Skip to main content

Federal public servants will return to the office at least two days each week by the end of March, under orders from the Treasury Board Secretariat. In British Columbia, the head of the public service is heading in the opposite direction, with a plan to entrench working from home as an option for the province’s 37,000 employees.

B.C. and Ottawa’s diverging paths will offer a real-world test of whether remote work enhances an organization’s performance.

The pandemic prompted employers to offer more flexibility in how we work. There are plenty of reasons to maintain that flexibility – employees who were able to shift to remote work found a healthier work-life balance, along with financial savings. The planet is better off, too, with fewer commuters on the road.

The federal government is just one of many employers trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle, however. CEOs and deputy ministers alike are concerned that they are not getting the best from employees who are not in the office.

Reversing this trend isn’t easy, which is why British Columbia’s decision to fully embrace flexible and remote work is what one might call a courageous move.

Another word for the decision is premature. The promise to expand options has locked the province into a policy while it is still developing its Future of the Workplace Strategy. That strategy will eventually track data around program and service delivery to measure how B.C.’s public servants are performing.

Ottawa and Victoria both embraced options for remote work at the start of the pandemic for those employees not required to be in-person. Neither government has shared an assessment of how the change impacted productivity.

But the federal government has a hunch. The secretariat, which is the government body responsible for the administrative management of the federal public service, has decided that employees need a regular presence in the office in order to deliver service to Canadians and strengthen taxpayers’ confidence in the public service. That statement implies that services are not being effectively delivered, and that taxpayers aren’t happy with what they see.

The former head of the federal public service, Michael Wernick, also offered a window on Ottawa’s thinking when he said remote work could impede a manager’s ability to identify “who is contributing and who is a passenger” among their employees.

In the fall of 2020, the B.C. government ordered its workers back to the office, having reached a similar conclusion. In a lengthy statement addressed to the public service at that time, the province argued that there are potential negative impacts to individuals, teams and organizational performance resulting from full-time remote working over the long-term. The directive was issued just ahead of another wave of COVID-19, and was soon abandoned. Today, half of B.C.’s public servants are approved for some form of flexible work.

Shannon Salter, who was appointed head of the B.C. public service in October, sees the work-from-home dynamic differently. She is more concerned about employee burnout than productivity loss, and says it’s management’s task to ensure workers are producing, whether in the office or elsewhere.

She argues the B.C. government has a recruitment and retention problem, in a province where both private and public sector employers are facing a skilled labour shortage. The B.C. public service is skewing to a younger workforce. Its largest cohort of workers are in their 30s, and they are more inclined to choose mobility over a career track if they are unsatisfied with the job. Over the past three years, they have been quitting in growing numbers.

Ms. Salter has decreed that, by default, all job postings in the B.C. public service will be open to any community where the hiring ministry has an existing office, and that there will be an effort to expand those locations. In fiscal 2023, the province expects to post more than 8,000 jobs. Deputy ministers have also been told to get more creative with flexible work options for existing employees, up to and including full-time remote work.

The B.C. government believes its public service will be strengthened by offering more attractive work options. But the NDP needs to demonstrate how such a move won’t hurt productivity and undermine government services – and erode confidence in the public service.