Approximately 200 federal employees to return to offices in the national capital region this week

A small number of federal public servants are set to return to their office towers in the national capital region this week as part of a pilot project that will inform a broader plan for a return to the workplace.

Tens of thousands of federal employees have been working from home since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving office towers in Ottawa and Gatineau, Que. practically empty. 

According to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), more than 200 employees have volunteered to be part of its "pathfinder project". Employees can choose to return to work sites in downtown, east and west Ottawa, as well offices in Gatineau, including Place du Portage III, starting Aug. 3

The federal public service employs more than 127,000 people in the national capital region (NCR), according to government data. 

"Participation is voluntary and flexible. Employees who want to participate must register and reserve their workstation in advance. The workspaces were designed according to activity-based workplace guidelines, including non-assigned spaces and collaborative spaces. Employees will be able to choose to work at one of these locations or work from home, depending on what is more convenient for them," said a PSPC statement emailed to CTV News Ottawa.

"The project will be active until PSPC is ready to transition to its next phase of gradual reintegration into the workplace. The data from the pathfinder project in the NCR will be used to shape the future of PSPC’s workplace."

Business owners in downtown Ottawa have said the lack of foot traffic has been an additional challenge on top of the already challenging COVID-19 pandemic. Areas that were once bustling with federal employees have been quiet for more than a year due to remote work.

"Each of these buildings used to have hundreds of people. Businesses were surviving out of them," said Sam Elsadi, owner of Crêperie Rim on Sparks Street.

"Since the pandemic happened, you have no one walking around," Elsdai added. "You come Monday to Friday, the percentage of the crowd you see is five per cent, maybe less. We cannot be just dependent on visitors; we need support from federal government workers."

Ottawa's public transit system has also felt the effects, with the Confederation Line LRT and several commuter bus routes that connect the suburbs to downtown seeing major declines in ridership because of fewer daily commuters.

PSPC said it does not yet have a target date for a return to the workplace for all employees at this time.

"We are currently exploring various possibilities, and our priority is to ensure our employees’ health and safety as well as their well-being," the statement said, while noting that about 225 federal employees in the Pacific, Ontario and Quebec regional offices have returned to their respective workplaces.

PSPC did not confirm whether public servants must be fully vaccinated before returning to the office, but referred to a statement from Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos in May urging all federal employees to be vaccinated.

"I encourage all public servants, who are able to, to get vaccinated when their turn comes," Duclos said.

Duclos noted that employees in the core public administration have access to up to half a day of paid leave in order to receive a vaccine during working hours, if necessary.

Union pleased program is voluntary

The head of Canada's largest federal public sector union says he is happy that workers are being given the option of whether or not they want to return to the office.

"We’re pleased to see that the return-to-workplace pilot project is voluntary. Some of our members may have health and safety concerns around returning to their workplaces, including having to use public transit on their commute," said a statement from Chris Aylward, the national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). 

"To ensure this pilot is successful, management should continue proactively consulting with workplace health and safety committees and unions so that any issues or concerns, including adequate ventilation, can be promptly addressed by the employer to ensure all safety precautions have been implemented."

Aylward stressed the need for employees to remain involved in all decisions regarding the project and any future return to workplace plans. 

"Mental health supports should also be available as workers return to their workplaces, given the potential for heightened anxiety and stress levels during the transition," he said.