling reasons to bring people back to work," Ms. Smith said. “This is being rolled out, office by office. If we identify any situations where health and safety are compromised, we are going to be on top of it.”

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