Public service managers handed some flexibility applying back-to-office policy

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The federal government’s chief human resources officer has issued a directive to public service managers that gives them some flexibility in how they apply the new return-to-office policy.

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The memo from Chief Human Resources Officer Christine Donoghue gives managers the ability to allow employees to fulfill their prescribed office hours — 40 to 60 per cent of their work schedule — on a weekly or monthly basis.

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It means, for instance, that a full-time employee could spend two weeks in the office then two weeks working at home, and be in compliance with the government’s hybrid work policy.

“Workplaces vary from one organization to the other; deputy heads are to use discretion and adapt to their operational requirements,” the memo reads.

Earlier this month, Treasury Board President and Ottawa-Vanier MP Mona Fortier announced public servants will be required to return to the office two or three days a week by the end of March.

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Fortier has said the policy is designed to bring fairness, equity and consistency to the federal workplace since some departments already have employees in the office regularly, while others do not.

The new policy is to begin Jan. 16, and be in full effect by the end of March.

Donoghue’s directive gives senior managers more information about how to implement the return-to-office mandate.

It also outlines potential exemptions, some of which would only be granted after consultation with the office of the chief human resources officer. Potential exemptions include:

• “Exceptional cases” where a deputy minister can demonstrate a measurable increase in efficiency through telework

• Information technology (IT) departments where exemptions are required for the recruitment and retention of key staff

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• Employees hired to work remotely prior to March 16, 2020, when the government first asked public servants to begin telework as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic

• Indigenous employees whose location within their communities “is critical to their identity”

• Employees who have permission to work remotely in places more than 125 kilometres from their designated office site

Employees who are immune compromised are also able to apply for an accommodation. Other “exceptional exemptions” will be determined on a case-by-case basis, the memo says, based on such considerations as illness, extenuating circumstances, or short-term operational requirements.

Each department will be responsible for introducing verification programs to ensure employees are following the return-to-office policy.

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“Managers seeking to ensure compliance have tools available to them, including several administrative actions,” the memo advises. “Managers should discuss with their labour relations teams and ensure that individual circumstances are considered on a case-by-case basis.”

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the country’s largest public service union, has already announced its developing guidelines to assist public servants who want to file individual grievances based on the policy.

Public service unions have argued that the location where government employees perform their jobs should be a matter for negotiation after almost three years of pandemic-enforced telework, but Fortier has flatly rejected that idea.

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In an interview earlier this week, Fortier said the federal government’s return-to-office mandate is not an issue to be decided at the collective bargaining table. “It’s the right of the employer, it’s the management’s right,” Fortier insisted.

Ontario government’s civil servants have been back in the workplace three days a week since April, while Quebec civil servants have been spending two days a week in the office for most of the year.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) has demanded a halt to the government’s return-to-office plan with the country facing the “triple threat” of COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

PSAC has filed a complaint about the government’s return to workplace plan with the federal labour relations board. It contends the government cannot make changes to working conditions during negotiations with its unions.


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