After almost three years of working from the comfort of their homes, federal government workers have finally received the mandate most in the private sector already have been forced to heed: it’s time to come back to the office.
Public-sector workers will need to be back on site two to three days a week, or 40 to 60 per cent of their workweek, by March 31, the Treasury Board announced on Thursday. It’s a dramatic reversal of its previous flexible work policy that let managers apply remote and hybrid options at their discretion. The pivot to hybrid work is a “reimagining” of the office, designed to create “collaboration, team spirit, innovation and a culture of belonging,” says Mona Fortier, president of the Treasury Board.
Unsurprisingly, workers are furious — many have previously said they intend to continue working from home full time — and unions have vowed to fight back. “The government’s decision doesn’t have the best interest of workers at heart,” says the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents 165,000 public servants. Jennifer Carr, president of the Public Service of Canada, says the “poorly thought out, punitive” directive is setting the government up for “an unnecessary fight.”
But some say the announcement is long overdue. In October, business leaders urged the federal government to order its employees back to offices, arguing that remote work was impacting delivery of services, setting a bad example for private companies trying to convince staff to come back to their desks and impacting businesses in downtown Ottawa that rely on office workers’ dollars. “We strongly urge the federal government to lead the way to a return to normal,” the executives said in a letter.
If this is indeed a “return to normal,” private-sector workers still enjoying the freedom to work from home might soon be feeling a little nervous about their own arrangements. After all, the beginning of a new year signals a fresh start and could be the perfect excuse for bosses to do something about getting butts back in office chairs.
There’s reason to believe the tide is starting to turn. Nine in 10 companies in the United States that are still fully remote plan to order their staff back to the office within the next six months, says a Dec. 13 survey of 1,000 business leaders conducted by ResumeBuilder.com. Employees already on a hybrid schedule should also expect to make the commute more often in the new year, with 77 per cent of employers saying they’ll require additional days of in-office attendance, while 13 per cent will mandate a full return to the office.
Those businesses seem to be ignoring mounting evidence that remote and hybrid work are good for the bottom line and resiliency.
A new report by Kasian Architecture Interior Design and Planning Ltd., which designs hybrid workspaces, found that 51 per cent of Canadian hybrid/remote businesses said their finances improved compared to only 23 per cent that stayed with a traditional office model. Well-being and health of remote and hybrid workers also got a boost, along with workplace culture, staff retention and hiring.
Many employers believe offering remote work is giving them an edge in the battle for talent amid stubborn labour shortages, and 66 per cent say they’ll keep offering a work-from-home option for that reason, according to the latest survey from Express Employment Professionals. Meanwhile, employees say having flexibility makes them happier, more productive and more engaged with their workplaces.
Trying to stuff the remote-work genie back into the bottle might be more trouble than it’s worth at this point for most employers, particularly those dealing with staff turnover and hiring woes. That’s not to say things couldn’t change. “When, and if the country’s labour shortages ease, it remains to be seen if fully remote or hybrid options are as prevalent,” says Bill Stoller, Express’s chief executive.
Why is the federal government making its return-to-office push now? Maybe it’s a case of now or never. The longer the government waits, the longer full-time remote workers’ expectations become entrenched. That looks bad for the government, especially as the economy cools and business executives push for a return to pre-pandemic norms.
It could also come down to a perception of fairness. Many, if not most, employees in the private sector have already switched to hybrid or even full in-office schedules. Public servants’ insistence they be allowed to work from home risks appearing tone deaf if private-sector workers don’t have the same luxury. There’s no doubt flexibility has brought great improvements in work-life balance and well-being for many, but going into the office once, twice or even three times a week is still valuable when it comes to connecting and collaborating with colleagues. It’s also a small price to pay to ensure Canadians receive the quality services they’re entitled to.
No matter the outcome of the fight between public-sector unions and the government, workplaces across Canada will feel the ripple effects. Get ready: 2023 is the year that will define the true new normal of where we work.
— Victoria Wells, senior editor, Financial Post, and FP Work editor
Note: FP Work will not publish on Dec. 27, but return on Jan. 3. Do you have thoughts, suggestions or comments you’d like to share with us at FP Work? Please send an email to [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.