B.C. hopes to attract greater variety of public servants by providing flexible and remote work

The head of the B.C. public service is facilitating more flexible and remote work arrangements that the government hopes will improve recruitment and retention. (Ken Mizokoshi/CBC - image credit)
The head of the B.C. public service is facilitating more flexible and remote work arrangements that the government hopes will improve recruitment and retention. (Ken Mizokoshi/CBC - image credit)

B.C. ministries will be required to support flexible work and work-from-home arrangements for public servants soon, in a move that the head of the public service hopes attracts a greater variety of workers.

A policy update from Shannon Salter, the cabinet secretary who is responsible for upwards of 35,000 public servants across B.C., was sent out Jan. 31.

In it, Salter states that starting April 1, all public service jobs will be open to "any B.C. community where the hiring ministry has an existing office," adding that flexible work arrangements and remote work would be supported going forward.

The move is a marked difference from other bureaucracies across the country, especially in Ottawa, where federal public servants are being told to return to work in droves.

"It's really designed to position the B.C. Public Service as an employer of choice for people not just in Victoria or Vancouver, but really in communities across the province," Salter told CBC News in an interview.

"Opening positions up to communities across British Columbia really will enable us to attract more diverse candidates. I'm hopeful it will allow us to attract more Indigenous candidates."

Salter says the impetus for the policy was both internal and external. She says that public servants were asking for the move, in addition to the province needing to attract more workers amid a labour shortage.

The cabinet secretary noted that many ministries do not currently have offices outside Victoria and Vancouver.

According to the government, half their public servants work in the provincial capital, with a further third in the Lower Mainland and the rest across B.C.

Mike McArthur/CBC, Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC
Mike McArthur/CBC, Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC

Salter said that the province would be monitoring whether any particular community will see a high uptick in demand for public workers and that the move could inform where future resources are placed.

"Over time, we want to move to a more flexible system where any government office may host employees from various ministries," she added. "This is really part of a bigger conversation that we're also having — about what the future of space looks like within the public service."

Union asks for more clarity

Thousands of public servants in the province are represented by the largest union in B.C., the B.C. General Employees' Union (BCGEU).

Stephanie Smith, the president of the union, said the issue of flexible work was a "big issue" last year under the previous John-Horgan-led government.

"The employer, at the time, really had no interest in seeing flexible work arrangements expanded or improved upon," Smith told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC's The Early Edition. "So for the new deputy minister to the premier … to make this announcement, it's potentially good news."

Smith says she thinks the new policy would make it less "onerous" for employees to work from home, adding that public servants would no longer have to jump through as many hoops in order to work remotely.

However, the union president said that the government had not appropriately consulted with the BCGEU prior to the announcement.

In response, Salter said that the union had been provided with a copy of the flexible work framework before it was launched and that the government would work with them going forward to make it more consistent for employees.

Political scientist says move bolsters Eby

Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Quest University, said the government's move could be part of a larger strategy from Premier David Eby.

The professor said that younger workers are increasingly demanding more flexible work, and Eby styled himself as a member of a different generation than Horgan.

"[With] Mr. Eby, we are seeing someone who prides himself on being a change agent," he said. "He may be looking for ways to effectively ingratiate himself with younger British Columbians once again.

"We're seeing experimentation on a range of files, and so it is in keeping with that idea to see some new changes within the structure and the functioning of the government itself."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Currently, the average age of a public servant in B.C. is 43.4 years, according to the province.

Prest said he would be watching the results of the province's "experiment" with the move to see if it would result in any unintended consequences and also to see if other governments or corporations across the country would follow in B.C.'s footsteps.

"When we talk about working remotely, some communities are going to be better equipped to support remote workers than others in terms of things like internet speeds, in terms of connectivity," he said.

"While it will be a more level playing field among the different communities, it's not going to be 100 per cent equal."