The federal government is facing pushback from employees reluctant to return to government offices after more than two years working from home.
Online forums for public servants have exploded in recent weeks with comments about the prospect of returning to offices, with employees comparing notes on the hybrid work plans each department is planning to adopt.
One comment by a Health Canada manager urging employees to return to the office, in part, to provide employees at a nearby Subway restaurant with more hours, blew up into a series of sarcastic memes online.
Public service unions say that while some employees want to return to working in government offices or are happy with a hybrid arrangement, a majority want to keep working from home as Canada experiences a seventh wave of COVID-19.
“We have done studies of our membership that show that 60 per cent of our members would prefer to stay in a work from home situation, 25 per cent would like to do a hybrid and 10 per cent would like to come back to the office full time,” said Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents about 70,000 workers, including scientists and computer specialists.
Union wants remote work included in collective agreements
Carr said the union has been flooded with messages from concerned members.
“I would say that our inbox is now 90 per cent about return to the office, how people are not feeling comfortable, how they have questions about masking requirements, about the need and the necessity to come into the office when they can work in the safety of their own home and do the work efficiently.”
Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which has called for a suspension of the return to the office, said his members have long favoured hybrid work. They feel the return to the office is being rushed and that their concerns aren’t being addressed, he said.
CAPE has more than 20,000 members including economists, translators, employees of the Library of Parliament and civilian members of the RCMP.
“By and large, the people that don’t want to go back into the office have been fairly vocal about it,” said Phillips.
“They haven’t even addressed … in a lot of cases, accommodation needs.”
The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) — the largest federal government union, with nearly 230,000 members — is calling on the government to be flexible about bringing employees back into the office and to address their anxieties.
“We know that most of our members are still working remotely, and many want to continue having that flexibility,” the union said in a statement. “Remote work has become a part of everyday life for many workers and we’ll continue to fight to enshrine it in our collective agreements during this round of bargaining with Treasury Board and agencies.”
‘Hybrid work is here to stay’: Treasury Board
In an interview with CBC News, Treasury Board president Mona Fortier said hybrid work is the future of the federal public service. She said it is up to each department or agency to figure out how to make it work while keeping employees safe and getting the job done.
“Hybrid work is here to stay,” said Fortier. “So we need to really understand that hybrid work will be part of how we deliver programs and services to Canadians. I know that a lot of people believe that COVID is gone, but we’re still in a COVID space.”
The latest debate over where public servants should work was sparked by a memo from Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette on June 29, urging public service managers to develop hybrid models of work that meet the operational requirements of their departments.
“Now is the time for us to test new models with a view to full implementation in the fall, subject to public health conditions,” she wrote.
Charette said hybrid work models offer “meaningful opportunities” such a more nationally distributed workforce and more flexibility for employees while bringing people back together in an office has benefits such as enhanced generation of ideas, knowledge transfer and building a strong public service culture.
Different plans for different federal departments
That memo prompted managers to start ramping up plans for employees to start to return to government offices after Labour Day and contacting employees to formalize how many days they would be expected to work from the office.
Union leaders say the result has been a patchwork quilt with some departments telling employees to return to the office several days a week while others are more flexible.
They say the wide range of policies is also resulting in some departments trying to poach the best and the brightest talent from other departments by offering more work from home flexibility and employees seeking transfers to departments more open to working from home.
Still others are considering leaving the federal public service, rather than return to government offices.
In online forums such as Canada’s Federal Public Service on Reddit, public servants have been comparing information about return-to-office plans. While a handful support the move, many are sharply critical of the plan to bring employees back into offices, the way it is being rolled out or who is being selected to return to the office.
In some cases, commenters reported being told to return to the office only to spend their time in video conference meetings.
“Commuting an hour a day to see no one I work with and communicate almost exclusively with (MS) Teams and email is utterly pointless,” wrote one.
“There’s the email from our ESDC DM — expected in the office at least some of the time,” wrote another. “Excuse me while I scream obscenities into the void.”
Some complained their department announced one plan – only to change it.
“We were asked to sign telework agreements, in which full time telework was one of the options,” said one commenter who said they worked at the Justice Department. “And now, suddenly, full time telework is off the table and it’s a two day in office minimum.”
Risk of contracting COVID-19 a concern for some
“They pretty much told us we wouldn’t be forced back if we didn’t want to,” responded one commenter who said they worked at Statistics Canada. “Now minimum two days starting Sept. 12.”
For others, the concern is the risk of catching COVID-19 from a co-worker or the working conditions in some government office.
Leaders such as Phillips say the comments on forums like Reddit are in line with what they are hearing from their members.
“You see all sorts of government employees comparing notes between what one department is doing and another department is doing and it’s creating mass confusion.”