Last Thursday the federal government abruptly announced a new policy, the Direction on Prescribed Presence in the Workplace, which reduces the amount of remote work permitted by public servants by 40-60%.
For public servants who have now been working efficiently, effectively and productively from home for almost three years, this change is an unpleasant and puzzling pre-Christmas surprise that is difficult to understand, given that remote work in the public service has worked remarkably well and provided good service for all Canadians.
This policy change came on the heels of a letter from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce calling on the federal government to effectively terminate remote work and force public servants back into the workplace at pre-pandemic levels. The Chamber cited the adverse economic impact of remote working on urban cores (particularly in the national capital), vague benefits of in-workplace collaboration, and a need to return to “normal.”
Treasury Board should be making decisions about remote work based on operational requirements and the interests of Canadians, not responding to political pressures. While pre-pandemic, the designation of a place of work was seen as generally falling under an employer’s management rights, those rights must be exercised reasonably in compliance with labour law and collective agreements. In the case of my members, our collective agreement says that management must act reasonably, fairly and in good faith.
Treasury Board has been unable to provide clear and compelling reasons for reducing access to remote work for public servants. The experience of the last three years has shown that remote working in the public service has functioned very well. The federal government has committed itself to a “hybrid” work model that includes remote work and in-office work. After embracing remote work and praising how it had served Canadians well, the federal government is now reversing course for reasons that are flimsy, unconvincing and not based on operational requirements. The decision is arbitrary rather than reasonable.
The federal government’s new policy on remote work will:
- Reduce productivity and service to Canadians;
- Reverse the savings of not having public servants in the workplace and increase government costs;
- Put pressure on departments which have downsized infrastructure and their workplace footprint;
- Result in recruiting and retention problems for the federal government as workers avoid the public service, leave it for more flexible opportunities elsewhere, or are denied access to jobs because they live too far away from traditional workplaces;
- Boost absenteeism due to illness when public servants get sick as a result of returning to the office en masse;
- Put even greater pressure on an overburdened health care and hospital system;
- Reverse the positive environment impact of not having hundreds of thousands of public servants commuting to the traditional workplace;
- Harm the morale and health of public servants; and
- Undermine the positive effects of remote working including better work-life balance, support for family care giving responsibilities and flexibility.
Regrettably, instead of taking an innovative leadership role by supporting remote work, the federal government has gone the opposite direction, arbitrarily reduced remote work, and imposed a mandatory minimum time in the workplace of 2-3 days a week. Furthermore, the government will begin implementing the return to the workplace in mid-January 2023 when COVID-19 is expected to surge. The timing couldn’t be worse.
The federal government should scrap its new policy on remote working, go back to the drawing board and come up with a policy that makes sense. This time, the federal government might try consulting with unions, as it is obligated to do by collective agreements. Unions would willingly provide helpful input toward the development of a reasonable policy on remote working that would work for Canadians, the government, and its workers. The government might also try negotiating remote working at the bargaining table.
David McNairn is an Ottawa lawyer and the President of the Association of Justice Counsel, the union representing 3,100 federal public sector lawyers.