By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
B.C.’s top bureaucrat says the government is embracing remote work in a bid to recruit and retain talent as it struggles to fill jobs.
Shannon Salter, deputy minister to the premier, sent a memo last week that “strongly encouraged” ministries to approve flexible work arrangements for employees who want them. It also included new guidelines outlining how those decisions should be made.
The memo also said new job postings will no longer be anchored to a single office or location and that employees are only required to live in a community where their ministry has an office.
Unions say that marks a major change in government’s approach to remote work after contract negotiations where the province resisted including a right to work remotely in collective agreements.
Salter says the policy aims to bring diversity to the public service and attract and keep employees who see in-person work as a dealbreaker.
The result could alter the nature of work for thousands of government workers and put more well-paying jobs in smaller communities — and change Victoria’s downtown, where many businesses rely on government workers’ business.
“Like other employers, we are experiencing a labour shortage at the B.C. public service,” Salter said Monday, without providing specific figures. “We’re looking for creative ways to ensure we continue to be the employer of choice.”
Few government employees worked remotely before 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic forced thousands of workers to move from big buildings in downtown Victoria to kitchen tables and home offices.
Some of those employees have since gone back to the office, but many others liked the change. The Finance Ministry estimates as many as 17,500 employees are still working remotely at least two days a week.
“It’s always been about life-work balance,” said Stephanie Smith, the president of the BC General Employees’ Union. Some workers prefer to skip the commute. Others can’t afford housing in Victoria or Vancouver.
“It’s about affordability, to be perfectly honest as well,” Smith said. “We’re seeing people move further and further and further away from where they actually work — members commuting from Chilliwack to Vancouver.”
Smith said remote work was a “huge issue” when the BCGEU and government bargained last year. Members wanted the right to work remotely in the contract, but Smith said the employer wouldn’t budge.
Employees currently need to get approval to work remotely. If they want to work remotely for more than two days a week, they need approval from either an assistant deputy minister or a designate, which is not always granted.
“My sense, when I hear from our members, is that it’s not easy to get approval to work from home for more than two days,” said Melissa Moroz, a labour relations officer with the Professional Employees Association.
Moroz, whose union represents about 1,300 accredited professionals working for the provincial government such as agrologists and engineers, estimates about 95 per cent of PEA’s members could do the job remotely.
But she and Smith said not all workers are successful in their applications, something they chalk up to an individual manager’s decision. Smith said they had heard of cases, for example, where two workers doing similar jobs in the same ministry had different responses when they applied to work remotely.
Both said the option to work remotely was a vital issue for members.
“The market is competitive certainly for professional workers, which is the kind of worker the PEA represents,” Moroz said. “And they know they need to step up here or they’re going to lose employees to other employers who offer more flexible work arrangements.”
The memo comes amid a greater debate about the role of remote work. The federal government, for example, announced in December it would require its more than 300,000 employees to come into a physical office at least two days a week starting this spring.
The federal Treasury Board said in-person work fostered collaboration and consistency, but unions said its members had proven remote work didn’t hurt productivity.
Shelagh Campbell is a professor at the University of Regina who has been studying remote work as part of a global network of researchers since 2020. Through studies of employees at 14 universities in Canada and Australia, they found the pros and cons of remote work were hugely variable. Some people liked spending more time with their families; others missed the separation of work and life. Some people found it easier to work without interruptions; others needed the face-to-face meetings with peers.
“You could have two data entry technicians with school-aged children living 25 kilometres from their worksite,” Campbell said. “One might prefer to go into the office because they like the break and they prefer to get out of the house, and the other might not.”
Campbell says Salter’s memo is a good way to recruit employees looking for flexibility, particularly in a tight labour market where employees have options.
Salter said about 3,000 people left the B.C. public service last year, more than previous years even though the number of retirements has held steady.
“What’s changed is that people are less likely to be coming to the B.C. public service and staying until they retire,” Salter said. She sees remote work as a key perk.
“It’s something that both B.C. public servants have been asking for and asking us to look at, more broadly, but we also know from research that it’s something that very qualified, exceptional candidates look at as a priority,” Salter said.
Campbell noted that it’s significant that government job postings will no longer require applicants to be based in a specific location.
Salter said that move — which would still require employees to live in a community where their ministry has an office — was meant in part to open up jobs to different groups, particularly Indigenous people who she says are underrepresented in government jobs.
Campbell says the change could see more well-paying jobs in remote and rural parts of the province.
But the changes could be seen as a setback for businesses in downtown Victoria and Vancouver that might depend on government office workers.
“There’s a sub-current of economic policy there,” Campbell said. “The downtown core is dying, because you’ve got a major employer who has to embrace remote work. We saw lots of businesses failed during COVID because of the lack of downtown traffic.”
Jeff Bray, CEO of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, acknowledged government’s announcement was “a bit disappointing” for members, but said it was not a surprise. He said many businesses downtown have adapted. “This is really just codifying what’s already been happening. It’s not changing anything that’s already been happening,” Bray said.
A bigger question might be what happens to existing provincial government office space in those downtown cores. The government oversees and maintains more than 1,800 buildings, according to its website, comprising about 17 million square feet of property.
“That’s a conversation we’re starting to have,” Salter said. She said officials have discussed “reconfiguring” existing spaces, including more “collaborative” spaces and co-locating multiple ministries or departments in the same space.
Campbell suggested governments could eventually look to repurpose office buildings as housing to address sky-high prices in communities like Vancouver, though Salter said that is not yet on the table.
“Those are really interesting conversations that we’re going to have in the future. Our priority right now is thinking about how we can best use that space to modernize the way our workforce operates,” Salter said.
Smith points out Salter’s memo has not actually shifted policy on remote work: it remains something that is entirely the employer’s discretion, and will stay on the agenda for the next round of bargaining.
But she says the message is clear: unlike at the federal level, remote work is here to stay.
“My read from the memo is that the direction to ministries is: don’t default to no,” Smith said.