Why many Ottawa public servants oppose return-to-office plans
For more than two years, federal public servants have been doing their jobs from home.
Now, amid pressure to return to the office, they’re asking why that needs to change.
“It’s an antiquated notion that you have to be sitting in a workplace, in an office and doing your job there when people have been, for the last two years, capable of doing their tasks at home,” said Greg Phillips, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees.
According to the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents more than 55,000 federal public servants, 60 per cent of their membership is opposed to returning to the office, 25 per cent would support a hybrid return, and just 10 per cent are in favour of a return to the office.
Now, Canada’s largest public servant union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) says it is working on establishing remote work as a collective bargaining right.
“We know most of our members are still working remotely, and many want to continue having that flexibility…We’ll continue to fight to enshrine it in our collective agreements during this round of bargaining with Treasury Board and Agencies,” PSAC National President Chris Aylward said in a statement.
The latest push for bringing employees back to their workplaces came from the Privy Council Office, after a memo was sent in June asking federal departments to create a return to office plan for the fall.
“There’s a lot of concerns; we have a lot of questions and there’s been almost no consultations with how these things are going to be implemented,” Phillips said.
Adding to the confusion is that there appears to be no set standard for a return to the office. Unions report that members are being told they will need to return for differing periods of time depending on the agency, department, even the manager they work under.
“From a union perspective, it would be great if we could come in at the top level, have those issues addressed and speak on behalf of our membership,” Jennifer Carr, the president of PIPSC, said.
Since May, the federal Treasury Board has said hybrid work is here to stay, but what that looks like exactly, and when it will be implemented, is unclear.
“I believe in the next few weeks, few months, we’ll be addressing these questions and of course we’ll have to experiment and we’ll have to make adjustments as we go along,” Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said on Monday.
“A one-sized approach doesn’t work necessarily. Look at the Coast Guard, there are different needs compared to Service Canada, that’s why we need to all work together, make sure we deliver the services to Canadians,” she added.
Union leaders say some departments are looking to fill staffing shortages by offering public servants more flexibility, hoping to entice them away from jobs that require more time in-office.
“I’m afraid that some departments who will continue with the traditional methods will lose the talent and skills that they need to departments that are more flexible,” Carr said.
Still, the return of downtown workers is welcome news to some.
“It’s huge, we’re in the TBS building and we’re 85 per cent what we were before COVID. Down. It’s just horrible,” Todd Simpson, owner of the Morning Owl on Laurier Avenue, said.
Simpson says his cafe barely breaks even most months, if it does at all.
“Something consistent would really help. It’s fluctuating so badly, we can’t plan for it,” he said.
Simpson says 25 per cent of workers in his building are expected to return to the office at least two days per week, beginning in September. He hopes that will be the difference maker for businesses like his.
“You try to do whatever you can do to bring the business in to keep surviving,” he said.