For those who work in government, almost universally around the globe, the workforce response to the pandemic was pretty much the same. Everybody pivoted to work from home (WFH). And as time goes on, people are generally coming to the conclusion that WFH was not as terrible as everybody used to think, the current “normal” is generally working in many if not most areas, and so as people discuss how to “build back better” (BBB), there is a general informal consensus that BBB means WFH is now permanent. In short, while WFH started as an accidental outcome of the pandemic, people want to assume it is the “new normal”. But is it?
Over the last week, because of my HR guide, nine separate people have asked me variations of this question. Some of them want to know if they should buy a larger house with space for an office. Most want to move back home and work from a distance. Everyone wants to know if all departments will be WFH or only some. One of the most ironic things is that Global Affairs, the department with the most distributed workforce of all to begin with, is telling people they will be back at Fort Pearson, and that WFH will generally NOT be part of their new normal.
Separate from asking me, employees are posting on message boards and forums how they plan to move from one part of the country to another, wondering if they can move where living costs are so much lower, etc. Of course, they are asking. Why wouldn’t they? If they’re already working from home, what difference could it possibly make where that home is located?
Actually, quite a bit, traditionally.
Traditional “location”-based employment
When you get hired by anyone, and appointed with letters of offer in government, it says where your position is physically located. While you may think that is outdated thinking, up until 11 months ago, it was also what every UNION negotiated. Because your job included a physical requirement to attend meetings in person, at a specific location, etc., the job description includes a location. That isn’t some minor “element” that can be waived because it is outdated. It is part and parcel of the entire HR framework, the collective agreements, everything. Including your remuneration.
While everyone is assuming we’ll “never” go back to the old ways, that is a very large assumption even by people in senior management. Do they have something in writing they’re willing to give someone to say that? No, because they can’t. They don’t know and the current collective agreements don’t really allow for it. The paperwork that binds us all pretty much says “you will work at a designated location unless you have a reasonable operational requirement not to OR are being accommodated due to a disability or other hardship”. It doesn’t have an option to say “go work wherever”.
We’re relaxing those rules BUT every job offer still says where the job is physically located. It still says what region it is. Changing that to “work anywhere” is going to require Parliamentary approval, legislative changes AND union approvals (who might not be as fast to say yes as people might think).
While almost everyone is singing from the same songsheet of “build back better”, remember that the default was to work “in the office” up until 11m ago, and WFH was only an extreme exception for anyone except IT people. So let’s discuss what factors will affect whether or not this is indeed the new normal.
Factors affecting whether WFH is the new normal
Before we get into the weeds, let’s also back up one step. Even if WFH is the new normal, that is not the same as deciding you can live anywhere in the country or world. That is actually TWO separate decision. First to allow people to WFH permanently, with the right to keep doing so and not to have it be managerial discretion to approve, and second, to allow that flexibility to extend to someone being unable to physically attend meetings on a few hours notice because they actually live in another province or territory far from the main office location. But let’s look at some of those factors / weeds in more detail.
A. Cost reduction
The biggest support to make it permanent will be if Treasury Board and Finance can see huge reductions in operating costs as a result. For example, if we can get rid of big expensive buildings, then strong support to WFH will follow. Sounds easy, right?
Except that while we can reduce some operational costs, we own many of the buildings and there isn’t going to be much of a market to sell off office complexes anytime soon if every major business pivots to WFH. Equally, for the rest, if we’re locked into long-term leases, maybe the savings are not quite as generous or immediate as we might hope.
If instead, governments are stuck paying for office space that is sitting empty, someone is going to start chomping at the bit to see SOME return on that cost. Just like the proverb that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, so too is the reality that if you are stuck with sunk costs for office space, every HR solution looks like someone needs to use that space for SOMETHING.
Some senior managers love the idea of WFH and assume that all that money for offices will be saved, and as a result, we’ll be able to spend some of the savings to reinvest in meeting space and collaborative options, including being able to fly someone to Ottawa for a meeting if they live in Montreal or Vancouver, as it will still be cheaper than having buildings. Except for one small problem. Government does not, and has not ever, work(ed) that way. Money saved on building space does not suddenly go into a department’s pot for travel. It all goes back to the centre who is going to look for HUGE ways to reduce costs once the pandemic is over. The fastest way to do that is to cut staff, but if they can cut office space instead, and save all that money, they won’t be looking to reinvest it. After all, if everyone can WFH, why does ANYONE need to travel, ever?
b. Regional politics
Members of Parliament have complained and griped for years that too many high-paying jobs were only available in Ottawa but there was little that could be done about it. We’ve farmed out processing to lots of other locations, and some HQs, but most of the time, HQ is in the National Capital Region because that’s where the Prime Minister, Ministers, and Parliament are located. Thousands of meetings a week, facilitated by co-location. But, as I said, MPs were never that happy about it.
So employees might naively rub their hands and think their local MP from their hometown will want them back. Except in many cases, they don’t. Sure, the MP wants the job to come there, i.e. your box, but they want it to be filled by someone locally. If you come with it, it doesn’t really help them as much as an empty box to be filled by someone in their constituency who wants it. And their support extends only to that box.
If a box moves to B.C, fantastic; if the box moves to B.C. and you come with it, that’s still good; but if you later decide to move to Alberta, they’re going to say, “Hold up a minute, that’s a B.C. job you’re taking with you.” Their support is and will forever be local only. And if you’re already in B.C. and want to move to Alberta? Well, have a nice life, but they’ll tell you your box should stay behind. They’ll be willing to let people decimate the NCR, but they won’t be willing to let jobs leave their area later.
There’s no real way to predict in advance, but I suspect the likely outcome is an agreement for departments that a certain percentage of jobs will be movable outside of the NCR and they are going to be very reluctant for it to be simply up to an employee to decide where they live with that box. Unions will fight it, but it will not be a simple “checkbox”. High-paying jobs are hard-to-come-by, and while MPs will welcome their arrival, they’ll fight their departure. Everyone supports labour mobility when it is coming towards them, not so much when it’s exiting. Think of it as “inwardly mobile, outwardly sticky”.
c. A privacy scandal
In my mind, this little subheading has been the hardest to label. I debated back and forth between simply “privacy”, which is relatively normal, and a “privacy scandal”, which is not.
On the one hand, I could go with the title of “privacy”. For the last 11 months, everything has been “fine” for privacy. But most departments do not have a good handle on IT security for anything above Protected B, and some not even then. We’ve been in a honeymoon period of “make it work”. In theory, we’ll get a handle on it, things will improve, there will be more money for security and encryption, and perhaps better connections for key personnel. Global Affairs, CSIS, RCMP, DND, PCO, etc. have all dealt with these issues previously on a department-by-department basis, but now the Centre needs to go to full-scale for the public service. The Privacy Commissioner and the Auditor General will do reviews, and the results will not necessarily be glowing. If they find serious violations, support may erode. But it is relatively slow, say 3-5 years down the road.
But a “scandal”? That happens in the “here and now” and people want both someone to blame and a solution that works today. Because the nature of security is that there are ALWAYS breaches of some kind, wait until the first scandal happens, someone leaks tons of information like SIN numbers, and the leak occurs by someone who is working from home. In that instance, the normal response is to lock the barn door even though the horse is already out of the stable. Because there are other horses and nobody wants a domino chain.
So, how do you lock the door? You lock down the IT access of everybody in that department so fast that their heads will spin, every other DM will get cold feet, and the so-called belief that “things are working” will erode very fast. A scandal will kill that whole “build back better” momentum fast. If you want to know the extent of the risk, consider the extreme. If everybody in the federal public service works from home, we just went from having everyone working in an office with controlled building access, still requiring network and database passwords, and giant firewalls to 260,000 uncontrolled terminals across the country. Your office computer is now available unattended to the kid down the street who is house-sitting while you’re at the cottage.
In addition, reactions to privacy leaks are swift and decisive. Not necessarily effective, but they’re good for sound bites. If someone loses a USB key, well, the solution is easy, ban all USB keys. If someone loses a USB device, simple, ban all USB devices from being connected to the device at all. Hopefully nobody loses a notepad or they would ban pens and paper. So if someone leaks in a WFH situation? What’s the fastest way to fix it? Lock it down and the Minister can stand up and say, “This can never happen again, we fixed the problem.” They can say it today, no planning required, just rip it out and problem solved.
But wait, there’s more!
People assume that the problem is going to be data loss or theft. However, if you read any of the past reports on data security, you will see that the most common problem is inappropriate and unauthorized access of files. Even in a closed, seemingly secure office, somebody will let their fingers go walking through files they shouldn’t. The EI status of a friend to let them know where their application is in the queue. The tax return of their ex-wife and their new husband so they can see what they’re hiding in the divorce negotiations. Sure, it’s grounds for termination, and people have STILL done it. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t limited to government, there are examples of people in insurance, health and banking offices doing the same thing. Again, even in closed offices where someone can see them doing it. In other words, all done while IN AN OFFICE.
Now, ask yourself. Do you think those problems and temptations will be lower or higher for WFH situations with no one potentially seeing what’s on your screen? Security audits routinely turn up these issues. But if the friend who wants to know what’s happening with their EI claim is sitting RIGHT BESIDE YOU at home, are people more or less likely to give into temptation and just pull up their file? It’s harmless, isn’t it?
And security doesn’t stop with IT!
What about physical security? How many of those 260,000 have a secure place at home to store physical notes, files, etc.? Have any of them got an option to print something out like an MC they’re working on? Most remote setups don’t, but how secure is that?
If you were a hacker and trying to penetrate a department’s system, would you target the mainframe and go in through their front-door or would you see if you can get in through someone’s unsecured home router?
d. Performance problems
I mentioned above that most senior managers have come to the conclusion that WFH has generally worked better than people expected. Which is great. Except we haven’t got through a full performance cycle yet. PAs in many depts were not agreed to on the normal timelines, people aren’t entirely sure what the standards are for this year, and almost every key performance indicator (KPI) for operations has a big asterisk next to it that says, “* COVID year”, just like in sports leagues.
Now, fast-forward a year or two and let’s be realistic on four fronts.
First and foremost, let’s recognize that not every employee is a great worker. Performance problems exist. Maybe there are reasons, maybe they’re going through stuff, maybe they just suck at the job they are hired to do. Not every staffing action is a home run. It happens.
Secondly, on top of not every employee being automatically a solid performer in the job they’re in, not every employee is going to excel in a WFH situation with virtual interaction and supervision. An employee who is an intuitive extrovert (the “sunshine yellows”, if you did the Lego Block personality profiles that are common in GoC) needs high-levels of interaction with people to thrive. They often also need it for both structure and receiving feedback. Like a plant, without it, they tend to wither. For every employee who now thrives in a WFH situation, there is likely to be someone who was great in an office and is now a poor performer at home.
Third, and I think this is a largely underestimated risk, virtually none of the middle manager cadre have any training or experience in managing people at a distance. And they’re also managing themselves in their new environment. Eleven months in, and we’re only now starting to have discussions that go beyond “check in with your teams regularly F2F, encourage people to have their video cameras on”. There is no comprehensive training package for managers generally, at least nothing mandatory or frankly, that useful, and almost nothing related to WFH. People who used to offer WFH pivoted to say “we’ve got these great training courses”, but they are all about how to accommodate people to WFH with a duty to accommodate due to illness, hardship or disability. Adjusting your management style for 1 out of 8 employees on your team who are WFH is tough, I’ve done it, and it’s a challenge, no word of a lie. Doing it for the whole team, while figuring out WFH for yourself too? Not necessarily a home-run derby for every manager.
Last, but not least, working from home is not all sunshine and roses. People are dealing with a lot of extra demands from their families that they used to compartmentalize by going to work. Some marriages are suffering, for example, because whereas people used to be able to “get away” or even “block it out” for 8 hours of work, now the spouses see each other for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Or are even in the same room all day long. The tensions of dealing with coworkers during the day that could be “alleviated” at night when you put on your coat to go home doesn’t really disappear if that inconsiderate coworker follows you downstairs and then you have to figure out together who is doing what, how to co-parent, or even what to order for dinner. In short, people are having a lot of trouble separating family and work life, and for many, so-called “balance” has been replaced with “100% blending”. But not all of it in a good way. The isolation is bad, but even 100% co-living is stretching for some people.
So, with all of that in play, we know in advance that there are going to be performance problems. We had them before, we’ll still have them, and maybe more. Or at least different ones.
Yet we have a poor history of managing poor performance, and we’ll continue to use the same blunt instrument of a performance agreement. When those employees with performance problems get their evaluations, they’re going to push back. Why? Because they didn’t CHOOSE to work from home, they didn’t have all the IM/IT structures in place, they aren’t being given lots of money to convert a whole room into an office or build an addition on the house, they have a manager who isn’t trained to manage at a distance, and all of these barriers are going to be the problem. Not the employee, in their mind. At least some of the time. Let’s assume then that they push back, even filing a grievance. And some of those grievances will get supported by the unions, they’ll go to tribunals, and a few years from now, someone will do an audit to find out why there are more of these types of grievances.
What will they find? That our simplistic PA system doesn’t do a great job of measuring performance and it is exacerbated at a distance. Headlights will scream “Public service can’t manage performance” or “Managers can’t fire lazy bureaucrats”. Maybe it will rise to the level of a scandal, even. And suddenly DMs will start to get cold feet again. “You know,” (nudge nudge), “we didn’t have this problem when people were in the office”.
Bottom line? Superstars can probably work anywhere. But some people need more structure and discipline to keep performing at a high level. If you doubt it, think for a moment of any group project you ever did in school. Then tell me that open working, “find your own meeting space”, everyone can contribute their own way, etc., works well out of the gate.
e. Recruitment and retention
The variables for R&R are all over the place. Only a fool would think they could predict the outcome. But I’m feeling foolish, I guess.
Right now, though, lots of people in HR are rubbing their hands together because they think their recruitment abilities are suddenly going to grow exponentially. There are LOTS of people who would love to work for the Government of Canada on, say, environmental issues, but they don’t want to move to Ottawa nor work in Gatineau. Those HR people have been on-campus in the past doing post-secondary recruitment, found a fantastic candidate in Southern Ontario or perhaps Winnipeg, and couldn’t close the deal because they weren’t willing to relocate. I, myself, benefited from this “requirement to move” barrier way back in 1993 when I came to Ottawa as a co-op student from the University of Victoria. Very few people wanted or were willing to come to Ottawa in January, so I had reduced competition for two very good jobs. For me, I was from Ontario, an Ottawa winter didn’t scare me and it put me within weekend driving distance of home. The location was a bonus for me. For others? No way, José. So, those HR people who faced location obstacles in the past are now thinking, you can work anywhere! As I mentioned above, that’s not entirely true, but I’ll come back to that later. Regardless, recruitment would in theory seem to be easier if people don’t HAVE to move.
But if recruitment doesn’t stop at the letter of offer, the included phase of onboarding is already a struggle for everyone, with people feeling less of a sense of “team” when they meet them all by video. No chance to go for a physical coffee, no chatting in corridors, no hanging out by the water-cooler, so to speak, or meeting in a boardroom and sharing someone’s baked goods or a birthday cake for someone. All the stupid stuff people tend to dismiss in the office but actually builds team loyalty. Very few departments have a great virtual onboarding option, no matter how “great” they think their training video is. Some are like the worst form of onboarding video ever mocked in a TV comedy; some of the better ones rise to the level of “meh”.
Next, tied to that onboarding challenge, the same initial “bonus” for recruitment works against you in part for later retention. Loyalty and stability tend to be stronger when there is a physical component to an allegiance. School alumni associations have known this for years. So they market the physical space in all their fundraising drives. Sure, they cover networks, friendships, shared experiences, but they do so with a strong “physical space” vibe. Because the physical engages all your senses and memories. Those who do virtual degrees from a university have the lowest conversion rates for fundraising, after those who only did their degrees part-time and who often saw the visit to the campus as a pain point for parking, timing, commuting, etc.
Without a strong onboarding and retention “vibe”, people are going to be highly mobile. Oh, look, there’s an interesting job over there, and I don’t have to pack up my stuff, move offices, change my commute, all I have to do is click on a different link each morning? Buh bye, old team; hello, new team! IT workers in the Gig world do it daily. Some people will stay put, others are going to job hop. A lot. Because there is going to be almost zero transaction costs to changing jobs. Retention is going to be a huge problem for some groups.
And overall? Much of our inter-departmental competition for people depends a lot on the physicality, at least in the NCR. You want to avoid the commute? Look at this great office complex near the Experimental Farm so you can avoid the huge traffic snarls downtime. Cut 20m off your commute. Or look at this shiny new building in South Ottawa, with NO COMMUTING HASSLES. All gone as recruitment incentives. Do I care if you have a food court? A gym? Any other amenities? Nope, not if I’m not going to your office.
Last but not least, everybody has been worried about the demographics of the workforce. Baby boomers are aging, everyone will retire at the same time, oh dear, what will we do? Most likely the same thing with less workers and more automation, but that’s just a guess. However, here’s the kicker, and I will use myself as an example. I am five years from retirement. If I wanted to retire now, I have someone who has a job for me as a consultant, pick my own projects, limited office requirements, etc. A “dream” setup so to speak, and I have zero interest in doing that now or when I retire. I have said repeatedly that when I hit my mark in five years, I would be gone like the wind. Don’t get in my way as I exit the building. I intend to not only retire, but also to STOP WORKING.
Then WFH came along. I love it. I love not commuting. Isolation in general is a problem, but I’m an analytical introvert and once the pandemic is over, I’ll compensate for work isolation with some occasional noise at a coffee shop for an afternoon or a lunch. But it is relative heaven in comparison with going to a physical office every day. So much so, I’m not as convinced that five years is as locked in as I thought. I know a DG who is in the same boat. He thought he would go sometime this year, but he loves most of WFH, and that is a huge salary to give up. Particularly during a pandemic where there is nowhere to go. He might as well keep working. And he’s pretty good with technology so I expect he’ll keep working anyway. Me? I just don’t know. But I suspect like many others, I will delay retirement. Since one of the biggest factors in government retirement decisions is health and mobility, not just finances, those retirement figures are going to push later than they did originally.
Nobody has talked about the giant elephant in the room of a mobile labour force, which is whether or not the government pay scale will or should include a cost of living allowance based on where you live and work. At the front end, this looks like a big question of geography, but it isn’t. There are actually two parts, as I mentioned at the top of the post. First. there’s a question of whether you have to commute or can work from home. Then there’s the question of where that home can be.
Naive people like to blithely claim that people doing the same work should obviously be paid the same amount of money regardless of the circumstances. It’s a popular theme, and if you are looking for buzzword policy, it works.
But let me give you a slight edge to your scenario. Let’s say you are working from home, maybe doing IT work for an insurance company. You like the setup, you don’t have to commute, you’ve arranged your life so that your kids don’t need after-school care, you can even take your dog for a walk during the day several times. Life is good. Then they say, “Okay, now we need you to come into the office five days a week.” Is it still the same job?
Well, no. You now have to pay for after-school care and someone to walk your dog every day. Plus commuting, maybe parking. Not to mention that your commute is 45 minutes each way, and now your 7.5 hour day is 9 hours. Are you willing to do an extra 90 minutes AND take on those other expenses for the same amount of money? Of course not. Your cost of working in an office is likely a minimum of 10% higher, and some experts suggest it could be as high as 40% in some cases (taking into account commute time that is usually unpaid).
Now, right now in this situation, government has sent people home. And kept paying them the same salary. In other words, on a purely economic basis, they just gave all of their employees a raise of between 10 and 40%. During a pandemic. Yet nobody wants to talk about that elephant. People want to say “I don’t want to go back” in the same breath as “well, why would I take a pay cut? My work didn’t change?”.
Someone I know well had this figured out several years ago. He is retired and works as a consultant, picking and choosing interesting jobs that he wants to do, turning down others. He keeps his rate competitive, doesn’t want a ton of hours, and is happy with the setup. But most contractors have two different rates, imposed by Treasury Board. The first is the WFH rate, or more formally, “off-site” working at your own office location. Which is often a home, but could be a formal office with overhead. And so perhaps you get $400 a day for that rate. But, if you work in the government’s office, using their electricity, computer, desk and office support, they’ll only pay you say $375 a day. Why? Because they’re subsidizing your expenses. Off-site one rate, on-site a lower rate. Straightforward, seemingly obvious, materiel management people love it. The guy I know? He inverts those rates. If he can work from home, in his underwear, in his basement, while walking his dog or having lunch with his wife or using his own gym equipment, he charges one rate. If you want him to put on a suit and tie, commute to an office, pay for parking, and constrain his lifestyle to match your on-site operations? He charges you a higher rate. As we all should.
Compensation approaches right now have no way to adjust for this in the new normal. You know what they ARE talking about? People complaining that the government should pay for their home internet, desks and chairs, lighting, ergonomic assessments, floor mats, etc.
I’m not immune to this fallacy. My department has a policy on reimbursement of $500 if you had to buy a desk and chair, $300 if you had to buy a desk but borrowed a chair from the office or $200 if you bought a chair. In my case, I had a home office already, more or less, and I took two old desks, knocked the legs and supports off them and bought IKEA desk legs to put under them. But since I didn’t buy a “desk”, my expenses don’t qualify. Could I push, and get it covered? Probably. And it rankles me that I would have to push.
Even though if someone said “Go back to work at the office or WFH for 10% less”, I would give that 10% and run. Which doesn’t even account for the huge stability that my family has had throughout the whole pandemic. We didn’t worry about a paycheque. I’ve been working the whole way through, with no added health risk. Heck, in some ways, I’m safer than when I was in the office every day (don’t ask about whatever that smell was on the fourth floor of our building, none of us believe what OHS said about it not being a health problem).
So during the next round of collective bargaining, don’t be surprised if there is zero interest in anything resembling a raise, because unions are going to know that Treasury Board is going to laugh their ass off at them. And instead, unions are going to ask for money for desks (like I said above) or internet (idiots) or increased benefits (traditional), with their big push for departments to lock WFH into the agreement as automatic for anyone who asks for it (which TBS won’t agree to) and relatively permanent if you do get it (which TBS will likely agree to, on a per job basis).
Now, let’s talk about working from home in a different area of the country. And again, let me come at it from a different angle. Let’s say you start with working as an EC-05 in a WFH situation in rural Manitoba. Maybe a nice lake house, a cottage+ type situation. Cozy, remote, eco-friendly. And your living expenses out there are about 60% of what you would pay in a big city like Ottawa. Internet is more expensive, maybe food too, but your housing cost is a third of a big city. Sounds sweet. The ideal life, living in nature.
Then something happens and they want you to move to Ottawa. Because it is their decision, they will pay your relocation costs. But they are still only offering you the same salary and you have to work in an office. Which is the same scenario as above, with the added tripling of your housing cost. Are you likely to say, “Hey, wait a minute, my costs are going through the roof! I can’t live on the same salary.” Of course you are.
FYI, too, that complaint already existed in the system across the country. People living in regional offices that are a bit more rural make out like bandits compared to the people doing huge commutes or living in a big city. The cost of working in the NCR, for example? You get a high-paying job but you also get all the expenses that go with it.
But now people want to move out of the NCR. Their decision, not the employer’s. And they want the same pay, and in the same fallacy as above, think that the government should (or at least could) pay for their relocation costs. Moving outward, they’re going to save 2/3 of their costs, want to keep the same salary, AND think the government should pay for relocation and maybe even higher internet costs in the country.
If there was ever a time for someone to say, “Check your privilege”, this would be it.
And guess what? Treasury Board isn’t stupid. They know it is a HUGE bonus for people to get the hell out of Dodge. Move back to your hometown on a high government salary? If your hometown is Vancouver or Toronto, well, it sucks to be you. If it is Winnipeg, you are going to do well financially (while not “cheap”, it is the capital city with the lowest housing costs in Canada). TBS knows that and will factor it into future negotiations. Why give you a raise if, instead, they can let you work from anywhere? Heck, many people will be willing to take a pay cut to do that…the economists will tell them they could take up to 40%, as I said, and still come out ahead. With housing costs factored in for some regions? You might be able to drop even to 50%. If you really, really want to move.
So will TBS let that “huge perk” be given out for free to everyone? Not likely. There will be catches. Nobody knows what those catches will be yet, but there will be something.
g. Regional accountability
Most people ignore this problem, or think it is a straw man, but I’ll see if I can explain it clearly. Let’s say, for example, that you work for a department in the NCR. Then, you pivot to WFH, and as part of your WFH, you decide home is in Toronto. And let’s assume TBS has said that’s all good, off you go, live wherever you want. So you do.
So you live in Toronto and part of your job working for, say ACME department, is to interact with businesses. Because you live in Toronto, you can even go and meet with them in person with a much stronger “presence”, perhaps monthly, than if you lived in Ottawa and could only meet with them once a year in person, and quarterly by phone. This sounds great, right?
Stay with me here. Let’s also surmise that ACME has an office in Toronto, several of them in fact, and a huge ACME Canada presence. That ACME Canada office, and Ontario region in general, is headed by a “regional head” who is responsible for all of ACME and ACME Canada employees in their area. Does that include you?
Well, maybe not. Your “job” is in Ottawa so to speak, the hierarchy is part of the HQ structure (albeit now virtual) and you actually have no operational ties to that regional head. But you’re running around Toronto handing out business cards with ACME on it, and yet the regional head doesn’t know what you’re doing. Then, by chance, that business is at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, hears something the ACME regional head says that doesn’t jive with what the random employee told them, and challenges the regional head as being inconsistent.
I can tell you, that regional head is going to be pissed AND the ACME department looks like a bunch of idiots.
If you think this is a small issue, it is not. It happens weekly ALREADY. Now we want departmental people all over the country with only virtual accountability back to HQ? Global Affairs has dealt with a similar problem in the past. When GAC was still DFAIT, CIDA also had offices in the field. And it was really expensive to pay for space in an Embassy, so CIDA came up with this brilliant idea to have what they called Program Support Units (PSUs) in developing countries. Offices where we posted CIDA staff, dressed it up as a pseudo-secondment from CIDA, gave them no official status, and sent them in-country. What happened? Canadian government officials ran around talking to local organizations with only virtual accountability to HQ, and the Ambassadors kept getting caught flat-footed with info or events that they knew nothing about. In a world of diplomacy, your most important currency is up to date information, and our diplomats were out of the loop. Nobody died, obviously, but our political and economic relations were challenged by a simple lack of accountability. Who did these people report to, when the “head” of Canadian relations wasn’t part of their hierarchy?
If you think it’s not an issue, see how fast support for “work from anywhere” evaporates in a region if a senior ADM-level person starts blasting HQ for having a bunch of yahoos running around unsupervised in their neck of the woods, messing up policy discussions with freelancing. And if it contradicts a Minister? Yowza.
Now, you may say, “No, not really an issue, people aren’t going to go crazy, saying just anything,” and you’ll be surprised to find out that I agree. That’s not the issue. The issue is that experts estimate 20-40% of information-sharing happens informally through corridor discussions rather than email or formal meetings. Which means, simply put, people working all around the country will not be having those discussions, info will NOT circulate as fast (ask yourself how common it is for someone outside of your unit to just randomly call you for a video call to say “hi”), and there is a high probability that people circulating outside of their hierarchy are not likely to have all of the latest info. So what they say might be based on a situation that has changed. And if reliability and credibility are the cornerstones of trust, we just shot our trust in the back through negligence.
Yet having said all that, the likely outcome is probably a simple matrix relationship. They’ll have to keep someone locally informed what they’re doing and in return, they’ll listen to some sort of info dump download from the regional head weekly or monthly.
While it is “solvable”, try telling a regional head of ACME Canada that there is about to be thousands, maybe even tens of thousands ACME employees running around their area who don’t report to them and see how panicky they get.
h. International nomads
Some people are already pushing the boundaries of our international borders. Particularly when it is a spouse of someone who is being posted overseas, Canadian government employees want to know if they can work from home, and if they can extend that to work from anywhere in Canada, can they also extend that to work from anywhere in the world?
At first blush, most departments and department heads are going to think that is a bridge too far. So they’ll ask their HR and IT people to look into it, fully expecting them to come back and say “no”, and those DHs are going to be shocked when they get told “maybe” instead.
There are three giant factors, one that is obvious and two not so obvious. The obvious one will be security. Even looking at something like the U.S., any data you access while in the U.S. will be subject to the U.S. Patriot Act enacted after 9/11 and giving huge sweeping powers to the U.S. government. There’s more oversight now than there used to be but it is a huge problem if the person will be accessing data on individual Canadians. We have embassies and trade missions throughout the US, and we have x400 encryption, etc., but those are for people with diplomatic status. What level of security would be required for “Jane Doe, ACME employee” who happens to want to winter in Florida? It isn’t clear that it is a clear-cut “no”, it will depend on what they access.
The next factor, not so obvious, is simply the optics. Will Joe Taxpayer accept that Jane Doe, ACME employee, is working from FLORIDA? What about Hawaii? Or the Bahamas? Or Fiji? It doesn’t matter what the performance looks like, the more exotic the locale, the more people are going to say, “wait a minute…”. And that is not just “personal optics” as much as economic and immigration optics. Would you need a work visa? Would you have to pay US taxes? Would you pay Canadian taxes? It is a giant storm with no easy answers, at least not for departments not used to dealing with these issues. And what any given IT company or insurance company does is not the same as what a taxpayer might say about what a government employee should be allowed to do.
The last factor seems almost laughable, but the basic question is what hours will they work? The Government of Canada identifies that every employee will work a core set of hours — from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. — and management can insist upon it with relatively clear discretion. Everyone has to work those hours, you can work 9-5, 10-6, 7-3, doesn’t matter, as long as you cover those common core hours.
If you want to vary from it, say work 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., management can agree to it, but it isn’t binding over the long-term. If management decides for operational reasons that you need to be there until 3, you’re back working until 3. The collective agreement is pretty clear on that…there are minor variations for labour relations, but generally speaking, everyone works those hours to ensure that everyone can interact with everyone else at the office. A core set of common hours where everyone is available.
If you are in Canada, and you went with Eastern Standard Time for an Ottawa-job, that 10-3 period would be 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon Vancouver time, or simply 11-4 Halifax time. Doable to adjust. There might still be some operational issues outside of that, but managers are on less solid ground if they say you can’t work early or late, if you are still covering the common hours. Unions are willing to fight for you on those issues, unless there is really no operational alternative.
But what happens if you are in Europe, Asia, Australia? Now that timezone issue is much more challenging. Remember, it isn’t so that you work in the middle of the day, 10-3, it’s so you can work with your colleagues. Canberra, for example, is 16 hours ahead of Ottawa. Which would mean that you would need to work 2:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. to match our “common times”. From a manager’s perspective, maybe we wouldn’t care as long as performance works. But from an HR policy perspective? Would we really want it looking like we had people working through the night to adhere to a common core time?
Generally not. But then you have to find some times of overlap for meetings (perhaps 8:00 a.m. Canberra time which would be 4:00 pm. Ottawa time), and then have the rest work as deliverables.
Not everyone sees this as a problem, by the way. What if, for example, you had people all over the world, by their own choice, not ours, and it just so happened that they were 8 hours apart. So someone works on a file in Ottawa for 8 hours, closes out, shuts down, lives their life. Meanwhile, someone else’s day 8h behind is just starting, they open the file and work on it for 8h. Then shuts down, same deal, someone else opens it up and starts working. Finishes their day, shuts down. Just as the Ottawa person arrives at work, opens it up and sees that in their absence over night, magical elves have performed two more days worth of work while they were sleeping.
It sounds imaginary, I know. Except that it isn’t. Lots of people working in IT do it daily. Coders, financial traders, bankers, insurance processing. The best example in pop culture? Lucasfilm making Star Wars and shooting in Australia. Filming in Australia for some of the sand sequences would be done during the day; at day’s end, the footage was uploaded to servers and people in England would start pre-processing; when their day finished, people in California would start editing and post-processing. The next morning, so to speak, in Australia, the director would arrive to see what the footage looked like the day before with some basic editing and post-processing already done. They could see if they got the shots they wanted and what they would look like once finished. Now, many FX companies have a similar setup with other companies. While the director sleeps, magical elves are hard at work, potentially cramming 3d worth of normal work into a single 24h day, and nobody had to work shifts or overtime.
The government clearly doesn’t work that way, and for many files, it can’t. But what if it could for some things? What if an application for pension benefits could be worked on by several people in stages? Could we offer an extra expedited option for emergency disability claims to reduce processing times from 5d to as little as 2d? Could we process emergency CERB benefits in a third of the time?
The opportunity is there, but we would have to envision a very different Government of Canada public service. Or farm a lot of stuff out to private companies to process.
TL;DR what the hell do you think will ACTUALLY happen?
Yes, I think work from home will become the new normal. But I do not think it will look like it does now, and not all the “updates” will be positive. And to be blunt, it depends a LOT on what other industries do. If banks, insurance companies, and IT companies don’t all pivot too, it will be very hard to market to MPs and taxpayers that public servants are the only ones not in an office. If we think the public’s view of the bureaucrat is bad now, it would be 1000% worse if we were the only ones working from home.
I think there will be three phases to “building back better”.
Short-term (1-2y). Most departments will continue much as they are already. The majority will keep working from home and any department forcing people to go back will lose employees fast. Some highly specialized departments (CSIS, Global Affairs) will go back to the office and yet not suffer catastrophic losses immediately as people will stay for the work. Over time, if everyone else is WFH, they’re going to lose everyone who is not specialized or have to offer them promotions to stay. For everyone else, their letters of offer are going to say “the job is in region X” and there will be some weasel language that says “while you are WFH, this job retains the right to compel you to work in the office at some point when things return to normal”. But unofficially, they’ll tell everyone they expect to WFH, and will grant on a case-by-case basis permission to work from anywhere in the province (easy, almost automatic) or country (with some caveats about hours), and not at all for outside of the country without relatively rare DM approval.
Compensation won’t change, there will be minor additions to cover simple one-off expenses, nothing for internet. Recruitment is going to be a challenge, retention not so much as people hunker down for a bit to see what happens. The first privacy scandal will be handled badly, a number of departments will handle it conservatively, and for a short while, unions are going to have to try and hold them back from going back to “in-office solutions”. HR will tell them, bluntly, if you switch, you will lose everyone, they’ll leave. Instead, everyone will get new tech security tools and a lot of mostly useless training, a cycle that will repeat itself multiple times.
Medium-term (2-5y). Collective agreements are going to need to be re-negotiated, unions are going to ask for their normal wage increases, and TBS is going to tell them to go hang, as they should. Instead, unions are going to push really hard for WFH to be put in stone as the default, TBS will say no, and they’ll fight to a draw that management decides upfront if a box is WFH but local, WFH anywhere in Canada, or in-office, but once decided as WFH, management will need clearly demonstrated operational reasons to change back to in-office. TBS will try to cut wages, but won’t have much clout or political panic to do so. In other words, if you get WFH, you can rely on it and make decisions accordingly, provided you are performing and nothing huge happens, and as long as you stay in THAT box. If you change jobs, you’ll have to negotiate that again.
TBS and the unions will basically agree to fetter some management discretion, the same way they fetter hours of work. Your letter of offer will say WFH, and while a few departments will be “local” only, the default will be “anywhere in Canada for core hours”, with managers encouraged to be flexible if possible, unless there is a specific security reason to have you in-office for processing. If you live outside of your home “region”, you’ll have an extra meeting per week or month to hear from some regional head to handle regional accountability and that HR will pitch as ensuring a pan-Canadian identity. Options to work outside of Canada will remain for DM approval, and likely restricted to situations of family hardship (taking care of sick family members) or time-limited, and always on a case-by-case basis, never automatic. MPs will accept that jobs are more mobile and agree to see annual reports of where people live, and each year complain that more isn’t done to encourage workers to move to their area.
TBS will try to save money by divesting tons of office space, and local municipalities are going to freak out, particularly the NCR twins of Ottawa and Gatineau. WFH has already decimated them, on top of COVID, and most of those areas will never recover if the government doesn’t go back to the office. I expect many downtown office buildings will close, and they’ll maintain everyone who is “in-office” in either the downtown core or Gatineau. Departments will not get an increase in operations budgets. Recruitment will have balanced out, and retirements will be way down. Management will struggle with how to handle poor performers once the COVID asterisk is gone.
Long-term (5-8y). While WFH will be the new normal for about 75-80% of the workforce, there are going to be huge attempts by Treasury Board and Finance to cut costs anywhere and everywhere. Any empty building that the government owns will get torn down and the land sold off for condo space. Departments will see a bit more flexibility in their operations budgets, but not a lot. After a year or two, Finance is going to see that material management will not generate enough savings. So they’ll have to cut programs and staff too. Depending on the political realm, this might start as early as year 2, but definitely by year 5. Everyone close to retirement will hope for a big buyout, and this time, they might need an incentive to jump voluntarily. WFH is hugely attractive to many, and so the buyout offer will need to be larger. TBS will instead threaten to send people back to the office to get downward movement on wages and unions will cave to save jobs. But for the first time, MPs are going to weigh in because the jobs won’t all be in Ottawa, it will be their constituents too on the front-line.
A small footnote. I have a small footnote to all of the above, and I honestly have no idea where it might fit in. I covered three types of working arrangements for the future, and yet I left out two. I think there are actually five options:
- Full-time in-office, which will be the norm for some people, perhaps 20% of the workforce and mostly service personnel, specialized staff or processing;
- ** Part-time in-office, part-time WFH;
- Full-time WFH;
- Full-time WFH anywhere in Canada;
- ** New hoteling options.
I didn’t cover the part-time options as I think people are going to challenge it pretty fast, and the logistics are going to challenge recruitment and retention. Anyone not offering WFH full-time is going to find it really hard to keep existing or find new workers. So lots will try it, people will bitch and leave, and it will collapse.
However, I’m really curious to see if a hoteling option pops up. Let’s say, for example, that I live in the National Capital Region, and there’s a government office building near my house. Instead of my commuting to an office downtown, could there be a solution whereby my department would offer to reimburse that building for an office for me? I would be on government property, fully secure, full video capabilities and networking options for the computer, and yet my commute problem is solved.
Or could a private company come along to TBS and say, “You know, there are 100 people working from home in the Winnipeg area according to your last report, do all of them have a great setup at home?”. Would it work for people to do what private consultants already do and rent office space when they need it either in private businesses or in government buildings? Suppose you need a collaborative workspace for you and three other workers to hash out a new strategy with better setups than you have available in your normal network, but if all four go to their local eStaples 2.0 across the country, they can have full video connections, printing capabilities, etc.
I think there is a small kernel of something there, lying somewhere between an ongoing office solution closer to home (but not part of the formal hoteling options at the main office) and an occasional option that goes beyond your desktop and gets you out of your home and into more professional surroundings. I don’t think anyone knows exactly what that would look like for government, but I’m excited to see what people create.
That’s it, that’s my prediction. Feel free to share yours! Just remember, I’m predicting what WILL happen, not what I DREAM or WISH would happen! 🙂 Maybe I’ll cover that next week.