Downtown businesses cheer feds’ plan for public servants to start returning to office next month

Downtown Ottawa city

Nearly three years after the pandemic hollowed out office towers across downtown Ottawa, Thursday’s announcement that most federal public servants will be required to return to in-person office work two to three days per week by the end of March came as a welcome relief to Kevin McHale.

The executive director of the Sparks Street Business Improvement Area said the move provides much-needed clarity to merchants who’ve been wondering if and when the customers who used to fill their restaurants and patronize their stores before the pandemic would ever return.

“The economy of Ottawa is based upon a large federal workforce. And for decades, it’s been based on them being in a certain location,” McHale, whose organization represents about 65 businesses and property owners, told OBJ.

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“We know downtown is not going to be the same as it was in (2019), but there’s a bit of responsibility as the biggest landlord and biggest employer in the core to make some decisions one way or the other.”

McHale said the announcement will help business owners in the core “figure out what their 2023 looks like,” adding: “Uncertainty is what causes the biggest struggles.”   

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier made the government’s return-to-office plan official on Thursday afternoon. A Treasury Board document explaining the change says that hybrid work is here to stay, and the government is neither returning to a traditional model nor continuing with the one imposed by the pandemic.

Fortier told reporters Thursday that after the government shifted to a necessary hybrid model during the pandemic, there began to be inconsistencies in the system on how employees were treated.

Fortier didn’t directly answer a question about whether she had seen any data suggesting a drop in productivity due to remote work.

We’re looking at everything that we’re doing and to make sure that we serve Canadians best and we’re adapting this model,she said.

Employees across all departments in the core public service will be subject to a “phased introduction” of the return-to-office plan starting Jan. 16.

The plan would be fully implemented by the end of March 2023 and would see employees spending 40 to 60 per cent of their time at the office.

The Treasury Board, which oversees the administration of the public service, is also encouraging federal agencies to follow suit.

Departments were able to make their own decisions about hybrid models until now, but the document says that there must be consistency for the decisions to be fair and equitable.

That predictability is exactly what Andrew Grace says has been missing from his business for the past two and a half years.

As operating partner at Mulligans Golf Bar on Queen Street, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill, Grace says it’s been nerve-wracking not knowing from one month to the next whether his doors would even be allowed to remain open – and whether anyone would visit if they were.

“It’s hard to predict when any revenue is going to be coming in,” said Grace, who estimates the return of public servants to the office could boost his lunchtime sales by 20 to 25 per cent and give happy hour crowds a hefty lift. 

“We’re starting to get a little bit back now with office parties and things coming in, which is nice. But having a more steady crowd downtown to support all the local restaurants and everything, I think is going to be important for our survival moving forward.”

Still, while businesses applauded Thursday’s decision, unions are voicing their displeasure over the plan.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada said in a statement last week that a return-to-office order would be an “egregious violation of workers’ collective bargaining rights.”

Chris Aylward, its national president, said earlier this week that the union will continue to bargain for the rights of its employees should a mandate be announced.

Accommodation requests will be assessed by each department on a case-by-case basis, the Treasury Board document says.

It lists several possible exceptions to the hybrid model, including for people who were hired to work remotely prior to March 16, 2020, Indigenous employees whose location is critical to their identity and workers who were already subject to different arrangements that pre-existed COVID-19.

Meanwhile, another federal department delivered a second dose of good news to hard-hit merchants on Thursday. 

Canadian Heritage announced that Winterlude, the capital’s biggest winter festival, would offer in-person activities for the first time in three years in February.

The program of events, which is scheduled to run from Feb. 3-20, will include ice sculptures, interactive light features and performance art zones on Sparks Street as well as sleigh rides, interactive art installations, food experiences and other experiences in the ByWard Market.

Events are also planned for Gatineau’s Jacques-Cartier Park, the Canadian Museum of History, the National Arts Centre and other venues.

McHale said the festival, which typically draws about 600,000 visitors, will be a boon to downtown merchants.

“For retail services and the restaurant industry, February is a dark month other than Valentine’s Day,” he said. “To have three weekends of restaurants and businesses full of customers is fantastic. The boost will certainly be appreciated down here.”

 – With additional reporting from the Canadian Press

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