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‘A significant adverse impact’: Downtown business owners say empty Ottawa offices are worsening their struggles

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In May of this year, almost half of the people employed in Ottawa were still working from home. This figure stands at more than double the national rate. 

Thousands of public servants in the National Capital Region (NCR) who began working from home at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have not yet returned to their offices. Large towers owned or leased by the federal government remain largely unoccupied and unused save for routine maintenance and inspection.

The switch to remote work has been transformative, and possibly permanent. On March 16, 2020, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) stated public servants were to begin working remotely “wherever and whenever possible”. 

TBS president Mona Fortier has since said hybrid work is the future for public servants. Each federal department and agency will be responsible for developing its own hybrid work system. 

This shift to permanent hybrid work for the federal government will have implications across the country, but nowhere more than Ottawa/Gatineau due to their high proportion of government employees. From March 2017 to March 2021, an average of 41.8 percent of all public servants in Canada worked in the NCR.  

According to the Government of Canada, there were 127,092 public servants working in the NCR in March 2020. That amount increased to 134,817 in March 2021, just over a year after the pandemic began. 

The federal government has been criticized for continuing to leave large office buildings in downtown Ottawa deserted throughout the pandemic. Critics, like Conservative MP Marc Dalton, have called on the federal government to end its leases on empty buildings or sell the ones it currently owns. 

There were already concerns in 2016 about vacated buildings in the NCR either owned or leased by the federal government. Their cost at the time was more than $40 million in upkeep

A spokesperson from Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) says the department spent an annual average of $564 million over the last three fiscal years on maintaining and operating federal government buildings in the NCR. 

The story of continued remote work for the public service is one of more than vacant offices, however. Empty federal buildings have hurt Ottawa’s downtown businesses. A crucial number of their customers were public servants commuting from Ottawa’s residential neighbourhoods and suburbs. 

Devinder Chaudary owns the Aiana Restaurant Collective on O’Connor Street, a short walk from Parliament Hill. It opened in August 2020. 

“We opened after the onset of the pandemic. We were expecting approximately 50 percent of our guests from the federal workforce,” says Chaudary. “With less than 20 percent of the federal workers returning to work at all office towers surrounding our restaurant, we experienced a significant adverse impact.” 

According to Chaudary, Aiana’s revenue is less than 35 percent of their original projections. He expects public servants to return to in-person work downtown. 

It was reported in August by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents 70,000 public servants, that just 10 percent of their members want to return to their offices full-time. About 60 percent want to work from home permanently, and 25 percent want a hybrid system. 

“The last two years have been devastating for small businesses in downtown Ottawa. The business model of almost every business in downtown is based on nine-to-five foot traffic,” says Chaudary. 

Stuart MacKay is running for Ottawa City Council for the Somerset Ward in October’s municipal elections. Somerset contains much of Ottawa’s downtown core, including the neighbourhood of Centretown. MacKay believes the model for downtown businesses has to change. 

“We’re not going back to the Ottawa of 2019, and businesses will have to realize that,” says MacKay. “Already we’ve seen some businesses in the downtown core pivot from serving a commuter crowd and instead reaching out to the thousands who already live in the downtown core.” 

MacKay says that many of the older empty federal buildings in Ottawa are ripe for redevelopment into residential buildings. He argues this will create new opportunities for local businesses, like grocery and hardware stores. As a result, MacKay says downtown will become a residential rather than commuter neighbourhood. 

“There is a huge opportunity to create a brand new downtown community in Ottawa,” says MacKay. 

Michelle Groulx is the executive director of the Ottawa Coalition of Business Improvement Areas. She says Ottawa is experiencing something economists call the “Donut Effect”, where activity in the city centre has been gutted and transferred to surrounding suburbs, like Kanata and Nepean.

With summer ending and seasonal tourists departing, Groulx is nervous about how the onset of fall and winter will affect the Ottawa core’s remaining businesses. 

“There are, within 500 meters, six office buildings that are empty, a hundred thousand people who are not there, and that does impact the economy that’s surrounding it,” says Groulx. “There are businesses who are going to be considering closing come November this year.” 

Groulx says the federal government must make a decision regarding the empty buildings and have a plan for the fall. 

“Either tell people to go back to work or make a solid plan on what to do to make up for the lack of workforce,” says Groulx. “Convert buildings into mixed-use and residences and things like that, but there has to be that fall plan and it has to happen.” 

‘Don’t ignore the benefits’: More Hub readers respond to the work-from-home phenomenon

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Here at The Hub we are convinced that delays in getting back to the office and now the rise of so-called “quiet quitting” risk having significant consequences for individual Canadians, the economy, and our broader society that need to be better understood and debated.

We recently ran an editorial that made the case for getting back to the office, but we don’t want to have the last word on the subject. We put out the call for Hub readers to respond with their own experiences and are delighted to share the latest sample of comments and feedback. We will continue to share your feedback as it comes in.

If you would like to tell us about your own empty office experience or contribute to this discussion, please email us at editorial@thehub.ca or contact us anonymously via our online submission form.

Don’t ignore the benefits of working from home

Most people like working from home, it’s convenient, better for the environment, can save you money, and is less stressful. I don’t think we should move the entire society to work from home but if people can and want to they absolutely should.

It’s time to compromise

At some point, employers and employees have to meet in the middle. Work conditions need to recognize workers’ dignity and autonomy, but organizations don’t function well if everyone maximizes their own benefits.

Productivity matters most

My only hope for Canada is that the churches empty out quicker than the offices. This article also makes inaccurate claims regarding productivity which has actually increased in the era of remote work. Time for employees to work where they are comfortable and productive.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution

I have been a civil servant for 14 years. I am an analyst so was able to function from home, but it’s also clear that presence in the office is essential for sharing ideas effectively, etc. Coming into the office at least two days a week is essential, even if it’s simply to enable those serendipitous moments where someone overheard your conversation in the hallway and contributed something amazing. That is why our department (and most others) is mandating at least two days in the office.

This is not the case for everyone’s job. There are thousands of public servants who just process files. For them, working from home works fine (at least until the process changes). Many of my friends are IT support workers who spend all day on the phone with clients—their job is exactly the same whether at work or at home.

In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all. Why mandate a universal return to the office five days a week if it’s not necessary? It has the potential to save the government money (less office space) and can result in better efficiency (happy employees, etc.). The chief problem is figuring out which jobs can stay remote (it will not always be obvious) and how often everyone else should be in the office. The secondary problem is public perception; most of Canada (including the panel at The Hub) disparage the work, work habits, and dedication of civil servants and will support only measures that go back to the old status qho, whether it makes sense or not, just to stick it to civil servants.

That is not to say the civil service does not have its share of whiners. No one likes the commute and some people just like the convenience. Some people feel entitled to anything that’s best for them but potentially negative for the civil service itself—but that sense of entitlement is hardly restricted to the civil service, and in my experience, is actually rare (as usual the loud minority makes more noise than the silent majority).

Everyone has an instinct for universal, one-size fits all solutions. That’s almost never the case. The real challenge will be in judging what is best for each individual position (note: position, not person).

Work isn’t everything

I read your editorial with some interest. Yikes. Do you have any non-white, disabled, or otherwise marginalized people on your editorial team? I’m disabled and remote work has been the biggest boon to my health since I’ve been in the workforce. Queer and racialized people have reported better working environments due to less opportunity for harassment as well.

You need to understand that the idea of an office being a good place for people’s “souls” is a highly privileged one. For many of us, offices have ground us down, hurt us, and replicated existing systems of injustice. You cannot find a true, safe community in a place that is devoted to white, abled supremacy if you are not those things.

Beyond that, work is not a key source of meaning, purpose, or identity for many of us. If it is, that’s a bonus, not a requirement. I find meaning in service to my community, which is not in my workplace, nor is it many of my colleagues who have repeated the lines about COVID only being an issue for the vulnerable. As one of the vulnerable, I hardly find that reassuring, or in community spirit. I am paid to do work, which I do well, and take pride in, despite a hostile working environment. But the idea that I should find purpose or identity in it is breathtakingly absurd.

We don’t need to be micromanaged

Pull your head out of your butt. People don’t need to return to work, they have been working effectively from various locations. The only ones who need them back in the office are lousy managers who don’t know what to do without micromanaging their people.