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How this year's big federal strike advanced working from home

PSAC’s contract terms show remote work is here to stay, say experts
Many office workers see remote work less as a pandemic necessity and more as a perk. | tomazl/E+/Getty Images

The Public Service Alliance of Canada lost its bid to have the right to remote work enshrined in its new contract with the federal government.

But experts say the proposed deal is a “watershed” moment that will support the increasing demand for the option of doing work from outside the traditional office.

The issue was a key factor in the 12-day strike that affected more than 150,000 public servants. PSAC leaders wanted members to have a guaranteed right to work from home. 

And while they fell well short of that, observers say the deal they reached is a big win for remote work and a sign it’s not going anywhere. 

“It’s a watershed moment for labour relations in the public sector and in the federal government,” said Shelagh Campbell, a professor at the University of Regina. “I think this is going to signal a lot of things for labour relations across Canada as we move forward.” 

Millions of Canadians began working from home in March 2020 as governments and businesses shuttered offices in a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

But today, many office workers see remote work less as a pandemic necessity and more as a perk. 

A study by the Environics Institute released in September found 78 per cent of surveyed Canadians who worked from home preferred it to going into the office. About 76 per cent of them thought their employers should let them keep working from home when the pandemic subsided.

“Before we had the evidence, a lot of the stories were about just how much of a hassle it was,” said Andrew Parkin, the institute’s executive director. “You had to get the right equipment and figure out how to use Zoom and work while your kids were learning online.” 

But there was another side of that coin, Parkin said. Many workers who could do their jobs remotely never liked coming to the office. They enjoyed skipping the commute, and in some cases even moved out of major metropolitan areas to find cheaper housing elsewhere. And it was no temporary blip. In a series of surveys run with the Future Skills Centre and the Diversity Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University, Parkin said remote work only got more popular.

“We didn’t see it wearing off over time,” Parkin said. 

That’s suddenly made remote work a priority for employees, including at the bargaining table. Last year, unions representing public sector workers in British Columbia fought to guarantee their members’ rights to work from home in their contracts. 

They didn’t succeed, but the B.C. public service later released a memo encouraging managers to be flexible around remote work arrangements. It also gave government workers the option of working from any office in their given department, opening recruitment up beyond the Greater Victoria and Metro Vancouver areas. 

Wendy Cukier, a lead researcher for the Future Skills Centre, says that fits in with a broader trend of businesses adopting remote work in a bid to attract and keep employees. Young professionals, Cukier said, are especially likely to want the flexibility of remote work. And a tight labour market means many workers at both unionized and non-union businesses have the leverage to make it happen. 

She suspects that’s why many federal public federal servants reacted with anger when they were ordered to return to the office for at least two days a week in late 2022, shortly before the strike began. 

“The competition for talent is massive right now and the public service have fallen behind, in some respects, because of flexibility,” Cukier said. 

The deal struck by the PSAC does not guarantee any of the 150,000 workers who went on strike the right to work remotely. 

Instead, the union and Treasury Board negotiated a separate letter of agreement that would require managers to decide if employees can work remotely on an individual basis, rather than making decisions as a group. It would also require managers to put their decisions in writing when they reject an application; and sets up joint departmental panels of managers and union officials to discuss how the remote work directive is being applied. 

Not everyone is impressed. The Canadian Employment and Immigration Union, PSAC’s largest member union, has told its members to vote against the deal. In an online letter that union said the remote work provisions “largely rely on the good will of the employer.” 

Crystal Warner, the vice-president of the CEIU’s national executive, said her members had hoped for a much bigger breakthrough after proving they could work effectively from home for three years. She said the forced return to the office has gone poorly, with some departments not having enough desks and chairs for her members. 

“We really felt like this round of collective bargaining washing to be the most opportunist chance we had to go for broke on this issue,” Warner said. But she says the final deal still leaves the balance of power with department heads and managers, which she says was well below her members’ hopes and expectations. 

“Our members thought this was it. We were going to get it enshrined and we were going to do whatever it took,” she said. 

Michael Wernick, the former top civil servant in the country, said the agreement contained compromises on both sides. He pointed out many federal public workers could never work from home because they work in jobs on military bases, First Nations, service departments and other locations where they need to show up in person. But for those who can, the agreement appears to offer some options. 

“We will have to see the fine print, but on workplace rules the union didn’t get it hardwired into agreements in a way that could be pursued as individual grievances,” Wernick wrote to The Tyee. “But they did get something — there will be widespread use of individual agreements and managers will have to justify their decisions and there are other recourse processes than grievances in the federal service.” 

Campbell, who has studied the implementation of remote work at large public sector organizations like universities, says the changes the federal government agreed to are significant considering the size and scale of the bureaucracy. 

“Big organizations, like big oil tankers, are hard to change direction,” Campbell said. She said requiring managers to make decisions on an individual level will force them to explain why employees cannot work remotely. 

“To me, that sounds like recourse for employees. If there seems to be a trend where decisions are not justified or reasonable or perhaps have not considered all of the relevant evidence or in many extreme cases are arbitrary decisions or prejudicial decisions, there’s a place that employees can go,” Campbell said.

“It’s a lot better than what they had, which was nothing,” she added. 

Regardless of how the federal deal plays out, Parkin said one thing is certain: employees are going to keep wanting to work remotely.

Werner agrees. She suspects remote work will once again have a star role at the bargaining table when the PSAC and the federal government need a new agreement in 2024. 

“I think that not only have our members seen how well this model works for them, but I know that the employer has also seen it,” Werner said. 

“The issue isn’t going away.”