Politics

To retain talent, Ottawa must manage the changing workplace

The prime minister’s announcement that federal employees and those in regulated industries must be vaccinated against COVID-19 has turned the public service upside down.

Up to this point, plans for returning to work were shrouded in a warm cloud of ambiguity, with federal departments, boards, and agencies given wide discretion to implement their own strategies.

Both Public Services and Procurement Canada and the Treasury Board Secretariat’s chief human-resources officer are reluctant to tell deputy ministers what to do. Rather, they’re providing guidance and principles to follow in order to give flexibility — or, if we’re cynical, to avoid liability if something unfortunate happens because of their advice.

The result is a myriad of approaches across the federal system, in which the division between management and employees is growing. This division is causing talent to vote with their virtual feet by joining other organizations with better return-to-workplace policies that favour their preferences.

This churn clogs human-resource and pay systems that were already overburdened by basic human-resource transactions using the beast that’s become Phoenix — a system that contorts with every “fix” to create new problems. 

There are ways to close the gap, however. While “change management” is ubiquitous in executive circles, both public and private, it’s seldom understood by those responsible for it.

In the public sector, remote-work arrangements, or “telework,” are inherently more complex than in the private sector, because conditions of employment are numerous. On top of collective agreements, security standards, official-language rules, position/,job descriptions, classifications, and geographical limitations, they now include vaccination.

Many federal organizations are experimenting with different ways to return to work. Some are setting minimum hours spent in the office to manage traffic and desk allocation. Others are boldly declaring that everyone must be back by a certain time. Still others are taking a more organic approach of working remotely by default, which is more common in the private sector. On one hand, a flexible approach seems practical. But on the other, it’s creating competition for talent, and tension and confusion between organizations.

Some organizations have accepted the challenge, embraced the uncertainties of the times, and forged ahead successfully. From 2019 to 2020, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) began its Future of Work initiative, which included a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) and a redesign of its Ottawa headquarters. Under the leadership of then-president Evan Siddall, CMHC reduced its office footprint, increased flexibility for its employees, and successfully managed its mandate to help Canada through the earliest and most difficult phases of the pandemic. 

The ROWE management strategy implements a workplace culture that marries autonomy with accountability. It focuses on the work, not the place.  

Other organizations are following suit. For instance, the Canada Revenue Agency is modernizing the workplace by defining the types of change it wants to pursue: changes to the workspace (physical), the technology (virtual), behaviour, and culture.  

This clarity, combined with transparency, collaboration, and inclusive employee engagement, can turn ambiguity and uncertainty into opportunity and a shared mission.  The Institute on Governance is building partnerships with strategic-change managers to offer training to leaders later this fall to help them embrace opportunities rather than react to external events. Right-side-up is possible.

Stephen Van Dine is the senior vice-president of public governance at the Institute on Governance.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.

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