What do they want? Freedom. According to the open letter, public servants want “freedom to choose the way we work” and that’s remotely. They feel unheard, not consulted – after showing during the pandemic that they can work efficiently and productively from home. More than 9,700 people – and counting – have signed the letter.
Bigger picture. Lots of companies are grappling with this and want workers back in the office. In Canada, the feds are just bigger and slower at it. Unions are caught in a tricky position. Staffing and working conditions are the rights of management, which isn’t about to give them up. So, they are closely watching the mobilization of workers, which could help at the bargaining table, where two big issues dominate: working from home and wage increases keeping up with inflation.
“Not only are they hearing this from bargaining agents,” says one labour watcher, “but they’re getting it from thousands of people on social media. It’s tough to ignore.”
A Labour Day showdown. It will all “hit the fan” after Labour Day, one union official says. That’s when departments are expected to send employees their telework policies, firming up how many days they will need to come into the office.
A patchwork. A number of departments have announced plans for return to the office, and the arrangements are all over the map – one, two, three days. Here’s a Reddit list of some departments and their plans so far.
How did we get here? The grand-scale remote-work experiment forced on workers is part of life now. People have settled in, rearranged their lives. Given the choice, many want to continue working remotely. Public servants have known for more than a year the government plans a shift to a hybrid workforce. Some figured the longer they stay working at home, the less likely they will have to return to the office.
So, what’s the rush now? A trigger was a June letter that Canada’s top bureaucrat, Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette, sent deputy ministers urging them to test-drive running departments with a hybrid workforce over the summer to be ready for full implementation by the fall. Suddenly, departments and managers scrambled to ramp up their RTO plans, calling meetings and town halls, telling workers they have to get back to the office a couple of days a week.
Social media is tricky. It’s a grey area for public servants trying to navigate their public, private and professional lives online. Where’s the line? Treasury Board doesn’t have an answer, but Health Canada’s brass has weighed in on personal attacks as an ethical breach. Several employees say management asks them in meetings not “to run out and put this on Reddit.” Unions say they aren’t hearing of any reprimands or disciplining for any posts by employees. And what can government do?
How public servants use social media, anonymously or not, while they balance their duty of loyalty to government with their right to free speech and engage in political activity seems to be an open question, something I have written about in Policy Options.
But other public servants have weighed in on the hybrid “experiment” – using their names – with interesting takes on the situation:
Canadians lose trust in government, public servants lose confidence in their leaders and then good people leave, Sean Boots says, looking at knock-on effects of managing the shift to hybrid.
“Clarity is kindness” and kindness gets results. Steph Percival looks at the importance of how decisions are made and communicated – or not.
“Teams should not return to the same office.” Michael Karlin looks at RTO risks, from COVID to climate change and security, as a case for a nationally dispersed workforce.