A person holds a picket sign

A striking public-sector worker. Photo: CTV News

More and more organizations are forcing workers back to the office, imagining that economic pressure and a loosening job market mean employees will have to accept whatever job schedules or flexibility they’re offered.

These remote-skeptical employers need to pay close attention to what’s happening in Canada right now—and what it says about the risks of imposing hybrid work policies from the top down.

The Canadian federal government recently reached a tentative deal to resolve a massive 11-day strike that hinged partly on civil servants’ unhappiness over a top-down edict on remote work.

This very public dispute is a snapshot of what is happening behind closed doors all over the world. Every week or two, I speak to a different organization that is struggling with tension between managers and employees over the return to office, or I hear from a reader who wants to share their own frustrations around hybrid.


A top-down approach

Just yesterday, I spoke with a network of university and college business administrators. Many of the people who approached me after my talk spoke about how they feel their own hands have been tied by higher-ups who want a one-size-fits-all approach to hybrid.

When senior executives insist on bringing the whole organization back to the office—whether full-time, or  on a fixed 2- or 3-day-a-week schedule—they often make the argument that it’s essential to culture and collaboration. Indeed, that’s exactly what we heard from Mona Fortier, the head of Canada’s Treasury Board, who was responsible for negotiating with the striking union. After announcing that just about all federal employees would be required to spend 2 to 3 days in the office each week, Fortier explained the decision by saying that “in-person work better supports collaboration, team spirit, innovation and a culture of belonging.”


New attitudes on hybrid work

But culture and collaboration do not flourish when employees feel coerced into returning to the office.

When my friends at the Angus Reid Institute ran a survey on the simmering dispute, they found that 55% of Canadians supported the public sector workers’ demand for remote work rights. That number rose as high as 73% among women aged 18-34, and to 67% among university-educated respondents. Since we know that people with more education are more likely to be in jobs that can be done remotely, this suggests that experience or at least opportunity for remote work makes people more friendly to remote-work demands.

As more people get experience with remote work, or benefit indirectly from the newfound flexibility of their co-parents, roommates or partners, workplace attitudes are shifting in ways that mean employers can’t afford to bulldoze workers back to the office—even part time.

If employers need hearts and minds to show up along with workers’ bodies, they need to include employees in the process of planning for a hybrid workplace.


What happens when employees aren’t heard

Unions give employees a very clear path to protesting work arrangements, but there are lots of other ways for employees to voice frustrations—including, in A.O. Hirschman’s classic formulation, “exit”: When people can’t make their voices heard, they leave. Even in a loose job market, organizations that take a top-down approach to hybrid work may lose skilled employees to competitors whose policies are more flexible, more inclusive, or just a better fit for someone’s personal preferences.

Maybe that’s only a slice of the workforce; perhaps some employees without competitive options will just chug along, ever less enthusiastically, ever less willing to go the extra mile. Are those the kind of employees that help an organization succeed? Resentful employees don’t make for a thriving culture, or for productive collaboration.


Getting real on remote work

I’m not suggesting that employers need to keep employees happy by letting each person pick their own schedule, or work remotely as much as they want. While the largest public sector union, PSAC, argued that remote work should be a right for any worker in a remote-capable job, the union’s own strike actions told a different story. The union insisted that workers picket on-site in order to receive strike pay—so at some level, even union leaders must recognize that there is some value to in-person interaction. (Especially ironic when you consider how many more Canadians the union could reach through virtual outreach instead.)

But employers who insist that managers should be free to set the terms of work are just as unrealistic. That was the bargaining position of Canada’s federal government—even though the dispute over telework was ignited by Treasury Board overriding managers’ decision-making and insisting on a government-wide policy instead. Leave the decision up to managers, and employees are at the mercy of whims and bias; issue an organization-wide edict, and you risk alienating managers and line workers alike.


Meeting in the middle

There’s a middle ground that is in everybody’s interest: Employers and employees need to work together to develop clear hybrid policies that offer clarity, consistency, and predictability.

That’s where Canada’s public-sector negotiations appear to have landed. As I write this (on Monday evening), the detailed agreement has not yet been released, but we have received snapshots from both sides of the bargaining table.

PSAC announced:

PSAC members will now have access to additional protection when subject to arbitrary decisions about remote work. We have also negotiated language in a letter of agreement that requires managers to assess remote work requests individually, not by group, and provide written responses that will allow members and PSAC to hold the employer accountable to equitable and fair decision-making on remote work.  

It will also result in the creation of joint union-employer departmental panels to address issues related to the employer’s application of the remote work directive in the workplace.

Or as Treasury Board put it:

The Government of Canada continues to be committed to a modern, hybrid workplace that provides employees, where applicable, with the flexibility to continue to work up to 3 days from home a week. Outside of the collective agreements, we reached a tentative settlement on telework to the satisfaction of both parties. We agreed to undertake a review of the Directive on Telework, and to create departmental panels to advise deputy heads regarding employee concerns.

What this means is that remote work won’t be part of the collective agreement—so public sector managers will be spared the prospect of union grievances every time an employee is dissatisfied with their hybrid-work schedules. But managers and departments will need to include employees in the decision-making process, and there will be greater transparency in how hybrid arrangements are determined.


How to agree on the way forward

A notional agreement to worker-manager conversation on hybrid policy is no guarantee we’ll end up with the clear, consistent and predictable hybrid policies that managers need to plan their teams’ work, and that employees need to plan their lives.

In the worst-case scenario, the provision that “requires managers to assess remote work requests individually, not by group” turns into a piecemeal approach to hybrid that misses out the benefits of splitting time between work and home. Instead of bringing close colleagues into the office on the same days, so that team meetings happen in-person, and work-from-home days are largely meeting-free, a person-by-person hybrid policy might consign us all to five-days-a-week of constant video meetings.

But the commitment to negotiating remote-work schedules, and to making decisions transparent, lays the foundation for a hybrid workplace that meets both worker and employer needs. Including employees in the process is the only way to build a true culture of collaboration and belonging—and that’s the kind of culture we want not only within the Canadian public sector, but in every workplace.

This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.