Treasury Board directive flies in the face of research on productivity

Published in The Hill Times, January 16, 2023

By David Neufeld, USJE National President

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier continues to take grief from public servants and labour leaders who have decried a lack of consultation on the new edict to get employees back to the office by March of 2023.

Despite recent assurances of some flexibility, the new directive is clear that federal employees must report to the worksite “a minimum of 40 to 60 percent” across the board, no matter the job, role, department or location. While a lack of consultation was hardly a good move, more problematic is that this new approach flies in the face of what we learned about workplace productivity during the pandemic.

After nearly three years of hundreds of thousands of federal public servants working largely from home, you would think one of Canada’s biggest employers would have learned a thing or two about how their staff functioned during a major global crisis.

In fact,  if you check Statistics Canada’s own website, you will see some of their research for yourself. But, no matter. These learnings on employee productivity were nonetheless disregarded when shaping the future of a large federal public service in urgent need of more innovation and leadership.

Fundamentally, what the pandemic demonstrated — and the research shows — is that some of Canada’s most productive employees only became more productive when the pandemic hit, and they stayed that way.  

In fact, a large proportion (48 percent) of employees in the private and public sectors worked harder and longer than they did pre-pandemic, and did so while working off site nearly 100 percent. And these were already highly productive employees.  

Notably, even less productive employees generally put in more hours while working from home. The lesson? Being out of the office had a largely positive impact on the capacity of high and mid-level performers to get the job done, office be damned. 

Just a few days after Minister Fortier’s announcement in December, global leader Shopify reported that it was cancelling plans to occupy a million-square-foot building in a high-profile Toronto development, despite holding the lease until 2027. A Shopify executive emphasized “they are no longer seeking a workforce that centres around a physical workplace for day-to-day work.”

Of course, the federal public service cannot be wholly equated with the private sector,  but some principles of workplace productivity do apply — irregardless of the bottom line or the boss. And that is the rub.

The new Treasury Board directive insists on a minimum of 40 to 60 percent facetime at the work site, despite how well you’ve leveraged technology, built virtual teams, and balanced the needs for “in person” time in more operational, front-facing roles with off-site work.

Minister Fortier repeatedly said that the new policy formally entrenches hybrid work into the federal public service – but that’s not the real story.  

What few on the inside will admit is that agencies and departments were already facing intense internal competition for employees, and this policy seeks to create a “fair playing field.”  In doing so, public servants can no longer be incentivized by departments and agencies who were continuing to offer significant work from home flexibility given how successful it had proven to be. 

Of course, there will still be some tolerance for a day or two of work from home — but it will no longer be assumed, and it will heavily depend on the wisdom and power granted to individual managers.

Unfortunately, unlike Shopify, the Government of Canada couldn’t muster the courage to establish a new work norm for its own public service, but instead opted for a politically palatable and blunt instrument that is a slap in the face to the thousands of federal employees who went above and beyond, wave after wave of the pandemic.
It also blatantly disregards some of the best successes of the pandemic — maximizing the output of highly motivated public servants who have never stood down since March 2020, and still haven’t.

It is only a matter of time before the Treasury Board’s policy will have to be revised, as recruitment and retention challenges intensify. However, some of Canada’s most productive federal public servants will have left by then.