The Functionary
 A newsletter all about the federal public service. 
Brought to you by
Kathryn May
Hi, and welcome to the third edition of The Functionary. As back-to-school approaches, public servants are laser focused on one issue these days: the push to get them back in the office in the fall for a couple of days a week. And it’s not pretty. Lots of angry and emotional pushback, especially coming on the heels of the peak of a seventh wave of a contagious Omicron subvariant. Hope you had a good summer. Let us know how we’re doing and what you want more of.
Ok, here goes.
* Return to office: First resistance, now Subwaygate.
* Social’s blurred lines: No Reddit, please.
* “The great frustration”: A CAPE survey for professionals.
* “Quiet-quitting”: TikTok’s version of work-to-rule.
* The clerk reports: There’s no going back.
* By the numbers: A year in the life of the public service.
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Resistance turns into rebellion

The back-to-office countdown begins. Now that the clerk and deputy ministers have made clear they want people back to the office to test hybrid working, resistance is escalating into a near rebellion.
You only have to look at online forums like Reddit, which exploded in past month with surging traffic, memes, protests – and nasty personal attacks that don’t pass muster with the public service’s values and ethics code. Volunteer moderators have been hopping to enforce rules, keeping  discussions civil and tempers cool.  
The CanadaPublicServants subreddit (a Reddit category/thread) devoted to the public service says it has grown from about 3k users three years ago to about 13.5k lately.
Public servants are using Reddit and other social media to mobilize a grassroots movement around the most radical change in federal history in where and how they work. They have bashed departments’ RTO plans, bosses, colleagues and posted transcripts of meetings. A group objecting to hybrid work sent an open letter – GOC Together – to senior leaders. Others are organizing among themselves letter-writing campaigns to their MPs. 
Which brings us to Subwaygate.
Subwaygate is being used to describe the backlash stemming from a Health Canada town hall to discuss the return to office. At the July 20 event, a Health Canada executive related how she went to Subway for lunch one day while back at the office and realized how much the Subway staff rely on a steady stream of public service customers. On Reddit, that quickly amplified into an enraged response of “We are being forced back to the office to help keep Subway in business?”
The comments, the memes, the personal attacks were merciless. Amusing, but vicious. And all anonymous. Here’s one:

Source: Reddit
And another: 
Source: Reddit
And one more:
Source: Reddit
Is there a topic you'd like to see explored? Let us know


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.  

CAPE's doing a deep dive

Camille Awada, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, says the online furore shows the “great frustration employees feel being left in the dark with little information or being consulted.” They want to be heard, so CAPE is conducting a deep-dive survey into how its members feel about remote and hybrid work, from health and safety and work-life balance to productivity.
CAPE has been pushing to suspend RTO office plans. Why rush with a seventh wave when hospitals can’t manage, even closing emergency departments on weekends, says Awada.
With Labour Day around the corner, the chatter moves to what’s next. Will managers discipline people who don’t show up? They can. Or will they turn a blind eye? Employees could quit or move to a department that gives them more flexibility. Will another wave delay RTO longer?
“Quiet-quitting”: new term, familiar idea. “Quiet quitting” is a new trend on TikTok. You don’t actually quit your job but stop doing anything above and beyond what is expected, the bare minimum. Like work-to-rule. (Government bashers would say that for bureaucrats, not going the extra mile amounts to “working.”) CBC and the Globe and Mail have written about the topic lately.

Source: TikTok
Who blinks first? Will Treasury Board tough it out with its hands-off approach, letting departments experiment with what works best for them? That could take years.  
Negotiate or impose? Treasury Board could negotiate an agreement with unions, which want telework or remote work enshrined in collective agreements. Or as some managers suggest, it could impose a blanket mandatory return to office for, say, two days a week. That’s considered a last resort. It’s also contrary to the “hybrid experimentation” to figure out what mix of in-person and in-office works best for each department.
Says Dany Richard, the president of the Association of Canadian Financial Officers:
“We believe that every position should be assessed for its merits to telework and that the employee have the choice to decide what they prefer, in terms of working from the office or remotely. We believe in purposeful meetings in the workplace. We don't believe in prescribed minimum number of days per week. We don’t want people being in the office for the sake of being in the office.”
The possible hammer drop. Of course, politicians can always step in, settle it all and force everyone back to the office for any number of days. That could mean finding more office space for thousands of remote workers hired during the pandemic.
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"It would be a missed opportunity ...."

In the middle of all this, the clerk’s annual report to the prime minister on the public service has come out. There’s barely a mention of hybrid. It covers last year, April 2021 to March 2022, before the backlash erupted. But Privy Council clerk Janice Charette talks about the future of work:
“We know the Public Service of tomorrow will not look or operate as it did in 2021, but it would be a missed opportunity if we went back to the way things were in 2019.”
Treasury Board sent The Functionary a similar message when asked for its response to the open letter mentioned earlier. Hybrid marks the first step in defining work for the future, which includes everything from new technology, security, office space and design. Departments must find that match between what workers want, what their operations need and the best value for money for Canadians.
Here’s some of Treasury Board’s reply:
“The future of work is much larger than flexible work arrangements and includes considerations around optimizing office space, modernization of our digital infrastructure, and supporting climate action through sustainability in government operations. As a first step to define the future of work, departments across government are exploring hybrid models of both on-site and remote work. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each department is developing their own roadmap, aligned with common government-wide principles, that considers the nature of their unique work environment and the services they provide to Canadians.”

A year in the life of the public service 

The clerk’s report offers a snapshot and pat on the back for the public service’s work from April 2021-March 2022 – a year of “uncertainty” that jumped from crisis to crisis.

Stress is up during the pandemic:

  • 47 per cent of executives say most days are stressful;
  • 75 per cent of executives report burnout.
  •  18 per cent of all public servants report high or very stress in 2020 compared to 22 per cent among Indigenous people; 17 per cent for visible minorities; 29 per cent of those with disabilities; 18 per cent among women; 22 per cent of LGBTQ2+. This marks a slight rise in high or very high stress levels.
March 2021:
  • 319,601 total employees (up 19,000 from year before)
  • 80,940 new hires since 2016-17
  • 44,157 departures/retirements (same period)
  • 44 years is average age
  • 82 per cent indeterminate (permanent)
  • 55 per cent are women
  • 60 per cent have worked in the public service less than 15 years
  • 70.4 per cent say English is their first language
  • Less than six per cent are baby boomers
  • 7,972, (an eight per cent increase over 2020)
  • 50 years is average age
  • 37 of them are deputy ministers with average age of 57.5
  • 39 are associate DMs with average age 52.8
  • 32.4 per cent say French is their first language
More Indigenous, Black and racialized people promoted to leadership jobs:
  • 247 Indigenous, up 43 per cent
  • 128 Black, up 29 per cent
  • 830 racialized, up 116 per cent
Kathryn May writes about the federal public service for Policy Options magazine. She is the Accenture Fellow on the Future of the Public Service, providing coverage and analysis of the complex issues facing Canada’s federal public service for Policy Options. She has spent 25 years writing about the public service – the country’s largest workforce – and has also covered parliamentary affairs and politics for The Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia Network Inc. and iPolitics. The winner of a National Newspaper Award, she has also researched and written about public service issues for the federal government and research institutes. Follow Kathryn on Twitter: @kathryn_may
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