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As federal workers return to the office, some decry lack of direction, long commutes

Ottawa public servant YuTaek Hwang has been working remotely for nearly three years.
Today, federal public servants are beginning the transition to return to in-person work. Pedestrians make their way along Sparks Street Mall in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa public servant YuTaek Hwang has been working remotely for nearly three years.

But despite the fact that a back-to-office mandate for federal workers takes effect beginning this week, Hwang said his department has not offered any information about when he should return.

"We did get a corporate email saying they want people to be back in two to three times a week, but nothing as of recent," he said.

Hwang is not the only public servant raising concerns about a lack of direction about the return, even as others worry about what the state of office infrastructure will be.

Mona Fortier, the president of the Treasury Board, told The Canadian Press in an interview that the purpose of the hybrid work model is to increase collaboration between colleagues. 

But an internal document suggests there could be hiccups as employees collaborate with their colleagues both in person and virtually. 

An October briefing document for Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi, which the government proactively disclosed online, said some workplaces may not be equipped with adequate bandwidth to support video conferencing.

"As employees return to worksites, the level of service they have come to expect is not necessarily available in all government of Canada buildings," said the document, which outlined how the minister could respond to questions about the return-to-office plan in the House of Commons.

Kari Glynes Elliott, another federal public servant based in Ottawa, said her department has been working in person one to two times per week since she started working there earlier this month.

Her workplace is using a "hotel" desk system, which means public servants book a desk online, but do not have a permanent workstation.

Glynes Elliot said she is often surrounded by people who are not a part of her team, which makes in-person collaboration difficult.

"You sit down with people you don't know anything about. We have no idea where our teammates are so we can't sit on the same floor," said Glynes Elliot. 

Like Hwang, Glynes Elliot has not received any updates on the return-to-office mandate. Her frustration comes from the lack of communication with how workers are expected to work in-person without a permanent space. 

If workers want to bring in additional equipment to work in-person they have to carry all of their equipment to and from work everyday.

She also said the flexibility of the hybrid work model has not been discussed, so it remains unclear whether people are allowed to work from home if their children are sick there is a snowstorm.

"There's no guidance from above. You're going to have one boss maybe making very strict rules and another boss saying no. It has to be consistent," said Glynes Elliot.

Hwang, who lives in Ottawa's west-end Kanata suburb, said he would prefer to be fully remote, noting that others whose work requires in-person collaboration have already been going to the office. 

"The nature of my work doesn't require me to see or do anything in person. So I don't really see any merit to spending a little over two hours a day commuting," Hwang said. 

The return to work comes at a fraught time for public transit in the National Capital Region, where the federal government has a majority of its offices.

An ice storm that hit Ottawa on Jan. 4 caused the city's light rail transit system to partially shut down for six days. 

Some on social media expressed their frustration with the situation and pointed to the LRT issues as a reason why the return-to-office policy would be a burden on people with long commutes. 

Marty Carr, an Ottawa city councillor, has long been an advocate for better transit and said she wants public servants to have access to a good system. 

But she said she knows workers are dealing with questions of time and cost, including whether it's worth it to buy a monthly transit pass when they will only need to be in the office two or three days a week. 

"I'm really concerned that more and more federal public servants are going to make that decision to drive and not use our transit system," said Carr. 

Still, Pat Scrimgeour, the director of transit customer systems and planning at the city, said the system is well-prepared and has enough capacity to welcome public servants back. 

"We've been ready and waiting for them to come back for coming up on three years now," said Scrimgeour. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2023.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Cindy Tran, The Canadian Press