Government from home

Illustrations from the Akbarnama, various artists, c. 1592–94.

This is a post about working from home, probably one of the top 3 labour market topics that have emerged over the last three years. Admittedly I waffled on writing this post or not given how intrinsically emotional this topic is, but given the departmental town halls that emerged last week and made the news, I thought I’d weigh in using a longer format. And it is a long one.

Let’s start with context. Federal departments and agencies in Canada are starting to experiment with hybrid workplaces, bringing workers back into offices in manners varying from team to team based on operational needs. This is happening as Omicron BA.5 cases are rising very rapidly and a healthcare system that is under severe strain in several provinces. It is also occurring as most governments in OECD countries return to some hybrid work format.

As ridiculous as it is, I should also remind people that COVID-19 is a dangerous virus. It can be fatal, and is now known to potentially cause disabling conditions, including but definitely not limited to, cardiovascular and neurological damage. It has a very short reinfection period and little immune protection after a few months. Subsequent infections do not seem to be less severe and could in fact be more deadly. I reiterate this for three reasons:

Therefore a return to office inherently brings with it an acceptance of these risks, or that the gains from returning to offices outweigh the risk to labour. I’m not being sardonic here; it just is. That is the ethical equation that needs solving.

So I want to examine two lenses here: impacts of returning to offices and impacts on returning to offices together, the latter which represents a much greater threat than the former. Because if we think the pandemic is scary, wait until you think about climate change and global insecurity.

Governing from home

I work from home. On most days I like to think I’m very productive doing so. My supervisor seems to, anyway. Some days I’m less so, though this was true even prior to the pandemic as a result of being a human living in 2022. I happen to be able to fulfill all of my duties from home without bother.

However the government as a whole simply can’t work from home. The public service is vast and I’m willing to bet that the sample size of Very Online public servants primarily derives from a handful of professions where distributed work at peak productivity is possible. It simply isn’t the case for many public servants. If you work as a tour guide, scientist, intelligence officer, warehouse employee, etc. you can’t work from home.

Given this context it was very smart not to set a strong central rule but rather have different rules depending on operational contexts. It also introduces more labour market competition between departments, which is also good, as wherever possible (job/skillset depending) people with different preferences will drift over time to teams that best reflect their priorities.

Some people genuinely don’t want to work from home all the time. They want the feeling of team spirit, they aren’t safe at home, they feel some tasks they do at home are pointlessly menial to convince others that they’re working, they feel a sense of monotony, they feel disconnected. Houses are also much less secure than government offices. All are very legitimate concerns!

However, let’s return to the trade offs again. Are these worth risking a disabling virus? Answering this requires an individual response, but the employer can take steps to reduce the risk. If we must return there should be minimum safety measures taken in offices to protect workers that have, or live with people that have, preexisting disabilities for which COVID could especially dangerous.

Let’s look at a few:

The National Joint Council website should be renewed to communicate this data so that everyone has one source of truth, otherwise unions will need to pull this data from GC sources and display it on their websites, which is not ideal.

Working from offices as a national security problem

Looking beyond the individual worker lens, there are very real national security and continuity of government concerns to have teams brought together in a single, indoor physical space for mandatory “anchor” days. BA.5 being incredibly infectious, it can introduce the possibility that entire teams become infected, leading to a situation where work of that team simply stops or people are pressured to work through their illness. Public servants are incredibly dedicated and already I’ve seen several in different departments work through COVID infections or significant Long COVID symptoms at home. This unwavering dedication can make their symptoms last longer.

Moving beyond the pandemic — or at least this one (looking at you, monkeypox) — we have to think about climate change and infrastructure. 2022 has been a particularly wild weather year worldwide. It is highly probable that continued climate change will bring increased changes of extreme weather events that will test our infrastructure. Just look at the May 2022 Ottawa derecho that caused the most damage to our electric transmission infrastructure in history.

This means that even if there is a return to offices, teams should not return together to the same office. Ideally there is some degree of dispersion, and even more ideally this dispersion is beyond the same city. The strategy should be to minimize the threat surface to any given function of state. Therefore if there is a bad outbreak on a floor of an office it may only affect a small amount of capacity from several teams than a large amount of capacity from one.

We already (mostly) have the tools that allow for dispersion because we’ve been dispersed for over two years.

Dispersion of staff definitely brings some challenges but they are overcome with an open mind, humility, and good distributed work practices. Around half of my division works outside of Ottawa over three time zones so I speak from experience here. Share information widely among staff, listen to them, and be adaptable.

The added benefit of having public servants in offices but dispersed will be networking and potentially really interesting connections made between policy and operational areas. Public servants would gain a more profound view of their professional worlds or subject matter when regularly exposed to others working in very different areas.

A way forward

After the initial aftermath of the pandemic I had wistful dreams of a federal government more personally connected to the needs and plight of people across the country at an emotional level. This conglomeration of humans governing other humans might work better if we don’t cloister as much in a capital city.

Now, I don’t believe that any of us have a way forward that will make everyone happy, or even a plurality. The social media discussions among public servants are emotional because the topic is inherently emotional (with due respect to the Clerk on this one). Decisions will be made with a number of political inputs too, yet another manifestation of the tension between technocracy and politics that makes up public service in Canada. Perceptions that public servants are more privileged than others or that downtown Ottawa is being abandoned will play into these decisions, regardless of how ridiculous we might feel them to be.

This won’t make me very popular, but I do hope that senior management understands the risk trade-off that they are asking of staff and that some people will not see increased camaraderie as a sufficient excuse to return to offices. In this context, get used to angry staff, who may become less productive because of it. And to other public servants, turning to personal attacks or spurious gossip about senior management will not result in better outcomes for you. Let’s tone down the rhetoric and keep things civil.

In my opinion we should not be optimizing first for output, but for continuity of state functions first and then output. Government’s primary business is order and stability. Using those objectives we’d see a more nationally dispersed public service still spending time in offices but scattered throughout the country. Still making personal connections, just new ones. Thinking as an integrated system of government, not just a series of unrelated, vertical teams.

Regardless of whether the office or how much, we need to invest in safer office spaces, and public servants should absolutely push our unions hard to agitate for safety measures in offices. For everyone, relentlessly.

Like I’ve said on Twitter, write your union if you want better. They need to know that their membership is giving them license to negotiate hard for better workplace protections against COVID, including sick leave. And yes, we must certainly have empathy for the fact that many Canadians cannot or will not be allowed to work from home. Donating to workers’ causes and organizations that push for safety protections will hopefully lessen these disparities.

Everyone deserves a safe workplace no matter the sector, and Canada needs a government that is resilient to the shocks of the future that are barrelling towards us.



Hi! I’m Michael and I write about digital policy and government.

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Hi! I’m Michael and I write about digital policy and government.