City's flexible remote work week plan raises concerns in downtown

The City of Winnipeg wants to make remote working a permanent part of the week for some of its employees, but the plan has some people worried.

Eligible city employees can apply by June 1, to work a flex schedule – splitting the week between the office and home. It is a move the city is making out of fear that workers are being poached.

"I’m going to say that was a significant driver in developing this program," said Winnipeg's CAO Michael Jack.

Other governments and businesses, even ones outside Manitoba, are offering remote workweeks – in some cases, full time.

"We have direct evidence of companies in more expensive cities to live like Toronto recruiting here," Jack said.

While the city said it expects requests to range between one and two days at home, there is no limit, meaning some could apply to work remotely for five days a week.

The city did not provide a specific number of workers expected to take advantage of the program. However, of the more than 10,000 city workers, up to 1,800 were at home during the pandemic at one point, and around 1,100 of those were from downtown.

That has downtown businesses, which are still reeling from the pandemic, worried about the city being too flexible. They want a balance.

“They do say that every meal, every coffee, every dry-cleaning stop, it does matter to their bottom lines," said Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

Councillor Janice Lukes pushed a motion to cap remote work to two days a week for 18 months. She said this would ensure people return downtown and give the city time to analyze the productivity of those at home.

“I want and residents want to see actual tangible data," she said.

While Mayor Brian Bowman and his inner circle voted against the cap, the Executive Policy Committee did vote in favour of receiving data on how the flex program is working.