One third of Canadian public servants consider leaving government over return-to-office rules

By on 20/06/2023 | Updated on 20/06/2023
Photo by Nicola Bart via Pexels

More than a third of Canadian public servants are so unhappy with the federal government’s return-to-office approach that they are considering leaving their roles, according to a survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC).

The union, which represents 72,000 public service professionals in the federal government and some provincial departments and agencies, surveyed its members in May 2023.

It found that the percentage of those considering finding a job outside government that allows more flexibility on where they can work, jumps to almost half of those aged 30 or under.

“When nearly one in five members of the federal public service is over the age of 55, approaching retirement age, we cannot afford to lose half of our youngest workers,” said PIPSC president Jennifer Carr. “The government won’t be able to deliver the services Canadians rely on if it’s not able to address the major recruitment and retention problem it’s created with its own flawed return to office policy. These numbers add up to a public service in peril.”

In January, the Canadian federal government issued a mandate requiring public servants to work from the office at least two to three days per week, with the transition to more regular in-person work across government expected to be complete by 31 March.

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

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

Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board, said that the aim of the mandate was to standardise hybrid work practices across federal government, support collaborative work, “team spirit, innovation and a culture of belonging”, and reflected the government’s understanding about the need for “greater fairness and equity across our workplaces”.

Greater fairness and equity – or less?

Earlier this month, in his statement in support of National Public Service Week, prime minister Justin Trudeau emphasised that his government was working to support the career development of indigenous, black, and racialised employees, and was building an inclusive and equitable public service.

However, the PIPSC survey found that workers who identify as black are more than twice as likely to be concerned about discrimination and harassment now that they have been ordered back to the office.

It also found that people with disabilities are twice as likely to be concerned about discrimination and harassment in the office, and more than twice as likely to report that their workstations do not meet their needs. In addition, 70% said that their mental wellbeing is worse as a result of not being able to work remotely. 

Read more: ‘Work is an activity, not a place’: how governments are responding to the hybrid working era

The one-size-fits-all return-to-office policy also puts an increased burden on women, who tend to carry the lion’s share of caregiving responsibilities. The survey found that more than half of women in the public service report that balancing caregiving responsibilities has become more difficult since the mandate was implemented.  

“This government claims it wants to prioritise recruiting younger workers, workers with disabilities, black workers, and women,” Carr said. “But at the same time, they are implementing a return-to-office policy that makes it harder for these groups to be successful in the workplace.”

‘Presence with purpose’

The union advocates the principle of “presence with purpose” – whereby employees’ time in the office is justified by operational needs – and is urging government to consider a hybrid-by-design approach that considers workers’ unique circumstances and job requirements.

“Flexibility is now the centerpiece of a modern and progressive workplace,” Carr said. “Our union is ready to work with the government to develop policies that make sense.” 

In August 2022, when the Canadian government first made moves to bring public servants back into shared workplaces as part of a hybrid model, it received backlash from both employees and unions who called its approach “incoherent” and a risk to workers’ health and safety.

Read more: Canada’s hybrid work plan stokes discontent among public servants

A letter signed by nearly 4,000 public servants urged the government to reconsider its plans. It claimed that the hybrid model it was pursuing was not the compromise it claimed and that it would negatively affect workers’ autonomy, efficiency, and the pursuit of fairness and equity in the workplace.

At the time, PIPSC highlighted that the 60% of its members favoured full-time remote working, 25% preferred a hybrid model, and 10% wanted to work from the office full time.

Mandate contributes to strike action

Michael Wernick, Canada’s former secretary to the cabinet and clerk of the Privy Council, voiced concerns last year that long-term remote working could hold back work to improve teams and develop the next cohort of leaders.

However, he acknowledged in his latest column for Global Government Forum, that the return-to-office mandate combined with high inflation had created the conditions for the first large-scale public sector strike in three decades.

The two-week long strike by 120,000 Canadian public servants ended at the beginning of May after the government and the Public Service Alliance of Canada reached a deal on pay and conditions.

Details of the agreement include a 12.6% pay rise compounded over the life of the agreement from 2021-2024, a one-off payment of C$2,500 (US$1,862), and a requirement that managers assess remote work requests individually, not by group, and provide written responses to hold them accountable for the decisions they make in each case.

Read more: Letter from Ottawa: transitions and reboots for the public service

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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