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Public service unions leading fightback against feds’ remote work policy

Noakes: The federal government has needlessly picked a fight with a national workforce exceeding 270,000 people

Canadian PoliticsEconomic CrisisLabour

Photo by Bakerjarvis/Dreamstime

Much like low-wage “essential workers” during the thick of the pandemic, federal public servants have discovered in recent weeks that they are simultaneously too valuable to continue working from home, yet not worth enough to negotiate with.

The Treasury Board Secretariat’s May 1 announcement that federal workers will be required to work on-site a minimum of three days per week beginning in September was made without negotiation or consultation with unions. Chris Aylward, President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), called the decision “purely political,” stating that tens of thousands of workers will go back to “ill-equipped and poorly maintained offices.”

PSAC and other major public service unions have vowed a “summer of discontent” in retaliation for the government’s abrupt and unilateral update to its hybrid work policy, which currently requires workers in the office either two or three days a week.

Of PSAC members surveyed by the union, 85 percent strongly oppose the three-day in-office mandate, while fully 90 percent are prepared to take action against the government.

And while a recent Angus Reid poll indicates a majority of Canadians want federal workers to spend more time in their offices, opposition to the government’s actions is higher among unionized workers.

There are a few interrelated issues at play here.

First, the government’s insistence that workers return to their offices appears to be driven more by short-term business interests and a desire to revitalize Ottawa’s downtown economy than by any empirical evidence showing that more time in the office boosts productivity.

According to Nathan Prier, President of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), there is no evidence to support the claim that productivity and collaboration is enhanced by physically reporting to an office.

“It’s important to note that the employer has not measured this in any way,” said Prier in an interview with Canadian Dimension. “It has simply noted the recent actions of large corporations like Nike and used this as cover for a total lack of policy. We know the federal government has been lobbied hard by downtown business coalitions, commercial landlords, and conservative politicians like Doug Ford, and it seems like the interests of those groups won over the clearly stated interest of the overwhelming majority of their workers.”

It’s important to remember that, before the pandemic, many companies offered remote work as a perk. Whether an employee is more productive at home or in an office is ultimately subjective and contextual. If working from home was considered a benefit offered by some employers to improve workers’ lives before the pandemic, we could fairly conclude that working from home continues to offer the same benefit to employees after the pandemic (irrespective of public health concerns).

Perhaps it was an unintended consequence of the pandemic that the number of people able to enjoy the benefits of remote work increased. If that’s the case, then so be it. This is like accidentally discovering the advantages of the four-day work week—workers cannot and should not be expected to give this up.

There is insufficient empirical evidence to say one way or another whether working from home negatively impacts overall productivity. At least one pre-pandemic study revealed that those who worked remotely five days a week reported higher productivity and job satisfaction, and could carve out more time for caregiving responsibilities.

By contrast, there is evidence to suggest that Canada’s federal office buildings may not be suitable for any amount of in-office work, let alone an increase.

Prier argues that the Treasury Board is asking its workers to return to unsafe, unsanitary conditions.

“Federal offices simply follow regional public health guidance,” said Prier. “While there were piecemeal ventilation upgrades in some buildings during the early days of the pandemic, a systematic approach to minimizing virus transmission in government offices was never taken up.”

Prier adds that, generally speaking, conditions in federal office buildings are worse now than before the pandemic: “there are bedbugs in some buildings, mice, bats, asbestos, odours, cockroaches—employees are sick of working in these conditions.”

The problems aren’t limited to health concerns and sanitary conditions, either. Consider that the federal government is mandating employees back to the office just as it aims to reduce its real estate portfolio. According to CTV, the last federal budget “directed Public Service and Procurement Canada to reduce its office portfolio by 50 per cent, enabling federal office buildings to potentially be turned into homes in Ottawa.”

Treasury Board’s inconsistent and incoherent approach to adapting federal workspaces to the new realities of the post-pandemic world are equally disconcerting.

“New office layouts are poorly designed, people don’t know where to sit and whether they’ll get a proper desk, equipment, or an office at all,” said Prier, who added that federal workers spend most of their in-office hours on videoconferencing applications like Microsoft Teams. “This gets much worse in regional offices, where employees aren’t even with their teams or even their home department—it’s just a pure ‘bums-in-seats’ operation with no operational rationale behind it.”

Prier argues that public servants are better off working from home, and argues federal office buildings would better serve the public if they were converted to socially useful ends, such as public or affordable housing.

Prier says CAPE members have not reported any loss in productivity since they started working from home. Rather, the elimination of daily commutes and worries about securing a dedicated workstation have had a positive impact on their quality of life—as well as their performance.

Prier says the government’s unilateral decision to force workers back into the office is “a massive slap in the face for caregivers,” noting that it’s often women who end up taking on a disproportionate amount of that work.

“Single-parent households, or those with school-aged children who would normally have to be in before or after school care, those who have elderly family commitments, or really anyone in a caregiving role where you’d rather not add unnecessary long commutes to a stressful day,” all benefit from the ability to work from home, according to Prier.

“We don’t understand why the government insists on going back to the past,” he continued. “British Columbia and Australia have shown leadership by offering their public service employees the option of teleworking full-time unless there is a clear operational need for them to be in the office.”

Prier argues that increasing work location flexibility for federal employees is beneficial in numerous ways: it promotes decentralization, allows the government to hire Canadians from any region of the country without forcing them to relocate to Ottawa, and it ensures that the public service better reflects the diversity of Canada. It also leads to considerable savings from commercial leases and maintenance.

The government’s decision is baffling for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that they have needlessly picked a fight with a national workforce exceeding 270,000 people. The government has also walked back commitments it made last year where it agreed not to impose arbitrary changes to telework agreements.

Prier can’t explain how or why the federal government could possibly come to this decision.

“We are a union made up of a lot of policy analysts who pride ourselves in evidence-based decision making,” he said.

“Our employer expects that of us, but apparently not of itself. It seems like this government is caving to pressure from people like Doug Ford on extremely weak arguments about saving downtown businesses, which we translate as meaning vast commercial real estate empires, rather than anything meaningful on employee productivity or well-being.”

Messaging from the political class has been mixed. While Ontario Premier Doug Ford has called on federal employees to return to the office—ostensibly to revitalize downtown Ottawa’s economy—Treasury Board President Anita Anand seemed to emphasize the importance of workplace flexibility in a recent interview with the Ottawa Citizen. Anand was attending a lunch hosted by Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe that was protested by CAPE and other public sector unions.

Though Sutcliffe has said that he wants federal workers back in the office, he re-emphasized his previous comments that he never lobbied the federal government directly to force workers back to the office.

For his part, Prier is suspicious of the government’s business case, saying it is trapped in a vision of downtown Ottawa’s vitality being dependent on federal employees buying sandwiches and happy hour drinks.

Most respondents to a recent Angus Reid poll seems to agree, with a majority of working-age Ottawa residents saying it is not the responsibility of federal employees to revive the city’s downtown economy by spending more time in the office.

“This is a resounding lack of vision—CAPE is building up a coalition, particularly in the National Capital Region, to push for a real community vision where downtown Ottawa doesn’t suck after 5:00 pm.”

Prier further argues that the government’s actions don’t make sense for taxpayers.

“This government just made a lot of hay about the billions of dollars they’re proposing for converting federal office buildings into housing, but two weeks later, they announce that way more people are going to be in their terrible offices more often. You can’t make this stuff up,” said Prier.

“Things are clearly spiraling in this government, they’re getting bullied by provincial politicians and huge real estate interests, and have no clear sense of what they’re doing. We’re not going to do this dance with them—our members don’t work to prop up commercial real estate in the city that fun forgot.”

Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montréal. In addition to writing regularly for Canadian Dimension, he contributes to the Toronto Star, Jacobin, Cult MTL, The Maple, DeSmog, and the Montréal Review of Books, among others. He holds an MA in Public History from Duquesne University and has worked on the restoration of playwright August Wilson’s childhood home. He is also a frequent contributor to the Canadian Encyclopedia, and once debated several Canadian prime ministers at once on matters of foreign policy.

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