Canadian government readies return-to-office mandate in effort to codify hybrid work model

By on 11/01/2023 | Updated on 12/01/2023
The Government Conference Centre in Ottawa, Canada

The Canadian federal government will soon require public servants to work from the office at least two to three days a week.

The mandate outlining the new arrangement is expected to increase in-person work to between 40% to 60% of officials’ regular schedules. To smooth the transition for departments and employees, a phased introduction of the new rules will begin on 16 January. Implementation is expected to be complete by 31 March.

The move marks a departure from the federal government’s previously looser hybrid work model, which followed employees’ remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Guidelines issued by the Treasury Board of Canada last year left it to individual departments to decide “whether the location of work be made flexible, to what extent, and how”.

Read more: Canadian government becoming hybrid as minister challenges back-to-office call

Speaking at a news conference in December, Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board, said that the aim of the mandate was to standardise hybrid work practices across the federal workforce. She added that office presence supported collaborative work, which is turn fostered “team spirit, innovation and a culture of belonging”.

Fortier also said that the new requirement reflected government’s understanding about the need for “greater fairness and equity across our workplaces” as well as “consistency in how hybrid work is applied across the federal government”.

Contributors and passengers

In an interview published last week in Canada’s Globe and Mail, former head of the Canadian public service Michael Wernick said that working from home long-term could hinder public servants’ ability to learn from colleagues and hold back their careers.

He added that remote work made it harder for managers to “spot and grow talent” and “identify who is contributing and who is a passenger”, stressing that these were “essential to improving teams over time and growing the next cohort of leaders”.

Wernick posted the interview on LinkedIn and emphasised that “the important thing is to move forward and figure out how middle and senior managers can best play their essential role in performance management and talent management in the new workplaces that are going to be increasingly hybrid”.

Speaking on Series 2 of Global Government Forum’s Leading Questions podcast, Wernick called the role of middle managers “a real challenge in this [distributed] environment”.

“There are some very positive aspects of the new wave of technology [enabling remote work], but the management challenge remains the same. I do wonder sometimes how the senior managers can do talent management in this environment, and it’s a skill they’ll have to work on,” he said.

Read more: ‘Work’s an activity, not a place’: officials’ response to hybrid working

Desk scarcity

Canadian federal agents and their representing unions have pushed back against the government’s guidance around hybrid work and its plans to formalise the model, with the latest criticisms focusing on a lack of desk space.

Michael Aubry, spokesperson for the Public Service Alliance (which represents more than half of the federal government’s more than 300,000 workers), said empty government offices rented out to private tenants during the pandemic had since started operating what he described as “hoteling” systems that require federal employees to book desks online. However, members of staff have said they have found desks are often unavailable on days they have planned to go in.

Canada’s hybrid work plan stokes discontent among public servants

Jennifer Carr, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said the result of this had been “people working in cafeterias, in lunchrooms and on the floor” and that “the message being sent is it is more important [public servants] are present than the work that they produce”.

The Treasury Board said that departments and agencies were working with Public Services and Procurement Canada to make sure offices were fully resourced by the end of March.

Read more: Listen: Exclusive podcast with Canada’s ex-cab sec Michael Wernick

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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