Feds looking at permanent remote work, office needs after COVID-19

OTTAWA — The federal government is taking a close look at the amount of office space it will need in the coming years as it considers how some of Canada's hundreds of thousands of federal public servants could end up working from home permanently.

The review was revealed Monday by Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos, who oversees the bureaucracy as a workforce, as the government released a guide for the eventual return of public servants to their normal workplaces.

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The vast majority of federal public servants have been working from home since mid-March as COVID-19 saw offices and other workspaces across the country shuttered to slow transmission of the illness.

While there have been some hiccups and criticisms, Duclos said significant lessons have been learned — and efficiencies realized — over the past three months even as the government dramatically ramped up the ability for bureaucrats to work remotely.

That included doubling the number of secure internet connections available to public servants and tripling the number of minutes available for teleconferences so workers and supervisors can stay in touch and co-ordinate their activities.

As a result, "we've started really reflecting on the number of offices and the number of office spaces we want over the next few years," Duclos said during the daily COVID-19 ministerial news conference in Ottawa.

The comments coincided with the release of a 30-page document aimed at providing guidance to federal public servants at all levels for getting back into their offices even though the pandemic continues to pose a threat.

The guidebook includes directions to senior management to take into consideration their departments' own requirements as well as the circumstances of individual employees and their families. It also makes clear that the return to "normal" will take time.

"Employees whose work can be done remotely should continue to take advantage of recent investments in IT infrastructure and digital skills, as the work and equipment permit," the guidebook tells federal workers.

"Employees who are considered vulnerable as defined by public health agencies should be supported to continue to work remotely when possible; this includes people with chronic illnesses or are immuno-suppressed (or living with others who qualify)."

Federal departments and agencies are also directed to track and report on cases of COVID-19 among their staff, which includes tracking incidents in which employees refuse to work on safety grounds.

"Noting that health authorities have stated that physical distancing measures should remain, these plans will make provisions for the fact that many public servants will continue to work remotely for some time to come," Duclos said.

He promised federal public servants would receive "reasonable notice and assurances" about safety measures before being asked to return to their offices.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the biggest federal-government union, was largely happy with the government's plan. But it did express concerns about the level of discretion managers have in forcing employees back to work.

"We hope to see some uniformity throughout all the departments and even inside the same department depending on their region," said PSAC national executive vice-president Magali Picard.

"It's really not clear if they're going to be trained, if they're going to have one person in HR or Treasury Board who's going to give advice to the management team. But this is not completely covered inside that plan."

Picard also flagged concerns about any move toward permanent remote work for federal public servants that goes too fast, saying that while there are potential benefits, experience has also shown that such a working environment is not for everyone.

"We know because we had some workers working from home before the pandemic," she said, noting that some employees feel isolated while provisions must also be made for ergonomic workplaces and mental-health support.

"It's not true that after four months that we know exactly what is going to be the impact on workers working from home all the time."

The federal public service has been praised for the speed with which it has rolled out a variety of support programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit during the pandemic.

It has also been criticized for the closure of Service Canada offices across the country since March, particularly as minimum-wage employees in grocery stores and other workplaces continued to work.

There have also been concerns about the impact that working from home has had on the federal access-to-information system along with tasks requiring access to sensitive government material such as military procurement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2020.

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