Make the people with options choose you

Make the people with options choose you

On Thursday, after two flights, I arrived in my beloved Huntsville, Alabama for a few days of happiness and work (and warmer weather) and thought to myself, self, I thought, what a beautiful thing it is to be able to work from anywhere. Including on flights when your aircraft offers wifi and you don’t mind springing the extra $10 or if, like me, you save a few bucks by prepping files in advance that you can work on while you’re sitting uncomfortably in 9D, uncharacteristically offline. Do you know how much reading, writing and editing I get done in the few hours I’m in the air? Way more than on the ground. I am so damn productive in airports and airplanes by now, I should write a book about it and maybe I will if you promise to buy it. 

Anyway, once I’d settled myself in for the week, sipping Naked Pig pale ale (gotta love southern craft breweries) with my bare feet up on the porch railing looking at the stars and the festive lights at Lowe Mill, I tweeted, almost innocently, a news story from the Ottawa Citizen about public servants being frog-marched back to the office, whether they want to or not. 

“Big mistake,” I said by way of commentary. It’s so obvious you shouldn’t force people who are otherwise getting their work done and are meeting or exceeding work requirements to do something they don’t want to do just to fill empty office spaces or support downtown merchants. There are other ways to do that than to piss off your best employees who, by the way, have been meeting or exceeding requirements and delivering their deliverables from home since March 2020 without a problem. 

As I type these lines Saturday morning, the debate generated by that one innocent Thursday tweet is still raging. Clearly, the subject is hitting a nerve.

I’ve been against working at the office since work was invented. In fact, other than a brief period between December 2019 and March 2020, I never worked in one. I didn’t like that four-month period just before the pandemic, even though I enjoyed the people I was working with, and had access to a beautiful office space complete with lovely kitchen and gym (with spic-and-span showers), as much free coffee as I could tolerate and a puzzle table. 

I fucking hate working in an office. The commute, the small talk, the work clothes, the inability to set the temperature yourself, the noise, the smells, the fact that you can’t take a nap anywhere, the need to pack a lunch, blah. It saps my creativity and it makes me so cranky I don’t want to produce. 

Given that I’m a writer and editor, this matters. A lot. 

Working from home isn’t for everyone. I understand the value of those impromptu connections. For some — maybe for most people, I don’t know — they are worth more than the cost of having them. Despite my short experience working in that kind of place, I have never, not ever, felt that an impromptu connection at the office was worth the commute, the noise, the too-hot temperature, the interruptions and the work clothes. I am absolutely convinced it will never happen either. That’s how much I hate the cost of being at the office. And that’s true despite the fact that I get along famously with the people I work with. 

Value, friends, is relative. And no, you do not get to dictate what’s valuable to me. The same way I don’t get to dictate what should matter to you. Some people hate working from home because they need a clear disconnect between “work” and “home” so that when they leave their workplace they consider their time their own. I get that. It’s just not as important to me as the freedom to arrange my days as I see fit depending on whatever else is going in my life that day, including my kids’ needs and activities and other writing projects I have on the go. 

I don’t have a problem working evenings or weekends. I value getting the job done much higher than the concept of weekend. That’s why, when I feel like I need a 20-minute cat nap at 1:47 pm on a Tuesday, I take it. Because it helps me get the job done better. 

I bring value to the people I work for. If I didn’t, they wouldn’t continue to employ me. In order for me to be able to bring that value to them, I need to feel I am treated right — in my case, that means being treated like the professional I am who has yet to miss a deadline in over two decades. The better treated I feel, the more I deliver and the better the quality of what I deliver becomes. 

That’s me. Maybe you value different things. That’s totally cool. That’s why smart employers are overwhelmingly choosing flexible work arrangements. Office work for those who want it, on any number of days that seems convenient to them. Leaving the others free to continue with arrangements that work best for them.

Yeah, OK, but what about public servants whose salary is paid for by taxpayers? Don’t taxpayers have a right to demand the highest productivity from them? 

No, not really. Here’s what taxpayers deserve: The best work they can get from the people whose salary they pay. The best work. Not the most work. This isn’t a rat race. 

Here’s the thing with the public service. Like every employer, it needs to attract the best people it can. And contrary to what so many Poilievre enthusiasts think (if I may use that word without the dictionary throwing stones at me), the public service doesn’t pay nearly as much as all that for the top people it needs to attract in order to provide Canadians with the best workforce it can get. 

The people the public service desperately tries to attract have choices. All kinds of options. Many of them choose to work with the public service because they care to make a difference, even if that means a pay cut. Some of those people may not live in Ottawa or be interested in moving to the national capital region. Maybe they want to contribute their best work from Moncton, Moose Jaw or Barrhaven. If we force them into a location they don’t want to be in, many will leave. And we’ll be the poorer for it. 

Propping up the downtown Ottawa retail industry is a fine goal, but it is not the obligation of the federal public service. The federal government’s obligation is to provide us with the best workforce it can get for us. Maybe it’s past time to look into converting downtown spaces into affordable housing. That would bring people downtown, better than HR ever could. 

In today’s context, after nearly three years of pandemic arrangements, forcing a one-size-fits-all approach is the stupidest thing any employer can do. I for one do not want my tax dollars to finance stupid. 

Get it together already.