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Future of Work – A Dispersed Workforce

Contributed by Ryan Androsoff, Associate at the Institute on Governance and CEO of Think Digital.

The society-wide experiment with large-scale work-from-home – and now increasingly hybrid – work arrangements benefits have focused on greater work-life flexibility, a more inclusive and diverse workforce, and reductions in commuting time.

That last one also has had an important societal benefit of reducing carbon emissions through reductions in commuter traffic.

There is, however, an important organizational benefit to having a distributed workforce that has not been talked about as much – disaster resilience.

This is a particularly important point for government organizations who are often entrusted with protecting the safety and security of our most vulnerable. Reliance on having access to a specific physical location to be able to do one’s job as a public servant means that critical services might not be able to be provided to the public during a time of crisis, when they are needed most.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call for organizations – they needed to be able to still operate even when they couldn’t be together physically. Thankfully, this particular crisis took place during a time when the technology available to us meant that with the right focus and effort we were able to quickly change how our organizations worked so that they could weather the proverbial storm.

But with the rush to a back-to-the-office posture by some government organizations, are we at risk of trading away one of the great organizational resiliency gifts that the pandemic gave us?

In Ottawa, we recently saw a real-life, non-pandemic example of the benefits of a distributed workforce.

For much of this past February, downtown Ottawa was effectively shut down by the presence of the so-called “Freedom Convoy”. Large trucks and other vehicles blocked the streets of the downtown core of the nation’s capital for weeks on end, impacting both private and public transit in and out of the area. Many downtown retail businesses closed due to the disruptions, and many large employers with downtown offices (including the federal government) encouraged their employees to avoid coming into the office unless absolutely necessary. Police action in the later part of the month to disperse the convoy occupation of the downtown core turned that “encouragement” to a “requirement”.

Amidst all of this something important went largely unremarked upon – namely that the Government of Canada continued operations mostly unaffected.

This was of course because the federal government was already in a work-from-home posture for the past two years due to the pandemic and had the tools and processes in place to allow for the work of public servants to take place in a distributed way.

As a thought exercise, imagine what would have happened if a similar scenario had taken place two years earlier?

Given the large number of headquarters for federal departments located in downtown Ottawa and the pre-COVID requirement for public servants to have access to government office buildings to do their job, the short answer is that likely the work of government would have largely ground to a halt.

In fact, during this crisis the one government institution that did have to suspend its operations temporarily was the House of Commons (somewhat ironically during a debate on the emergency measures that they had put in place to address the ongoing protest). This is perhaps unsurprising since Parliament has stubbornly refused throughout the pandemic to evolve its operations to a fully distributed model and still relies on physical access to the Parliamentary precinct to be able to carry on its work.

The reality is that we will continue to face disasters, of both the natural and human-made variety.

In times of disaster citizens rely on government institutions more than ever to be able to serve Canadians. As governments consider their Future of Work posture, it is critical that they do not forget that government is made up of human beings, not desks inside of buildings.

Government still needs to be able to function even if public servants can’t access a government building.

Moving back to reliance once again on access to a specific physical location will not serve governments or Canadians well and will all but guarantee future institutional failures that are expensive both financially and reputationally.

In the coming months, the IOG, in partnership with a team of proven experts, will be contributing ideas, learnings and services to help organizations and their leaders work through the issues that arise in scaling up remote work or hybrid work environments.