The tentative agreement between the Treasury Board and the Public Service Alliance of Canada marks an important step on the road to the most radical transformation of work since the invention of the postwar suburb.
We are becoming, permanently, a society in which many of us work from home all or much of the time. The new contract with federal public service workers will entrench and expand that phenomenon.
There was that moment in the frantic pandemic spring of 2020 when many of us discovered to our amazement that it was possible to run businesses without workers in the office. What started out as an emergency quickly became routine. The PSAC strike was, in part, about entrenching that routine.
Union negotiators wanted the right to work remotely enshrined in the collective agreement. They didn’t get that. Instead, workers who qualify may continue to work from home two or three days a week. Going forward, each manager and worker will come up with a plan for home/office work balance.
What matters is that the strike and the collective agreement acknowledge that remote work for part of each week is now a permanent fixture for many members of the federal public service, a precedent that will be duplicated in provincial and municipal collective agreements and in the unionized private sector.
Think about it: In 2016, about 4 per cent of Canadian workers worked from home. In the third quarter of last year, according to a Canadian Chamber of Commerce survey, more than a third of all workers spent at least part of the week at home.
Revolution is not too strong a word for this. Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, millions of Canadians funnelled by car, bus or train to offices in city centres from suburbs, reversing the process eight hours later.
Now, with many people working from home at least part of the time, downtowns are emptier, vacant storefronts more common, sidewalks less crowded, rush hour less rushed.
There are many upsides: Fewer commuters means lower carbon emissions. Hours of time wasted on commuting can be transformed into additional work or leisure. Sterile bedroom communities could become urban hubs of their own, where people live, work, shop and find entertainment without ever having to schlep downtown.
But there are prices to pay, beyond the empty floors of downtown office buildings. Managers complain of an atomized workforce less able to collaborate and work creatively. Younger workers may not be receiving the mentorship they need from veteran colleagues.
Can this alleged loss of productivity be measured? It will have to be.
The new workplace reality could worsen class divisions: cashiers, cabbies, servers and shelf-stockers who must be physically present at work to serve the laptop class.
There are all sorts of reasons to support remote work, and all sorts of reasons to worry about its long-term impact. But nothing will change this new reality. An employer who tries to force workers back to the office may soon discover they have trouble hiring.
Societal aging reinforces that trend. According to Statistics Canada, 22 per cent of the Canadian workforce is between 55 and 64 years of age, an unprecedentedly high number. Because of Canada’s record low total fertility rate, fewer new workers are available to replace those soon to retire, creating labour shortages. A worker who prefers to do their job from the dining-room table will start looking around if their employer gets shirty about them working from home.
Remote work could provide the federal government with an opportunity – if it chooses. Requiring most federal public servants to work in the national capital left people from outside the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal axis underrepresented. If Ottawa was willing to let more public servants work entirely from home, while improving bilingualism training, those employees could work from Saint John or Saguenay or Milton or Red Deer or Yellowknife, increasing the diversity and regional representation within the public service. Any loss of physical collegiality would be more than offset by improved regional representation.
The entrenched conservatism among the senior ranks of the federal public service makes such an outcome unlikely any time soon. But the opportunity is there.
For those who champion increased diversity in the federal bureaucracy, here’s your chance, courtesy of the work-from-home revolution.