Op-ed: Civil servants are people too — don’t they deserve flex work?

Ottawa downtown

In this new era of flexible employment, I really like the concept of “work wherever you work well.” It makes sense to me. 

What I don’t understand is why we seem to think that such concepts should not apply to our federal public service. 

Instead, we seem to see civil servants as some amorphous grey mass, almost inhuman in many respects. Are these employees not qualified and experienced professionals, career-minded and passionate about what they do? Are they not equally deserving of work-life balance, a flexible hybrid work environment, and the option of avoiding a soul-crushing commute to the office every day? 

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As taxpayers and consumers of federal programs and services, isn’t it in our best interest to have happy, engaged and productive civil servants? I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to pay for a workforce of “quiet quitters.”

In so many private-sector workplaces nowadays, hybrid work arrangements and other related perks are increasingly common — even must-haves in this competitive labour market. But when talk turns to the civil service, the feeling seems to be that these employees should just “get back to work” — yes, I use that word deliberately — and in so doing prevent our downtown core from spinning off into the unknown. Who cares if those employees are actually happy, or productive.

In fact, the federal government’s cited benefits of allowing more remote and flexible work for its employees are laudable. Aren’t we all trying to reduce our carbon footprint and strive for a healthier, more balanced lifestyle? Wouldn’t it be great to take several thousand vehicles off local roads every day? And perhaps have the opportunity to reimagine boring, dated and possibly unhealthy office spaces into places that are modern and inspiring? I have worked in a few federal buildings and can think of little better than turning many of the cubicle wastelands of my past into “magnetic” office spaces where employees want to show up — when it makes sense for them. 

Not to mention, while we’re all gnashing our teeth about repopulating our downtown core with these uncooperative civil servants, federal government officials are likely smacking their lips about the possibility of employing more Canadians from coast to coast to coast, from all sorts of backgrounds and lived experiences. No longer would they have to constrict hiring efforts to the National Capital Region. Talk about diversity! Services for Canadians from Canadians. What a great way to build engagement and “spread the wealth” that has for so long been concentrated in Ottawa-Gatineau.

For decades, our region has leaned on the crutch of the federal presence. That crutch is getting more than a little wobbly. As someone noted recently, we cannot “guilt” the federal government into “forcing” its employees back into the office so the rest of us can breathe a sigh of relief and get back on our Zoom calls. We’re all in this together. 

What to do? Let’s leave the civil service to figure itself out. The federal government’s planned divestiture of its owned real estate portfolio will not happen overnight and officials have signaled their desire to work with local stakeholders going forward. To that end, fortunately, we have engaged citizens and a bright, innovative business community. We need to step forward and engage in what might be difficult conversations — with each other, with elected officials, community associations and business and labour groups. So that, regardless of who constitutes our next municipal government, we will be the creative and inspiring authors of our own destiny.

Anne Howland is the editor in chief of the Ottawa Business Journal and the Eastern Ontario Business Journal.

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