For many, the federal government’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ hybrid work model won’t fit – Canada

This column is an opinion by Lynn Ward, who has worked for the federal government for over 10 years. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Earlier this month, Treasury Board announced its proposed “one-size-fits-all” hybrid work model, requiring public servants to start working at least two to three days a week at the office. As an Ottawa-based public servant for the last 10-plus years, I have some views.

For knowledge workers, there’s a lot more pros than cons to working from home. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to rethink our outdated workplace methods. Now that we’ve invested in the tools and technology to facilitate remote work, does it really make sense to ignore the progress and go back to our old ways? It’s like saying, “now that we’ve invented cars, I think it’s time we go back to using a horse and carriage for a few days per week.”

The pandemic isn’t over and public health measures seem to be driven by politics. Canada is facing a health care crisis and we’re in the middle of a tripledemic (flu, RSV, COVID). I don’t feel safe taking public transit or going to work in a crowded office space with poor ventilation and no masks. To be clear, I am so done with this pandemic! I wish it was over, but ignoring it is not going to make it go away.

It will be near impossible for parents to arrange last minute before and after school child care to accommodate commute times. Schools work out their plans and hire staff in advance. They don’t have the capacity, particularly in the National Capital Region, to accommodate a large influx of new kids mid-year. Not everyone can rely on family and friends for support, and I doubt grandparents are going to be thrilled with the pressure to fill a child care void.

The cost of living is increasing, and we’re suddenly being forced to make expensive adjustments to our daily lives? Sudden child care costs, public transit, gas, parking and updating our wardrobe (because let’s face it, many of us have put on a few pounds in the last few years). Aren’t average working Canadians facing enough financial pressure already?

Why waste energy?

How is a mass return to office going to help with climate change? Public transit isn’t accessible or reliable for everyone, and many people are going to prefer taking their cars. Also, why do we need to waste energy on unnecessary office space? I thought the government of Canada was trying to reduce emissions and its carbon footprint.

Is the government getting sucked into a sunk-cost fallacy? It doesn’t want the public to think it’s wasting tax dollars on unnecessary office space? Could the government consider a new strategy and look for win-win solutions instead? Here’s one idea: Repurpose unused office space and convert it to affordable housing. Where’s the innovative long-term thinking?

We’ve had an opportunity to create optimal work environments for ourselves at home. We’ve increased accessibility and employee engagement because virtual meetings can accommodate more people than in-person boardrooms (which were always in short supply). We don’t even have dedicated desks or cubicles at the office anymore. The government will have to spend even more money to supply new furniture and equipment. 

Work from home has made a huge positive impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a member of an equity-seeking group, I’ve faced less harassment and microaggressions by working remotely. I no longer feel like I’m being judged for the clothes I wear or the way I style my hair. Less focus on my personal physical attributes means more focus on my actual work contributions.

Virtual meetings have leveled the playing field for employees. Too many managers seem to think confidence equals competence, that the loudest voice is the most relevant. Having to actually take turns to speak (e.g. mute/un-mute and raising virtual hands) has resulted in fewer interruptions and speaking over each other in meetings. There’s more diversity of thought and better outcomes.

Service already suffering

We’re exhausted. Flexible work arrangements and the ability to work from home has been a savior to reduce daily stressors. By mandating people back to the office, public servants’ stress levels will get worse. I’m worried that early retirements, staff going on short term disability and increased absenteeism will inevitably follow. We’re chronically short-staffed, and our service levels already suffer because of it.

I should note that public servants are not asking for 100 per cent remote work. There are some work activities that are better performed in-person, at the office. The problem with the proposed Treasury Board mandate is the lack of flexibility. A one-size-fits-all approach is short-sighted, and ignorant to the differences and complexities of our jobs. For many of us, productivity has increased while working from home because we have fewer distractions. Many of us even work longer hours because we don’t have to commute, and we’ve reinvested that time to serve Canadians.

Here’s a message for those who don’t work for Canada’s public service or haven’t been able to benefit from remote work during the pandemic: You can get mad at me and tell me to “suck it up and get back to work,” or you can get mad at the system for creating unfavourable working conditions for so many of us. 

Don’t settle, make your voices heard, be loud. Let’s work together and make Canada a better place to work for everyone!

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