Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

B.C. government rethinking remote work amid talent shortages

B.C.’s top bureaucrat says the government is embracing remote work in a bid to recruit and retain talent as it struggles to fill jobs.
Photo: Alistair Berg / DigitalVision / Getty Images

B.C.’s top bureaucrat says the government is embracing remote work in a bid to recruit and retain talent as it struggles to fill jobs. 

Shannon Salter, deputy minister to the premier, sent a memo last week that “strongly  encouraged” ministries to approve flexible work arrangements for  employees who want them. It also included new guidelines outlining how those decisions should be made. 

The memo also said new job postings will no  longer be anchored to a single office or location and that employees  are only required to live in a community where their ministry has an  office. 

Unions say that marks a major change in government’s approach to remote work after contract negotiations where  the province resisted including a right to work remotely in collective  agreements. 

Salter says the policy aims to bring diversity to the public service and attract and keep employees  who see in-person work as a dealbreaker. 

The result could alter the  nature of work for thousands of government workers and put more  well-paying jobs in smaller communities — and change Victoria’s  downtown, where many businesses rely on government workers’ business.  

“Like other employers, we are experiencing a  labour shortage at the B.C. public service,” Salter said Monday,  without providing specific figures. “We’re looking for creative ways to  ensure we continue to be the employer of choice.” 

Few government employees worked remotely  before 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced thousands of workers to  move from big buildings in downtown Victoria to kitchen tables and home  offices. 

Some of those employees have since gone  back to the office, but many others liked the change. The Finance  Ministry estimates as many as 17,500 employees are still working  remotely at least two days a week. 

“It’s always been about life-work balance,”  said Stephanie Smith, the president of the BC General Employees’ Union. Some workers prefer to skip the commute. Others can’t afford housing in  Victoria or Vancouver.  

“It’s about affordability, to be perfectly  honest as well,” Smith said. “We’re seeing people move further and  further and further away from where they actually work — members  commuting from Chilliwack to Vancouver.” 

Smith said remote work was a “huge issue”  when the BCGEU and government bargained last year. Members wanted the right to work remotely in the contract, but Smith said the employer  wouldn’t budge. 

Employees currently need to get approval to  work remotely. If they want to work remotely for more than two days a  week, they need approval from either an assistant deputy minister or a designate, which is not always granted. 

“My sense, when I hear from our members, is  that it’s not easy to get approval to work from home for more than two  days,” said Melissa Moroz, a labour relations officer with the  Professional Employees Association. 

Moroz, whose union represents about 1,300  accredited professionals working for the provincial government such as agrologists and engineers, estimates about 95 per cent of PEA’s members  could do the job remotely. 

But she and Smith said not all workers are  successful in their applications, something they chalk up to an  individual manager’s decision. Smith said they had heard of cases, for  example, where two workers doing similar jobs in the same ministry had  different responses when they applied to work remotely. 

Both said the option to work remotely was a vital issue for members. 

“The market is competitive  certainly for professional workers, which is the kind of worker the PEA  represents,” Morozsaid. “And they know they need to step up here or  they’re going to lose employees to other employers who offer more flexible work arrangements.” 

The memo comes amid a greater debate about  the role of remote work. The federal government, for example, announced  in December it would require its more than 300,000 employees to come  into a physical office at least two days a week starting this spring. 

The federal Treasury Board said in-person  work fostered collaboration and consistency, but unions said its members  had proven remote work didn’t hurt productivity. 

Shelagh Campbell is a professor at the  University of Regina who has been studying remote work as part of a  global network of researchers since 2020. Through studies of employees  at 14 universities in Canada and Australia, they found the pros and cons  of remote work were hugely variable. Some people liked spending more  time with their families; others missed the separation of work and life.  Some people found it easier to work without interruptions; others  needed the face-to-face meetings with peers.

“You could have two data entry technicians  with school-aged children living 25 kilometres from their worksite,”  Campbell said. “One might prefer to go into the office because they like  the break and they prefer to get out of the house, and the other might not.” 

Campbell says Salter’s memo is a good way  to recruit employees looking for flexibility, particularly in a tight  labour market where employees have options. 

Salter said about 3,000 people left the B.C. public service last year, more than previous years even though the  number of retirements has held steady.

“What’s changed is that people are less  likely to be coming to the B.C. public service and staying until they  retire,” Salter said. She sees remote work as a key perk. 

“It’s something that both B.C. public  servants have been asking for and asking us to look at, more broadly,  but we also know from research that it’s something that very qualified,  exceptional candidates look at as a priority,” Salter said. 

Campbell noted that it’s significant that  government job postings will no longer require applicants to be based in  a specific location.

Salter said that move — which would still  require employees to live in a community where their ministry has an  office — was meant in part to open up jobs to different groups,  particularly Indigenous people who she says are underrepresented in  government jobs.

Campbell says the change could see more well-paying jobs in remote and rural parts of the province. 

But the changes could be seen as a setback  for businesses in downtown Victoria and Vancouver that might depend on  government office workers.

“There’s a sub-current of economic policy  there,” Campbell said. “The downtown core is dying, because you’ve got a major employer who has to embrace remote work. We saw lots of  businesses failed during COVID because of the lack of downtown traffic.”

Jeff Bray, CEO of the Downtown Victoria  Business Association, acknowledged government’s announcement was “a bit  disappointing” for members, but said it was not a surprise. He said many  businesses downtown have adapted. “This is really just codifying what’s  already been happening. It’s not changing anything that’s already been  happening,” Bray said. 

A bigger question might be what happens to  existing provincial government office space in those downtown cores. The government oversees and maintains more than 1,800 buildings, according  to its website, comprising about 17 million square feet of property. 

“That’s a conversation we’re starting to  have,” Salter said. She said officials have discussed “reconfiguring”  existing spaces, including more “collaborative” spaces and co-locating  multiple ministries or departments in the same space.

Campbell suggested governments could  eventually look to repurpose office buildings as housing to address  sky-high prices in communities like Vancouver, though Salter said that  is not yet on the table. 

“Those are really interesting conversations  that we’re going to have in the future. Our priority right now is  thinking about how we can best use that space to modernize the way our  workforce operates,” Salter said. 

Smith points out Salter’s memo has not  actually shifted policy on remote work: it remains something that is  entirely the employer’s discretion, and will stay on the agenda for the  next round of bargaining. 

But she says the message is clear: unlike at the federal level, remote work is here to stay. 

“My read from the memo is that the direction to ministries is: don’t default to no,” Smith said.