Op-ed: Like business, the federal workforce is not turning back the clock, TB boss says

Mona Fortier speaks to attendees of the Women, Wine & Wisdom dinner held Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022
Treasury Board President Mona Fortier participated in a panel discussion at the Women, Wine & Wisdom dinner held Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo by Caroline Phillips.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce has been weighing-in publicly on the management of federal employees. The president, Perrin Beatty, recently told local radio station CFRA “it’s important for people to get back to work and for us to get back to as normal an operation as possible.”

In fact, public servants have never stopped working and they delivered under extremely difficult circumstances when Canadians needed them most — during the pandemic.

While public servants delivering front-line services continued to perform their work in-person, public health measures forced much of the federal government to quickly learn how to operate remotely.

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But now that we have some semblance of normalcy, within the public service we are not going back to how things used to be. We’re embracing this opportunity to modernize our way of working.

The approach must serve our core purpose: delivering the best possible service to Canadians.

Virtual interactions, while convenient, are poor substitutes for experiences that are essential to cohesive, collaborative and high-performing organizations. We understand that a computer screen can’t replace that kind of relationship-building and collaboration.

Business agrees, Beatty notes: “What other employers are finding across the country is that there are synergies that come from people actually working together.”

That’s why, like private enterprise, the federal government is moving from remote-by-necessity to hybrid-by-design.

This gives us the opportunity to harness the best of in-person and off-site work. In-person work better supports collaboration, team spirit, innovation and a culture of belonging. Being together in the workplace helps teams build trust and learn from each other. At the same time, off-site work can have benefits, like cost savings.

This approach is set by Canada’s top official, Janice Charette, the clerk of the Privy Council. For her own office — like mine at the Treasury Board Secretariat — employees are in the office at least two days a week; off-site work is full-time only in exceptional circumstances.

My department is providing guidance to promote a coherent approach across the government and collecting findings so that we

The new hybrid workplace also allows the government to make better use of its buildings. With requirements for less office space, it will reduce costs and greenhouse gas emissions — both from our buildings and commuting.

After two years of working off-site, I know some public servants were reluctant to return to the office. Change is difficult, and a shift like this within the country’s largest workforce does not happen overnight.

Even Beatty acknowledges that, “Ultimately, we’ll be seeing hybrid both in the public service and in the private sector.”

At the same time, the chamber — and Canadians — have been telling us we need to get back to basics.

We listened. The fall economic statement invests $2.2 billion over six years into improving service delivery. It’s part of the behind-the-scenes work of a cabinet task force I sit on that is implementing short- and longer-term solutions that will reduce wait times, clear inventories and improve the overall quality of service.

Our country has a world-class public service and I want to thank all public servants for their hard work and commitment, especially during the pandemic. I look forward to working with them as we take this journey together toward a generational change in how we work.

Mona Fortier is president of the Treasury Board and MP for Ottawa-Vanier.

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