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Michael Wernick, former clerk of the privy council, says remote work can impede the ability of managers to spot and grow talent.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The former head of the federal public service is warning that extended periods of working from home could negatively impact public servants’ careers and hamper their ability to learn from colleagues, as some federal employees say they have returned to their offices to find they no longer have desks.

Michael Wernick, who led federal workers as clerk of the privy council from 2016 to 2019 and is now the University of Ottawa’s Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management, said in an interview that remote work could impede ”managers’ ability to spot and grow talent” and “identify who is contributing and who is a passenger.”

Mr. Wernick added that working in an office helps people absorb the culture and values of a department. “These are essential to improving teams over time and growing the next cohorts of leaders,” he said.

Before the holiday break, the federal government announced that it would be forcing public servants back to their offices at least two to three days a week by the end of March, after allowing them to work from home since the early days of the pandemic.

The announcement has prompted a backlash from some federal workers, and it has been challenged by unions, which are preparing to tell public servants how to file grievances about issues such as lack of space to work.

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Michael Aubry, a spokesperson for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents more than half of the federal government’s approximately 300,000 workers, said some federal employees have gone to offices to find they no longer have desks.

Some federal departments ended leases on offices, or rented empty offices to private tenants to save money during the pandemic while staff members worked at home.

Mr. Aubry said many offices now have “hoteling” systems, where employees have to book desks online – but he said many have found that no desks are available for the days they want to go in. He said the concern about desk availability “is one of the headache-inducing questions people have,” about Ottawa’s return-to-work announcement.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada said staff members in a number of federal departments are struggling to find space to work.

“We have people working in cafeterias, in lunchrooms and on the floor,” said Jennifer Carr, the institute’s president. “The message being sent is it is more important they are present than the work that they produce.”

Ms. Carr said a union steward found colleagues at Statistics Canada working on the floor with their laptops because they had no desks or chairs.

The federal Treasury Board said in a statement that “departments and agencies are working with Public Services and Procurement Canada to ensure workspaces can accommodate this common hybrid work model.”

“The government has provided an implementation date of March 31, 2023, to allow time to prepare workspaces where needed,” it added.

A Nanos poll for The Globe and Mail found that half of respondents thought federal public servants should be able to work from home part-time.

The poll of 1,021 people found Canadians are split on whether public servants work harder in the office. Four in 10 respondents said officials would be most productive when working partly at home.

Almost a third said they thought federal employees should be required to work from the office full-time. But in Saskatchewan and Manitoba almost half said the workers should go into offices every day.

Only a quarter of respondents from Quebec said they thought federal workers should have to work from offices. In Ontario, it was 52 per cent.

The poll, which has a margin of error of 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20, found women were slightly more in favour of hybrid work than men. People over the age of 55 were the most comfortable with the idea of working from home part-time.

Shelagh Campbell, an associate professor at the University of Regina who has done a number of studies on remote work, said people’s productivity in hybrid work situations could depend on whether they have dedicated work spaces at home.

“People working at a dining room table with children of three different ages doing their homework, while having to do meal preparation, had a lot of distractions,” she said.