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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.

“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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Sudden Death of Polar Bear Leads to Closure of Wild Canada Exhibit at Calgary Zoo

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The Wild Canada exhibit at the Wilder Institute Calgary Zoo was temporarily closed on Friday following the sudden death of one of its polar bears, Baffin. Jamie Dorgan, the interim CEO and COO of the zoo, announced the closure during a press conference, revealing that the incident occurred unexpectedly during a routine display of sparring between Baffin and another polar bear, Siku.

The incident unfolded around 11:30 a.m. on Friday when the two bears were seen engaging in typical sparring behavior in the lower pool of their habitat. Concern arose when Baffin failed to resurface, prompting a volunteer to alert the animal care team. Despite prompt action to remove Baffin from the pool, he was pronounced dead. Dorgan noted, “We removed him pretty quickly … outwardly there’s nothing obvious,” indicating that the cause of death was not immediately apparent.

A necropsy, which is an autopsy for animals, is scheduled to be performed by the zoo’s veterinary team to determine the precise cause of Baffin’s death. “We don’t know why the bear died,” Dorgan stated, emphasizing that all potential explanations are being explored to understand the sudden loss.

Baffin, along with Siku, had been relocated from Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo to the Calgary Zoo in October 2023 as part of efforts to enhance the polar bear habitat and conservation efforts at the facility. The Calgary Zoo, a prominent institution home to over 4,000 animals from various parts of the world, recently underwent a $31 million expansion, which included improvements to the polar bear habitat.

The zoo has expressed its commitment to transparency and thorough investigation into the incident. The outcome of the necropsy will provide crucial insights into potential preventive measures and ensure the well-being of the remaining polar bear, Siku, and other zoo inhabitants.

The Wild Canada exhibit will remain closed until further notice as the zoo community mourns the loss and awaits conclusive results from the ongoing investigation.

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15-year-old ATV driver dies in collision on New Brunswick highway

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A 15-year-old driver of an all-terrain vehicle has died after a collision on a Moncton, N.B., highway.

The RCMP say they responded to a report of a crash between a parked vehicle and an ATV on Highway 2 on Thursday afternoon.

Police say they believe the 15-year-old boy was driving on the shoulder of the highway when he collided with the parked vehicle.

The teenager, who was the sole occupant of the ATV, was taken to hospital with life-threatening injuries and died the following day.

Police say the three people in the other vehicle were not injured.

RCMP did not release details of the speed the boy was driving at the time of the crash.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2024.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.



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Woman found dead in suitcase in Newfoundland; spouse found dead, suspected in killing

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ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Police in St. John’s, N.L., say a woman’s body was found in a suitcase in the city’s downtown this week and her spouse — who was found dead a day prior — is suspected of killing her.

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Const. James Cadigan says the 33-year-old Iranian woman’s body was discovered Tuesday night in a suitcase in a vacant lot. He says it had been placed in the area six days before.

Cadigan says her 34-year-old Iranian husband was found dead in his home on Monday.

He says police have not determined whether their deaths involve a murder-suicide, and he says the two “had no involvement” with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary prior to the discovery of their bodies.

Cadigan says the woman arrived in Newfoundland on May 15 and the man had been living in downtown St. John’s for several years.

Police are not releasing their names to protect their family’s privacy, and are looking for any information from the public about what happened.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 19, 2024.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.



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