When I started this series of posts two weeks ago, it was with the intent simply to share some views on what’s going on for preparations around Return to Work options in the federal government. I’d been seeing a bunch of stuff online where people were saying, “Hey management is a bunch of idiots, everything is working fine, blah blah blah”, and while that may be an employee/bottom-up view, it is NOT what management is seeing looking “down”.
While people in the past might have complained about stuff if they were actually AT work to colleagues, etc., the growth of Reddit fora and FaceBook groups, Twitter, and other social media for people working from home has sparked a surge in people expressing their views online about anything and everything. Some of that is good, and some of that just creates self-bias mini-groups where people hear the same thing coming back at them and assume that means it’s now a fact. And like the echo chambers that some of these groups become, people are frequently posting what they saw as fact (everything is working) yet is really more about their own desires (no need to go back to the office).
And so I started blogging, thinking maybe I’d do 2-3 posts, with a goal to let people know, “Actually, management isn’t all idiots, they’re seeing some real problems”. Maybe it would take me four posts at the outside, with a bit of history thrown in about how we go here. In “episode 6”, I joked that I was starting to feel like Douglas Adams where at book 5 he was noting it was an increasingly inaccurate trilogy. But as I talked to people, as people messaged me online and said “hey, but what about this????”, as they emailed me and suggested other topics, my scope kind of expanded. They made some good points and they deserved inclusion and response.
A brief recap
Back at the beginning, in part 1, I basically noted that there was, indeed, something to talk about. I talked about my role as a public servant, my role as a blogger, and I thought I would get to somewhere in the series by describing “here’s what’s happening”.
In part 2, I described a lot of what existed “prior” to the pandemic in terms of working from home. Our baseline year, if you will.
Part 3 was always going to be a big post. It summarizes a whole whack of work on what makes for good in-person or remote experiences, what works and what doesn’t, up to the start of the pandemic, and some things people assume about all of that vs. some real-life tests of RTW in the present time. Management is regularly saying “research shows”, and I wanted to explain what that means i.e., what that research actually shows.
With part 4, entitled It’s not about Subway, my focus went a bit sideways. I pointed out why things are NOT working as well as many people are claiming. Horizontality, managing performance, connections are all spiraling, and while people are claiming management is tone-deaf, so are employees. Management is trying to tell people “it’s not working” without saying “it’s your fault”. Because it isn’t. It’s a really challenging message to convey — “Thank you for the great work over the last 2 years, you’ve done a remarkable job pivoting, and it’s worked way beyond expectations” while also saying “It’s not ALL working properly, so we’ll have to make some changes”. Bearing in mind, come to think of it, that most of management thought it was impossible to do full WFH when the pandemic started and it would be a complete disaster. Instead, it’s been functional, we CAN do most things virtually, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things that are still problematic. It’s working, some days even well, but not all days and not in all areas.
For part 5, the one I called if an employee falls in an empty office, I expanded on some ideas that I already had and responded to a few threads that other people asked about in emails and posts. So I talked about what management hears — the good, the bad, and the downright stupid (proposals for raises for people going into the office, for example). I practically ranted as some of the stuff out there is ridiculous and makes public servants look ridiculous at a time when many staff are still hoping to lock something in for our work-life balance even though most industries have already said no to the same options and moved back to old models.
For part 6, I returned to the simple side of what management is and has been doing. Not specifically department 1 or 2, but generally, the approaches departments have taken, with a bit as to why.
But now that I’ve reached that point, where I’ve described everything I was originally planning to address in 1-2 posts, I’m left unfulfilled. I want to talk about the future, and I’ve been struggling to adequately frame it. One part is easy — while I can’t say with certainty what problems will crop up and when, I know certain types of “scandals” that will kill WFH in a heartbeat. But these aren’t black swan events, they’re the same types of problems we’ve had in the past where people see something happen and want something “fixed” immediately. RTW might not be THE best solution, but it will be in the mix when those problems crop up.
Yet there are a bunch of other things, not quite variables, more like influences or pressures that will affect what form WFH will take in the future. I start with a simple assumption, based on what I’ve seen above. With very rare exceptions, full-time WFH with no need to ever go in the office is simply not realistic. Almost every department has mandated some form of RTW, even if it’s only for “ad hoc” group meetings (like “all-staffs”, for example).
Just for fun, I’ll do it as a top-ten-style list of influences and what type of pressure it will bring to bear.
10. What everyone else is doing: Moderately negative
Management and politicians are going to be influenced by whatever the industry “norms” are, with no one wanting to look like the nutbar or rebel on such an important issue. With that in mind, the federal public service is generally compared to three industries.
First and foremost, other orders of government in Canada. This doesn’t bode well for the federal public service as most municipal governments have a large “service delivery” component and have been back in the office for a long time. Many provincial and territorial governments are also back in the office, with many of them as full-time returns to work. No hybrid, no work from home, no work from anywhere options.
Second, banks are a popular comparison with large numbers of knowledge workers in white-ish collar jobs. The evidence of those is mixed, some parts are back in, others are hybrid. Almost none of them are still full WFH. A few global firms have said they will be “work anywhere” and a few have shuttered offices, but those examples are not the norm. Most still offer some form of WFH for part of the time, but not all the time.
Third, insurance companies are another comparator. The evidence for them is more balanced with some FT in the office, some hybrid, and some still working from home. One thing that is always high on an insurance company’s radar though is how to cut costs and to be as efficient as possible. They are hyper-sensitive to even marginal improvements in many areas, so a number of them are refusing to commit to one model over another until they see if they can save much money letting people WFH. While that might seem encouraging, it’s not. Insurance companies are heavily driven by the bottom-line so if they see even a half percentage drop in profits from WFH, people will be immediately back in the office, taking into account all costs of course (I’ll come back to this later).
So, two comparators that argue in favour of federal public servants going back, with one undecided, and certainly very little popular evidence that others are going to be work from home forever and/or work wherever.
9. MPs and the public: Neutral to highly negative
On the plus side, MPs so far are generally supportive of WFH for two reasons. First and foremost, they are working from home too when they can. Secondly, though, nobody is pushing them the other way. But while they are overall supportive, none of them are arguing “WFH forever” as a viable strategy for the whole public service, nobody is really pushing that agenda. Call it “neutral” for now.
There is another rogue element in the equation, but it will eventually be trumped by other factors, so maybe it’s just a red herring…MPs want those high-paying government jobs to be spread across the country and not all in the NCR. We have moved processing around, but the bulk of policy work is being done in the NCR close to Minister’s offices and Parliament. But, if we can do WFH, and by extension, work from anywhere in Canada, well, many of the provincial ex-pats in Ottawa and Gatineau can perhaps move back to their home provinces.
I have close friends and colleagues in the policy community in NCR from Sherbrooke, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Montreal, Vancouver, St. Catherines, Winnipeg, and Calgary. If they could move back “home”, and it wouldn’t mean having to move back to Ottawa in a year, if they could “lock it in” as permanent and all the details around career progression would be okay, they’d pack their bags tomorrow. From an MP perspective, that sounds heavenly. People moving INTO their regions with relatively high-paying jobs? The drool line forms to the right.
The challenge is fast-forwarding two years and perhaps the person decides to move from Calgary to Winnipeg. Now the MP isn’t that thrilled…high-paying jobs moving OUT of their region just because the person wants to move to Winnipeg? (Okay, maybe the ‘peg isn’t the best example, but go with me here). So it’s a double-edged sword.
Althought, if I was to move out of Ottawa and back to my hometown of Peterborough, the local MP isn’t going to know. I know there’s something there in the issue, but I can’t frame it well enough. Maybe we would need some hard numbers of what it would look like. Personally, I think it is the biggest selling point for MPs to see happening as it looks like zero downside to them and major upside. “Our children are returning home with high-paying jobs, bringing extra resources into our communities.” It’s the perfect foil for anyone suggesting we need to support the local economy — who chooses WHICH local economy gets the largesse?
A wild card, though, is the general public. Lots of people blathering in the metasphere are completely delusional when it comes to the public’s view of civil servants. Let’s be blunt. They generally think civil servants are overpaid, lazy, and have golden pensions. They haven’t expressed any views about WFH but their attitude is moulded by their direct experiences trying to get service. Right now? The biggest complaint everyone has is passports. It’s a disaster for public relations. People are NOT getting the service they think they deserve. If they start to believe it’s because we’re not in the office, that neutrality will rise to highly negative very shortly, with the MPs likely following along. When civil servants get thrown under a bus, MPs rarely jump in front of the bus to stop it.
Nor perhaps should they. We work for Canadians on the taxpayer dime. If taxpayers say the job should be done in the office, and their experience is that WFH isn’t giving them the service they pay for, it’s a hard argument to refute. The person who pays the piper calls the tune.
8. Unresolved horizontal issues: Highly negative
I have mentioned previously that horizontal files are not working (really, Paul? I “mentioned” it? It’s my biggest point, I think you got it when I hit you over the head in five previous posts!). It’s not surprising, really, given that so much of horizontality has been driven over the years by the informal connectivities of shared physical space. The Machiavellians call it networking, the sociologists call it social cohesion within a group. I call it simple math.
Previously, in the office, you had your transactional interactions — doing something with person X. But you also had asymmetrical interactions too. Talking on the sides of meetings. Corridor discussions. Impromptu coffee with the colleague who was in line at Tim Horton’s. And then you had the horizontal work across directorates, across work silos, etc. Call it Group A (vertical), Group B (social), and Group C (horizontal). Those three types of interactions keep the organization on track. A mix of formal and informal processes, with many of those informal processes compensating for the “unexpected” not fitting into a formal established process.
When we went virtual, Group A continued and we’ve adapted over time to doing our vertical work virtually, completing transactions, etc. It is what employees mean when they say “it’s working”. Except we dropped Group B by a factor of about 50. People want to argue, “No, I still do coffee winddowns on Friday!” but a formal one-time scheduled event does not compensate for the myriad of interactions we gave up. And Group C has moved into a world where “only formal horizontal processes are done”.
We know that WFH has generally decimated the horizontal side. Hugely important to management, not so visible to random employees. It creates a huge disconnect. And right now, the only way that management knows how to fix it is to force people back into the office at least part of the time. The longer it goes unresolved, the greater the negative pressure to RTW for more days of the week. Worst case scenario? Full-time RTW for everyone.
7. A security scandal: Nuclear meltdown
If there is a security scandal where someone working from home creates a large security breach, the reaction of almost every DM will be swift and severe. On day 1, they’ll tell every ADM to start looking at ways to bring everyone back in immediately. By about day 3, they may be calm enough to say, “Anyone doing ANYTHING secret has to be in-person at the office, no more hold your nose and cross your fingers!” If the data breach is serious enough, it will be “All hands on deck, report to the office, this is NOT a drill”.
The humourous adage is that government security is really good about locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. Except a more apt version would be “Government security gets slapped if the horse escapes through the barn door; if they want to keep their jobs, they shut it immediately and make sure it can’t ever open again!”.
6. Whining and moaning or sabotage: Moderately negative
I have seen people post that if they have to go back to the office, they are going to bitch and whine and moan about it every single day. They are, in short, going to be unprofessional childish jerks who want to take their ball and go home, but it isn’t their ball, and if they want to be paid, they can’t go home. Think about it…the government told people, even when we weren’t all in the office, “Get vaccinated or go on LWOP”. No extra sympathy, no warm fuzzy cuddles, no pats on the head. Management instead said, “Suck it up buttercup, we’re your boss, not your parents”. So what do we expect the reaction will be to people whining and moaning about having to go into the office the way we, they and everyone else did prior to the pandemic? Not overly receptive would be my guess.
Put a different way, nobody cares if YOU think you can do your work just as well at home. It isn’t about you. It’s about the organization which is not getting everything done that needs to get done as well as it needs to be done. You don’t see that? Also not their problem, at least not officially. Their problem is to make it work. And they’re not saying “5d/week” in the office, they’re mostly saying, “We need you back in some of the time to make this work right.” If all you do is complain that the way they’re doing THEIR job is not the warm fuzzy towel you hoped for, they’re going to stop caring what anyone thinks on this issue. If they get crap regardless of what they do — WFH and it doesn’t work, partial RTW and everyone complains, they’re going to do what is easiest. Which, wait for it, is telling everyone, “Okay, back to the office all the time”. Nothing to worry about, nothing to work out, if people want to leave, don’t let the door hit you on the way out. It will bite everyone in the long-run, but in the short-term, it will be employees who lose that fight.
But there are some employees who have been flat-out stupid. They’ve basically said, “Okay, I’ll go into the office, but when I do, I’m going to accomplish nothing, be late on everything”, basically ensure that they sabotage every aspect of the RTW so it looks like complete failure. They think that if RTW looks like failure, the solution will be full-time WFH. It won’t be. They’ll instead conclude that WFH didn’t work, hybrid isn’t working, so let’s try the third option where everything worked before which was everyone in-person. Sabotaging the RTW effort will just guarantee the only option available is full-time RTW.
5. Personal performance scandal: Moderately negative
The security scandal above is easy to predict. Eventually, sometime, somewhere, we’ll have a breach. It’s inevitable. But the personal scandal is one that I know is coming, I just don’t know what the trigger will be. I envision two types of scenarios.
The first one is an acrimonious breakup between a couple. Let’s assume John and Jane. John works for the government, Jane may or may not. But during the breakup, Jane is ticked. And she wants to get back at John for something he did. Maybe he cheated on her, maybe he hit on her sister. I don’t know. All I know is that a couple are pissed at each other. And it turns out that John hasn’t exactly been a model employee. Maybe he’s daydrinking. Maybe he’s taking 2-hour siestas after lunch and not making up the time. Maybe he’s making passes at the housekeeper while telling his boss he has VPN issues. Whatever the issue, he isn’t working full-out doing his job. Jane will tell her friend, who will tell her friend, who happens to know Andrew Duffy at the Ottawa Citizen, and next thing we know, there’s a story about whistleblowers revealing all about unproductive employees milking the system from home. We don’t talk about it, we don’t indulge in speculation, but we know, for example, that the first few months at home were not, dare I say it, the poster child days of working from home productively. Heck, many of us couldn’t even stay on the system for longer than an hour at a time without being booted off. Even those days when we COULD get on all. We found work-around options, we did lots of internet reading and planning, and eventually, we got back down to business with the right tools. But you know what? Back when everyone was in the office, some employees still did stupid things or screwed around doing nothing unless someone was riding herd on them regularly. There are THOSE types in any crowd, any business. Do we think that working from home suddenly weeded them out?
No, of course not. And sometime, somewhere, someone is going to paint one public servant jet black while tarring and feathering the rest of us by implication. Remember way back at item 9 where we had the public and MPs? Well, a scandal like this will give them both fodder to say, “Get those lazy gits back in the office, pardner!”.
Or maybe it isn’t a former loved one ratting someone out. Maybe it is the idiot who decides that since he’s working from home, and his workload isn’t too high, he’s going to get an all-you-can-golf membership and go golfing three or four afternoons a week. He’s not going to tell anyone, he’s not going to ask permission, he’s just going to do it. And maybe while he’s hanging out at the 19th tee, he mentions casually that he works for the government but has a “very flexible schedule” since he works from home. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t that sound like a dream job? And wouldn’t it be likely that someone might say, “What the heck? How did THAT get approved? That’s not right! My wife works for the government too, and SHE can’t do that.”. It’ll be some sort of whistleblower scenario again, but this time it is some member of the public seeing somebody playing fast and loose with their hours. And just to be clear, it won’t matter if they cleared it with their boss and they’re time-shifting their schedule so they work 7-1 and maybe 5-7 for the day, i.e., covering their hours. The only thing that will matter is the perception that a government employee is golfing every afternoon when most employees are supposed to be working — with the obvious conclusion that if they were IN THE OFFICE, this wouldn’t have happened.
I picked on men for the two examples, but it doesn’t have to be men behaving badly. It is about perception. If someone is perceived as “not working” or “milking the WFH system”, the DMs will all have the same reaction. Lock the barn door, make sure it can’t happen again.
There is, by the way, a third scandal possible, but there are lots of safeguards in place for part of it. The classic myth about WFH in the business world is that the employee is WFH, but isn’t actually “home”. Instead, they’re sitting on the beach, they’ve got their laptop, and they’re catching some sun. But are they really “working hard”? Or is it the cliché of hardly working? Again, reality doesn’t matter. Perception does. Some people get antsy when they hear that an employee is working from their parents’ house or the cottage…can that work? Is that a good setup? It makes no difference if they’re working at a card table in their parents’ basement or their own dining room table or a picnic table at the cottage, if they’re doing the work, but there is still a mental perception to at least say, “hmm…”. It seems a bit of a stretch, but mostly just because we’re not used to “work from home” completely yet, let alone “work from anywhere”.
At the moment, just about everyone is allowed to work from somewhere other than their “home” with the assumption they tell their boss. It could be their parents’ house, it could be a cottage, it could have been a business centre in a hotel in days of yore. The only pure restriction that is relatively universal is that it can’t be outside Canada. Security issues trump everything. And yet, despite the fact that EVERY DEPARTMENT has said you CANNOT WORK OUTSIDE CANADA, there have been people giving it the old college try.
There is a fairly well-known story from someone on Reddit posting about their own experiences, they knew the rules, but they thought, “Oh, no big deal, I’ll use a VPN, they’ll never be able to tell that I’m actually in India.” Guess what? The department could. Guess what? The guy was fired. And as soon as it was found out, because the example / warning / cautionary tale was shared widely in government to the powers-that-be (just in case you were wondering if it was an urban legend, no, IT departments all shared the details), every department sent out reminders and checked their software tracking to see if anyone in THEIR department was stupid too. The government DOES have the ability to track keystrokes to see if you’re working, they can track mouseclicks, they can tell if you’re at your computer. Most of the departments DON’T do that, although a few have run some audit software to test it or used it when another problem was already evident with an employee (such as no work coming from them, complaining their IT issues prevent them from getting online, but IT runs some tests and sees that the person is connected but playing solitaire all day).
Those events are going to happen. And even if they don’t go “public” initially, departments have to report every year on what’s going on in the area for Values & Ethics violations or they have to dismiss people and the union tries to fight it. It WILL become public. And whatever the trigger for the scandal — angry loved one, whistleblower, stupidity by the employee — the reaction will be the same. Management will be told to fix it and prevent it for EVERYONE. And draconian responses are common to these problems.
4. Savings: Moderately positive
Treasury Board has launched a review exercise, with not many details spreading outward yet. There are two components to it — a longer-term program review to see if all the current programs are all still needed and working well (standard cycle of doing a full review every 10-20 years or so or changes in government), and a shorter-term operating review tied to … wait for it … WFH.
Let’s look at the costs associated with adding one employee to my team who will WFH vs. in the office (ITO). In either scenario, I have to pay their salary. At the moment, dun dun dun, those are the same regardless of where they work. Note that this is NOT the case for contractors, lots of other self-employed people, etc. — there are often two very different rates of pay for off-site (WFH in this case) or ITO. For now, let’s assume it’s the same. For both scenarios, I also have to pay benefits.
Now, let’s talk about furniture. In the office, I’m likely to acquire (through departmental accommodations people) decent quality, long-lasting furniture for everyone, including desks (maybe two in an L shape), filing cabinets, walls between cubicles, cupboards for coats, etc. If you’re WFH, I’m likely to cut you a cheque for up to $500, you’ll buy your own desk and / or chair, and I’m done. In-office is likely closer to $1500 per person (ballpark, medium quality) vs. $500 at home. If you could do that across all of government, saving a $1000 per employee? That could be a one-time savings of $400M. That’s not chicken-feed.
What about wiring in the building? Phones? Printers? Heat? Electricity? Internet connection? At home, people tend to pay for it themselves, with little appetite to try and reimburse them. If they have their own little office setup, they can claim some of it on their taxes. But that’s another savings to the government.
But let’s get to the big-ticket item aka BUILDINGS. If we’re only going into the office 2 days a week each, i.e., 40% of the original staff complement on any given day, then we need 60% less office space to own and manage or lease. Currently, we spend billions a year on office space across the entire government. And if we could save 60% of that from WFH 3 days and ITO 2 days? Well, that’s pretty dang attractive.
Yet that “change” can’t be done overnight, no one knows if the WFH edict will hold for the long-term. No department is going to lose their building on the basis of “we might be able to reduce the footprint” if another government or DM comes in and says, “Nope, back in the office”, or any one of the above pressures forces people into the office. These “savings” could take YEARS to materialize.
But if we can get some of those benefits earlier, cutting leases, altering maintenance and growth plans, etc., that is a HUGE pressure internally to keep WFH on the table. The people working in this area would LOVE people to keep working from home, almost everyone! And only have service desk people come into regional offices for Service Canada front-line service delivery. Sure, we would still need military bases, and inspection centres, and harbours for our Navy, for instance, but the 400K public servants? The majority could stay home, no office needed.
Now, there is a corollary that goes with this, not so much about WFH/RTW, so much as a risk that goes along with WFH. The cliché might be “out of sight, out of mind”, but the reality is that if you have 5000 people working in an office complex, and you cut 1000 of them, that is a VERY visual impact. You see people losing jobs, lots of empty desks, etc. On the other hand, if all it means is a swipe of a pen and 30K stop logging on to your network, it is VERY easy to adjust the size of your workforce. You can do it almost callously, in fact, if that is your ilk. Unions know this — in-office physical work has much greater visibility and thus potential job security than WFH.
3. Recruitment: Moderately positive +
2. Morale: Moderately positive
These two go hand-in-hand as they have the same root cause. Improved work-life balance raises morale. So while lots of people are comparing having to go into the office 2d a week vs. WFH 5d a week, the real comparator is that 3 years ago you were in the office five days a week, and NOW, you can work from home 3 days a week. If we could lock that into our government approach, a “perk” that most industries don’t have, recruitment to the public service would / could improve dramatically.
Now, here’s the first mild kicker. Lots of people think that since lots of people apply for external jobs, it’s easy to find people. The truth is, it isn’t. We can, indeed, find warm bodies. But finding the right person for government, and the right person for your department, and the right person for your file area, is a challenge. The bigger the initial pool, the more you can offer people, then the better chance you have of finding the right fit.
Recruiting is easy; recruiting and retaining the right people is hard. It would be a good recruitment and retention benefit if people want to WFH and can do so. Which would give us an advantage without any increase in cost to the taxpayer. In fact, it would likely SAVE money while making the employees happier. That’s a pretty strong HR motivator, but it means nothing if management is not seeing ALL the work getting done right.
1. Union: Mixed impact
The various public sector unions who will be negotiating with Treasury Board over the next few years are going to have an unprecedented impact on the workplace based solely on what they ask for in the negotiations. The Board’s opening salvo is going to be blunt — WFH or RTW is a management decision, not something for negotiation in the collective bargaining process. It is a condition of work, directly tied to operations, they are the ones who determine that, not the union, thank you very much. And even if they might have some flex, they’ll say, “Yeah, but it would have to be the same for everyone, and not everyone wants the same thing, departments are different too, operational requirements, sorry.” For “issues” like that, it is very hard to codify one solution into a collective agreement.
If the unions do what they normally do and ask for the moon for pay, benefits and leave, no one will budge on WFH on the employer side. It will be dead in the water as a negotiation point before it even begins. And all signs point to unions asking for — wait for it — substantial raises. It is going to be a shitshow of epic proportions. I already blogged in previous episodes that employees who are WFH already got a raise back in March 2020. A nice fat 15% raise for the year by not having to commute, not having to have work clothes for the office, not having to go into the office, etc. And unions are going to ask for more ON TOP OF THAT? Yeah, good luck with that.
And the reality is that the public service is one of the least affected groups economically and financially in the last 3 years. While other sectors were wiped out for months, we kept getting paid. We had full work packages, we kept working, we generally skipped the massive labour market disruptions that everyone else went through. Were we busy? Sure. Were we potentially overwhelmed at times? Of course. Just as we have been before too, the public isn’t clamouring for songs to be written about our glory and honour. Some taxpayers can’t pay their rent and yet we’re asking for a substantial raise AND to still WFH? That will not play in Peoria, as they say.
How now, brown cow?
And now that I’ve written all of this post, I realize that I have another section to write, and it should probably be a whole separate piece. What we SHOULD be doing as employees if we like WFH. Crap, now there’ll be eight episodes of my trilogy. At least Douglas Adams knew the answer was 42. I don’t have any idea what the real answer is for WFH, just thoughts. And I hope it won’t be 42 posts to get there.