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Federal workers return to the office — but not the one they left

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Federal public servants returning to the office after years working from home are adjusting to a new emphasis: shared work spaces, rather than a cubicle to call their own.

This hybrid work model is shifting tens of thousands of employees back to in-person work a few days a week. With it comes a host of complications, from making sure they have the right technical hookups to organizing schedules so team members can truly be face-to-face.

Unions have pointed to “chaos,” saying there aren’t enough desks and that some employees have even worked on the floor.

But while the federal government went on a hiring spree during the pandemic — core departments grew by 17,600 people from 2019 to 2022 in the capital region alone — the change in office style isn’t due to a lack of space but rather a rethink that was already in motion.

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“The pandemic has really just accelerated that,” said Stéphan Déry, the assistant deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement Canada in charge of office needs and real estate across the country.

‘We’re not Google’

Some public servants never left their scientific labs, ships, or border crossings to work remotely, while others still have their dedicated cubicles of old.

For many others, however, the new norm involves booking a desk and storing their belongings in a locker for the day, then carrying their laptops home in a backpack.

A photo of lockers in a modernized federal office.
Public Services and Procurement Canada has a strategy to ‘modernize’ federal offices, and intends to have 25 per cent upgraded by 2026. Desks are unassigned, and employees store belongings in lockers. (Supplied by Public Services and Procurement Canada)

On a snowy January morning in Ottawa, several public servants spoke to CBC about the challenges, but none wanted to give their full names for fear of reprisal at work.

One said she often arrives to find someone else has taken the desk she reserved. That day, her team hadn’t managed to book workstations together, so each member planned to log onto a video call from different floors and buildings on the same government campus.

She said she preferred having a cubicle of her own.

“I think losing that sense of permanence really brings down morale. It does for me at least. I feel like I’m no longer a person, just a number.”

“We’re not Google,” said another public servant, who felt the idea of flexible office space might make sense in theory to bosses but not in real life. As for the hybrid work model, he called it “disorganized.”

Still another pointed out that many of the people hired during the pandemic don’t live anywhere near an office in Ottawa-Gatineau.

For him, the big question will be how they “collaborate” in the way the Treasury Board intends.

 

Ottawa Morning13:29Treasury Board president takes public servants questions on hybrid work

On Monday, federal public servants will begin the transition to working in the office 2 or 3 days a week. Treasury Board president Mona Fortier answers questions raised by federal employees.

‘A shot-in-the-dark solution’

The Conservative shadow minister for the Treasury Board said she’s curious how it will go and whether public servants will feel productive or supported once back in the office.

“This is just a shot-in-the-dark solution,” said Stephanie Kusie, MP for Calgary Midnapore and former diplomat for the federal government.

Kusie said she’s skeptical about the success of the hybrid work model, citing the fact the Liberals have already hired thousands of workers and spent millions of dollars without managing to clear the passport or immigration services backlogs.

For his part, Déry couldn’t speak for any individual department’s desk-booking system.

But as the executive responsible for 6.2 million square metres of federal office space across 103 departments and agencies, he’s confident workers will all have the space they need by the March 31 deadline.

“There’s probably going to be some places where it doesn’t work as well as others, but I think as we got through the pandemic, we’ll get there also,” said Déry, pointing out how quickly teams were set up for remote work after COVID-19 hit.

Offices were at 60% capacity

It might seem counterintuitive that there will be enough room for everyone.

The federal public service has been growing quickly since the Liberals took power in 2015, and reached 254,309 employees in 2022, according to Treasury Board statistics.

(The figure doesn’t include other agencies — like the Canada Revenue Agency, which hired 11,000 people in recent years — ministerial staff, crown corporations, the Canadian Forces or the RCMP, which aren’t covered by the back-to-office order).

Even as numbers grow, not all buildings or floors are open. Several towers at the Portage III complex in Gatineau are closed for a major renovation.

The Canada Revenue Agency’s Taxation Data Centre Complex on Ottawa’s Heron Road will close for construction in January 2024 and the agency says some 1,850 employees will move to temporary offices elsewhere.

Despite these trends, Déry underlines that even before the pandemic, federal offices were operating at 60 per cent capacity. Space often went under-used, he said, with people away on vacation, training or other business.

“We have a responsibility from a fiscal perspective,” said Déry. “We’re thinking about how can we maximize our portfolio and ensure that we have flexible space, but that we don’t have space that sits dormant.”

A ‘modernized’ workspace

That means if public servants don’t have their own desks and are only in the office two to three days per week, the federal government can fit those new hires into their existing offices.

It’s part of a long-term strategy and Déry is a big champion of the move to “modernize” government offices so they suit the types of work “activities” done.

He says those who have made the shift to new digs don’t want to go back.

A photo of a sofa and television in a federal office, arm chairs, and a high table with stools for different groups to work.
An example of one of the federal government’s modernized work spaces. (Supplied by Public Services and Procurement Canada)

“It’s what you see in magazines. If you go to Europe, as an example, it’s more collaboration space, an increase in meeting rooms. There’s never enough of those,” said Déry, adding he meets with public sector real estate colleagues in other countries about the “future of work”.

As it stands, 12 per cent of federal office space is “modernized” but Déry says the goal is to hit 25 per cent by 2026.

For one public servant named Natasha, the system of unassigned seating and collaborative spaces is working. She’s even chosen to go to the office five days a week.

“I felt more productive here,” she said. “The routine is better, my routine is better.”

 

Ottawa Morning9:34Federal workers return to office, but not the office they left

The hybrid-work model rolling out in the federal public service comes at a time when the federal government has been on a hiring spree and is also in the midst of a major rethink about how it uses its office space.

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Germany won't be a 'party to the war' amid tanks exports to Ukraine: Ambassador – CTV News

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The German ambassador to Canada says Germany will not become “a party to the conflict” in Ukraine, despite it and several other countries announcing they’ll answer President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pleas for tanks, possibly increasing the risk of Russian escalation.

Sabine Sparwasser said it’s a “real priority” for Germany to support Ukraine, but that it’s important to be in “lockstep” coordination with other allied countries.

“There is a clear line for Germany,” she told CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos, in an interview airing Sunday. “We do want not want to be a party to the conflict.”

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“We want to support, we want to do everything we can, but we, and NATO, do not want to be a party to the war,” she also said. “That’s I think, the line we’re trying to follow.”

Defence Minister Anita Anand announced this week Canada will send four Leopard 2 battle tanks — with the possibility of more in the future — to Ukraine, along with Canadian Armed Forces members to train Ukrainian soldiers on how to use them.

Canada first needed permission from Berlin to re-export any of its 82 German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. After a meeting of 50 defence leaders in Germany earlier this month, it was unclear whether Germany would give the green light.

But following what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called “intensive consultations,” Germany announced on Jan. 25 it would send tanks to Ukraine, and the following day, Canada followed suit. It is now joining several other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Poland, which are sending several dozen tanks to Ukraine.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week the tanks would allow Ukraine to “significantly strengthen their combat capabilities.”

“It demonstrates also the unit and the resolve of NATO allies in partners in providing support to Ukraine,” he said.

Meanwhile Sparwasser said Germany is “walking that fine line” of avoiding steps that could prompt escalation from Russia, while supporting Ukraine, and staying out of the war themselves.

“I think it’s very important to see that Germany is very determined and has a real priority in supporting Ukraine in its struggle for freedom and sovereignty,” Sparwasser said. “But we also put a high priority on going it together with our friends and allies.”

Sparwasser said despite warnings from Russia that sending tanks to Ukraine will cause an escalation, Germany is within international law — specifically Article 51 of the United Nations Charter — to provide support to Ukraine.

“Ukraine is under attack has the right to self defence, and other nations can come in and provide Ukraine with the means to defend itself,” Sparwasser said. “So in international law terms, this is a very clear cut case.”

She added that considering “Russia doesn’t respect international law,” it’s a more impactful deterrent to Russia, ahead of an expected spring offensive, to see several countries come together in support of Ukraine.

With files from the Associated Press

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COVID: Canada retaining Evusheld – CTV News

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While Health Canada says it is “aware” of the U.S. decision to withdraw the emergency use of Evusheld, a drug by AstraZeneca used to help prevent COVID-19 infection— the agency is maintaining its approval, citing the differences in variant circulation between Canada and the U.S.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Jan. 26 that its emergency use authorization of the drug was pulled due to its inefficacy in treating “certain” COVID-19 variants.

The FDA stated in a release on its website that as the XBB.1.5. variant, nicknamed “Kraken”, is making up the majority of cases in the country, the use of Evusheld is “not expected to provide protection” and therefore not worth exposing the public to possible side effects of the drug, like allergic reactions.

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In an email to CTVNews.ca, Health Canada said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulled the drug as the main variant of concern in the U.S. is XBB.1.5.

“Dominant variants in the [U.S.] may be different from those circulating in Canada,” the federal agency said in an email. “The most recent epidemiological data in Canada (as of January 1, 2023) indicate that BA.5 (Omicron) subvariants continue to account for more than 89 per cent of reported cases.”

On Jan. 6 the FDA said in press release that certain variants are not neutralized by Evusheld and cautioned people who are exposed to XBB.1.5. On Jan. 26, the FDA then updated its website by saying it would be limiting the use of Evusheld.

“Evusheld is not currently authorized for use in the U.S. until further notice by the Agency,” the FDA website states.

On Jan. 17, Health Canada issued a “risk communication” on Evusheld, explaining how it may not be effective against certain Omicron subvariants when used as a preventative measure or treatment for COVID-19.

“Decisions regarding the use of EVUSHELD should take into consideration what is known about the characteristics of the circulating COVID-19 variants, including geographical prevalence and individual exposure,” Health Canada said in an email.

Health Canada says Evusheld does neutralize against Omicron subvariant BA.2, which according to the agency, is the dominant variant in many communities in Canada.

The drug was introduced for prevention measures specifically for people who have weaker immune systems and are unlikely to be protected by a COVID-19 vaccine. It can only be given to people 12 years and older.

“EVUSHELD is not a substitute for vaccination in individuals for whom COVID-19 vaccination is recommended,” the agency’s website reads.

Health Canada says no drug, including Evusheld, is a substitute for vaccination.

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Alberta Justice spokespeople deliver duelling statements on prosecutor email review

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Alberta premier's prosecutor

An email probe into whether Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s office interfered with Crown prosecutors took a confusing turn Friday after two government spokespeople delivered duelling statements that raised questions over how far back the search went.

The review was ordered by Smith a week ago to respond to allegations in a CBC story that reported a staffer in the premier’s office emailed prosecutors last fall to question decisions and direction on cases stemming from a blockade at the Canada-U. S. border crossing at Coutts, Alta.

The Justice Department said Monday it had done a four-month search of ingoing, outgoing and deleted emails and found no evidence of contact.

Two days later, Alberta Justice communications director Charles Mainville said in a statement that deleted emails are wiped from the system after 30 days, meaning the search for deleted emails may not have covered the entire time period in question.

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On Thursday night, Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney, a spokesman for Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, responded to questions about Mainville’s statement. He said while emails are deleted after 30 days, they live on in the system for another 30 and could have been checked that far back by investigators.

“For example, if an email was deleted on Oct. 17, 2022, the email would no longer be accessible to the user as of Nov. 16, 2022, but would continue to be available to our investigation team until Dec. 16, 2022,” said Lecavalier-Kidney in his statement.

A 60-day search would have stretched back to late November, capturing all but the first six weeks of Smith’s United Conservative Party government. Smith was sworn in as premier on Oct. 11.

But while Lecavalier-Kidney’s statement said investigators could go back 60 days, it did not state that they did so, leaving confusion on how far back they went.

When asked Friday to clarify whether investigators went back 30 or 60 days on the deleted emails, Lecavalier-Kidney did not respond to questions while Mainville reissued the original statements in an email.

The government has also delivered conflicting messages on who was investigated in the review.

Smith promised that emails from all Crown prosecutors and the 34 staffers in her office would be checked.

However, the Justice Department later said emails between “relevant” prosecutors and Smith staffers were checked. It did not say how it determined who was relevant.

The Coutts blockade and COVID-19 protest at the border crossing last year saw RCMP lay charges against several people, ranging from mischief to conspiracy to commit murder.

Smith has said she did not direct prosecutors in the Coutts cases and the email review exonerated her office from what she called “baseless” allegations in the CBC story.

The CBC has said that it has not seen the emails in question but stands by its reporting.

The Opposition NDP said questions stemming from the CBC story, coupled with multiple conflicting statements from the premier on what she has said to Justice Department officials about the COVID-19 cases, can only be resolved through an independent investigation.

Smith has given six versions in recent weeks of what she has said to justice officials about COVID-19 cases.

Smith has said she talked to prosecutors directly and did not talk to prosecutors directly. She has said she reminded justice officials of general prosecution guidelines, but at other times reminded them to consider factors unique to COVID-19 cases. She has also suggested the conversations are ongoing and that they have ended.

She has attributed the confusion to “imprecise” word choices.

Smith has long been openly critical of COVID-19 masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules, questioning if they were needed to fight the pandemic and labelling them intolerable violations of personal freedoms.

She has also called those unvaccinated against COVID-19 the most discriminated group she has seen in her lifetime.

Last fall, Smith said charges in the cases were grounded in politics and should be open to political solutions. But she recently said it’s important to let the court process play out independently.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2023.

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