My normal schtick is description. I explain why something is like it is, why seemingly opaque decisions or processes are not as dense as people might think. Other than sharing tips and tricks in my HR guide, I rarely try to tell people to do x or y. I’ve been a bit more directive on some of these topics, maybe a bit more rant-y. But, today, I have a different goal.
I want to tell people what to do if they want WFH as a continued option for the future and not as a slowly diminishing option until everyone is back in the office five days a week.
Change your script and talk about hybrid work
Let’s make this super simple for everyone to understand. There are three models:
- Remote model, never have to go into the office, 100% work from home
- Hybrid model, some mix of in-the-office and work from home
- Old school model, 100% in the office (Edit:
work from home)
We need to stop saying full WFH (5d) is working just fine (model 1). You may believe that everything is working, and maybe it looks that way to you for your files. But management sees the whole spectrum, vertically AND horizontally, and they know better. If you start from that wrong premise, you lose all credibility and will have zero engagement. Not to mention the fact that since management believes otherwise (and has the actual evidence!), you are basically trying to convince them that you know better than them and that they’re idiots. Not a great opening position.
There are pressures in the system to just follow the herd, go back to 100% in the office (model 3), case closed. They might let people occasionally WFH, but generally speaking, everyone will bring their computers and laptops back to the office and there will be no equipment at home. Management has already decided that model 1 isn’t working, and they’re trying to figure out model 2.
Now, to be clear, the hybrid model is a huge spectrum. At the low-end, people will have to go into the office occasionally for group events. Work from anywhere is still on the table in that model, as it may simply mean that for “all-staffs”, you have to commute to your team’s area by bus, car, train, or plane, whatever it takes. Others will have to go in once a quarter, once a month, or once a week, and they will all be considered “hybrid”. Those more frequent visits may make “work from anywhere” more challenging, but that’s almost a separate track.
If people want WFH to remain as a viable option in either model 1 or 2 (i.e., avoiding model 3), and model 1 is already dead, they have to change the script to figure out how to design model 2 in the best way possible for everyone, employee and employer.
Permanent full-time WFH is (relatively) dead. That’s the starting point. Don’t pretend it is something else, that decision has already been made. Now let’s talk about how far “past” that point we will have to go.
MAKE HYBRID WORK
If you want WFH as an ongoing option, you need to show that hybrid WORKS and is BETTER than 5d/week in the office. Not by sabotaging in-office, that will just backfire on you. Instead, you need to show that hybrid gives you something DIFFERENT than if you were 100% either way.
If you’re in the office part of the week, the argument is that you are doing so to get those meaningful moments. You’ll make the connections you need to do your job. If so, bust your ass to show that you ARE doing it, that you are making those connections. Plan for the day, set up some obvious team interactions AND interactions across teams. Give yourself extra time in the a.m. to get set up at your desk and functional by 9:00 a.m. Have coffee with that colleague you interacted with on that information request you had a few weeks ago, after asking them in advance if you could schedule a time when you’re both in the office. Keep a tally of possible people you can reach out to from outside of your immediate team and make the effort to network with them when you’re in. It’s a bit formal, keeping a list, seems almost like a salesman noting leads, but you want your bosses to SEE the benefits. For example, after you meet with John or Katey in that other team, you mention in your next team meeting that you had coffee with that other team last Tuesday when you were in the office, and that (a) you learned x, y or z from them (hey look! we can do horizontal!) and (b) it was a good experience interacting in person, making that personal connection. Can you do some of that virtually? Sure. But you want management to know that if you go to the office, you’re not moping about it, you’re making it work. You’re professional and you’re taking direction. Walk around your new office setup and talk to people like you used to do. Have conversations in the lunch room or corridors.
Equally, though, you need to make the WFH aspect sing. If you’re at home on Monday and Tuesday, and in the office on Wednesday and Thursday, and your argument is that you are way more productive at home, then show it. Not by skewing your performance when in the office (again, that will just backfire), but by showing that you are incredibly productive on Monday and Tuesday. If you’re going in Wednesday and Thursday, adjust your deadlines, if you can, but make sure that Wednesday and Thursday will still be productive — you don’t want it to look like you do NOTHING but meetings those days and all work is moved to the other days. Sure, when you’re in the office, you will, by default, be at your computer less for the day because you are supposed to meet with more people while you’re there. But back in the day, just because you were in the office didn’t mean you didn’t still work actively all day, you still met deadlines, you still worked at your desk, you still had meetings too, etc. You balanced it when you were in person before, make sure you balance it now too.
You need to show that the work for WFH and IN-PERSON is, well, working.
I frequently think about life at Global Affairs as one cautionary example since they went to the 3d/week model in the office. They apparently figured that they would eventually end up there, so why not go there right away? For scheduling the three days, two days are management choices, one is the employee’s choice. Over time, if I was at GAC, I would be trying to see if three days in the office was really as productive as say two days in the office. If the whole point of going in is to interact with people, and the third day was less “connected”, then I would be looking to share that intel. Not as an “I told you so”, but as evidence of how things are working. If you’re working 3d / week in the office, and you’re telling your bosses that all three are a waste of time, you didn’t understand the assignment. You CAN however tell them that 2d / week works well but Day 2 and Day 3 provide diminishing returns for YOUR files (don’t say for everyone, stick to YOUR files).
Heck, if you’re working elsewhere and at the office one day a week, and you “try” two days a week for a month, and it doesn’t work any better for you, share THAT as well. It’s legit to say, “You know, going in once a week was good, I got some benefits out of having that mix, but I found that two days didn’t really add that much compared to what I lost in productive time WFH. One day is good, two is too much.” And again, I’m not suggesting you skew the data. I’m saying that you tell them how it is working, giving them feedback when asked. Professional feedback. It’s the only thing they’ll be able to listen to and use. And try out different options. Go in once a month, go in twice a month, go in once a week, go in twice a week one month. Tell them your results. Just make sure you’re not trying to convince them that WFH permanent is the solution, because it isn’t. That’s already decided. Understand the assignment is about how best to make hybrid work, not to kill it. It’s the Terminator of models, it will not easily die.
If you think of all of our RTW as an evaluation — because it is! — give them the evidence of what works well with actual evidence where you tried to make both work. Because if it comes back a year from now, “some things are still broken”, the response will be to increase in-person time even more. If you want to keep WFH in some form, you need to show that hybrid can and does work. And if it isn’t clear from the above, the question is NOT in any way for this part about what you PREFER. That’s addressed below for morale. This is ONLY about whether you are doing the vertical/transactional work and making the horizontal connections.
If you want to argue that we COULD have made horizontal work while WFH, I agree. We COULD have. But we apparently didn’t, and so RTW is their solution. Maybe 1d a week will suffice. But the only way to demonstrate that it IS sufficient is by making everything work.
Emphasize the morale aspects of WFH
Let’s talk about preference now. If your mental health is better working from home at least part of the week, THAT is important to share. Tell your bosses that you are far less stressed on days when you can work from home. Tell them that the work-life balance is great because you can do X or Y (something positive sounding, not that you can get to Happy Hour faster!). Talk about taking a local yoga class at 8:00 a.m., or being able to walk your kids to the bus stop in the morning. Share the intangibles.
Will this make management offer WFH forever? No, I told you, that option is dead, but it will increase the likelihood that they see hybrid as a good thing and that they should try to avoid going to 5d / week in the office as they will lose that benefit. Yes, that’s a real fear long-term (i.e., 5d a week).
And since mental health is a major consideration (but not the only one, you are an employee after all!), you want them to see that benefit. To hear it REGULARLY, but not exclusively.
Communicate both the benefits AND the challenges
I mentioned MPs and the public earlier as two big groups that can kill us with the casting of a vote here or a complaint there. If we want their support, we need to project professional confidence in two things.
First and foremost, that hybrid is the best of both worlds. On the positive side, going into the office gives you those opportunities to make personal connections across teams more easily and connect in person with your colleagues, collaborating for example on horizontal files or brainstorming to kick off new projects. Equally, working from home is not only great for work/life balance, but it also gives you an opportunity to work with fewer distractions and little-to-no interpersonal conflicts at work from having 500 people share a common workplace. No one cares if you cook fish in the microwave at home or wear perfume if you want, and you don’t have to cringe because you overhear a coworker having a hushed fight with their spouse on the phone.
Second, there are still challenges. You still work a full day, and in fact, some people are finding it hard to stop working at a normal hour. If they don’t have to leave to catch a bus or drive home, some are continuing to work online with essentially unpaid overtime just to “finish up a file” or to check their email. Work hours can more easily creep into your personal life, and even when you do “stop” for the day, it can be harder to mentally disconnect, to separate “work” from “home”, particularly if you don’t have a separate space in your living space for “work”. For some who are working on the corner of their dining room table, it can feel like you’re spending your whole day in the “same space” without a break. We’ll get there, but it’s not a “snap your fingers and everything is great” situation. In addition, while hybrid gives you improved options for direct connections with coworkers, departments are also changing the work environment, with more impersonal workspaces, shared cubicles, and hotelling. Commuters going in for certain days will also have to lug their computers with them, along with the mouse and external keyboards (if they want one), sometimes the power cables too, etc. Oh, and headsets of course, as everyone will have video calls during the day. In short, many of the spaces in the offices are starting to be more like call centres, which is rarely offered as an ideal setup for anyone. In the short term, people are also going to go through the adjustment that other sectors already did for getting comfortable with new health and safety measures in the office.
Maybe the short version of that is that you have good solid “at home” time where you can buckle down without distractions and really blast through some files, but you also go into the office and make those horizontal connections that are so important in government work.
Take me for example. I love WFH. I’m an analytical introvert by nature, and if I had the option to do permanent WFH until I retire, I’d take it. I can find ways to compensate for a lot of lost horizontal connectivity, it takes additional dedicated effort, but I can do it. I have a huge advantage though for my workspace that I can work in the basement where no one bothers me and I’m not in anyone’s way. My wife has a separate office upstairs. Nobody is trying to squeeze in work on the dining room table. WFH is not wonderful for everyone, but as an introvert, I get benefits without much professional cost on my immediate files.
But I’m also a manager and managing a team remotely is harder for me than managing in person. We all had to learn new ways of working. generally, including managers. For example, check-ins are harder to do with staff, for things like mental health. If we were in the office, I’d wander through your work area possibly several times a day. You might fake sunshine and happiness for the 20m scheduled meeting we do remotely on Tuesday mornings, but if something is going on, you’re not going to be able to fake it for 7.5h while we’re in the office. Some of my best conversations with employees about their goals, their life, their morale, etc. were because I happened to notice that they seemed to be having an off day. Not because they beat their coworker to death with a keyboard, that would have been an obvious sign of some tension, sure. But simply because I happened to notice that when I saw someone else go by and say “hi” in passing, they barely registered the other person. Or they grimaced while answering a phone call. Tons of non-verbal signs that someone might need some support or space, and signs that are really hard to see on Teams or more accurately, a lot easier to hide.
It’s harder to onboard new people or give professional feedback. I knew how to do that in person, I could sit with them, read their body language as I gave feedback, adjust my own body language to make them more comfortable, pick up the non-verbal cues if they were starting to get defensive, etc. I had a way that worked for me and that had been tested over the previous 14 years as a manager. Now, I have had to find new ways. Do they work as well? No, simply they don’t. My previous skills were honed over 14y; the current ones are based on 3y of implementation. Will it get there? Sure. It might even be better in some ways. But for now, it’s simply “less” or at least “harder”. But that’s the job.
For my big files, I can see that the vertical side is working well enough, but horizontal isn’t, and in-person connections can help with some of that, particularly if we do it strategically and thoughtfully more than simply, “Hey, I’m at the office today, awesomeness will just happen”.
So, when I’m talking to others, I communicate the pluses and minuses. I don’t want them thinking that it’s simply a party to WFH nor that being in the office is going to be automatically better or hell on Earth. Instead, I portray confidence that a hybrid solution is a thoughtful solution and that I can make it work for the team. In my view, that’s the script we want to follow with anyone, but particularly outsiders. Because if they think otherwise, we’re dead. And I’m going to do it. I will make hybrid work, just the way I made it work when I was in person and when I was 100% WFH. That’s the job. That’s all of our jobs. Anything else is just a preference.
Don’t be stupid about security or your hours
If you do something stupid like golfing every afternoon and you get fired, or you ignore the rules and try working from India, I have no sympathy for you. If you take advantage of WFH to be stupid, you’ll ruin it for everyone. This goes even more strongly for security measures. If you cause a breach because you were too lazy to do security properly, then all of your coworkers should openly shun you after they give you a slime shower (like the old TV show).
If you like WFH at least some of the time, show that you’re taking security seriously in a hybrid world. If you can save documents in a secure repository, then share them from the repository. Do not say “regular SharePoint is good enough.” Don’t take the document out of the repository and share it via email with anyone and everyone without control over access and using full encryption plus passwords. We have the tools, we have to use them. Are they a pain in the patootie sometimes? Sure. But how does an extra minute or two dealing with permissions sound to you compared with having to commute 30m each way five days a week because you didn’t handle secret documents properly?
Tell your union what you want — salary, benefits, leave, or WFH?
If you ask the average public servant if they want more salary, better benefits, or more leave, they generally say “yes, please”. Of course we do, everyone does in any sector or job.
But when negotiations start with Treasury Board in the next round, they’re going to ask unions what their members want, what’s their demand, and if they say 5% for salary, a tweak to benefits, more days off, revocation of the vaccination requirement and oh yeah, WFH to be permanent, the discussion on WFH will NOT go the way the unions or many employees hope.
Stuff on leave and benefits is standard fluff, and they’ll wrestle over some 699 stuff from the past. That leaves three other pieces.
For the vaccination requirement, TB is going to move not a single millimetre. They can’t, it was dictated by a political direction, they’re going to hold the line on that, there’s been almost no wavering on it at all. The decision not to extend doesn’t change their belief that it’s important and fully within their power to do, backed by multiple court decisions across the country and well, generally around all Western-style democracies. Just about every decision about government power to do masks, vaccines, etc. has come back “why, yes, in the face of a global pandemic, you DO have the power to take extraordinary measures and these are relatively minor in comparison with the threat.”
I’m not debating this issue, whether it was right or wrong, I’m telling you the courts have generally backed them up, their political masters have set the tune, and they’re dancing the dance that they called. That will not — and probably cannot — change for the negotiations. Unions will try to rattle their sabres and TB will tell them to go pound sand. Not the least of it because > 98% of employees complied and > 95% of employees agreed with the direction. That’s a very hard issue for the unions to raise as a negotiating point if 95% of their members disagree with the union’s potential position. And to be blunt, if we’re in the office when the negotiations are going on, those 95% are going to have some serious concerns about unvaccinated people roaming the halls after everyone was mandated to be vaccinated. If there is an outbreak in an office, and the “patient zero” was unvaccinated, expect the grievances to fly fast and furiously, along with potential lawsuits, including against the union if they supported unvaccinated people in the office. It’s a crapfest that everyone wants to avoid, so the initial line will be “not open for debate”.
And then there were two issues — salary and WFH
Unions are going to do their normal demand for salary increases based on inflationary practices, and while I have some empathy, the truth is that we’ll look like extremely greedy people compared to other sectors that got decimated.
If unions want to bang their shoes on desks to demand increased compensation for all those hard-working public servants who got the government through the pandemic, TB is likely to say, “well, okay, if you want a big raise, then we want you back in the office at least three days a week”. They’re already paying us to be there. Why WOULDN’T they ask for that? And to be blunt, they don’t have to ASK or NEGOTIATE that, they can force us back with a touch of the keyboard by any DM who wants to say, “I’ve decided, this isn’t working, everyone back to the office.” Game over for any WFH or hybrid discussions. At the moment, the unions have no real leverage or say on this issue.
If we tie it to wages, economists estimate that WFH is worth about 15% of your salary, and it represents the equivalent of a one-time 15% raise that we all got at the start of a pandemic. Or 5% per year for the last three years. That’s a pretty decent raise, all things considered. It’s been eroded by inflation in some respects, but not enough to justify asking for more, at least not from an economic perspective. And Treasury Board is full of economists who know that and will point it out.
I mentioned previously that TB has tried very hard not to dictate to departments what the workplace should look like. Some departments would like them to, so they’d have an excuse and wouldn’t have to figure it out themselves. Some departments love Global Affairs’ commitment to three days in the office…now everyone else can do something less than that and say, “At least we’re not as bad as GAC” (which, admittedly, is a frequent slogan at many departments on HR issues, maybe there’s nothing new there).
But setting aside negotiating tactics, the question for you as an employee and union member is simple. Of all the things that the union can talk to TB about in the negotiations, which one is the most important to you?
If you want to know how hybrid is going to work…
If you want hybrid or WFH guaranteed in your letter of offer, with reasonable confidence it won’t be revoked after a year…
If you want to rely on hybrid or WFH commitments if you move to Calgary and can use their local office there…
If you want compensation to fly to Ottawa for big meetings…
If you want compensation for furniture or internet at home…
If you care about having at least some WFH options…
Tell your union
Tell them today. Tell them next week. Tell them every time you interact with them. Tell them on FB, Twitter, Reddit. If it is the most important issue to you, tell them outright that it is the single most important aspect of the negotiations and everything else is secondary. Write them a letter. When they have local meetings, go and tell them. When they have nationals, ask them if it’s on the agenda. Ask them about their positions. TELL THEM WHAT THEIR POSITION SHOULD BE in order to represent your views as a member. Tell them they should do a full survey of members to say which is the most important issue to them.
Hybrid work represents a fundamental shift in your workplace. There is nothing bigger on the table that will affect your work life for the next 5 years and potentially for your entire career. But if you don’t tell your union that, they’ll treat it as something that can be traded away for salary or benefits or leave. They always do. And as I said, right now the unions start with no leverage. TB will start by telling them that it’s not even negotiable, but if you tell your union that it is your top issue and everything ELSE is fungible, TB will have (almost) no choice but to negotiate on it.
Maybe we won’t get what you want. But we’re more likely to get it through negotiation than waiting for an email from a new DM that starts, “Research shows…”.
Which brings my call to action to a close. Which I thought would mean I was done. And then I shared my draft with two people whose opinions I trust, asked them to tell me what they thought, and they both had the same question in slightly different form. If I want the union and TB to negotiate “something”, what do I think that something should look like if WFH is dead and hybrid is the only real option? How do we lock that down for the future in a way that meets everyone’s concerns?
Well, crap. That is a great question. And now I have to do another post.