96 N.W.T. government employees are now working remotely

In January of 2022, the Northwest Territories government introduced a policy that allows employees the option of working outside their office.    (Richard Gleeson/CBC - image credit)
In January of 2022, the Northwest Territories government introduced a policy that allows employees the option of working outside their office. (Richard Gleeson/CBC - image credit)

One year after the Northwest Territories government instituted a remote work policy, only about 1.4 per cent of its workforce is taking advantage of it.

According to the territorial Finance Department, 96 N.W.T. government employees have some kind of remote work arrangement.

Of those, 13 are working outside the territory and four are working inside the territory, but in a different community from their office.

On Monday, a finance department spokesperson said no deputy ministers or assistant deputy ministers were working remotely.

The territorial government employs more than 6,300 people. In January of 2022, it introduced a policy that allows employees the option of working outside their office.

After most N.W.T. government workers got a taste of working from home during the pandemic, one of them was surprised that more of their coworkers didn't want to keep it up.

"I think a lot of people really benefited from it," said the N.W.T. government employee. They requested anonymity because speaking publicly could affect their ability to do their job.

"My team was functioning very, very well working from home. Maybe others didn't."

The employee said that when the government began its return to the office, they wanted to continue working remotely part-time, in a hybrid situation.

But before they applied, they were told that their request would be denied.

"It seemed to be just that it's a pain to manage was the reason," said the employee.

CBC News asked the Finance department for an interview about the low number of remote work arrangements, but didn't get one.

According to the N.W.T. government's policy, to work remotely, an employee needs approval from their supervisor and their department's deputy minister or CEO.

To work outside the territory, they need permission from the deputy minister of finance.

It's unclear how many remote-work requests have been denied. The Finance department didn't provide an answer before publication deadline.

Most people prefer working from home: national survey

The small proportion of government employees working remotely doesn't exactly square with a recent national employment survey, in which most respondents said they preferred working from home.

The Future Skills Centre, a federally-funded research organization, surveyed more than 6,600 people across all provinces and territories between March 1 and April 18, 2022.

More than three-quarters of them said they liked working at home more than in their workplace.

Remote work also appears to be more popular at the Yukon government.

That government has 6,100 positions, and according to a Public Service Commission spokesperson, 390 employees have remote work agreements.

Of those 390, 22 are working outside the Yukon.

Natalie Pressman/CBC
Natalie Pressman/CBC

Out-of-territory work meant for 'exceptional circumstances'

Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler isn't surprised by the small number of territorial government employees who are still working remotely.

"A few people that I've had conversations [with] that had to work from home, what they've said was they were just glad to be able to get the school kids back to school, go back to work in their office," she said.

"Even though they were able to do their job from home, they're just glad to get back to work, get back to normal."

Last March, Semmler questioned Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek about the government's remote work policy.

She said around that time, there were concerns that people were leaving the territory and working from elsewhere in Canada, and that more senior bureaucrats were getting remote-work concessions where frontline workers were not.

Wawzonek's response was that at the time 31 employees were working outside of the territory, and that under the remote work policy, out-of-territory remote work is to be considered only in "exceptional circumstances."

"For example, if you have a child who has to get medical care, specialized medical care for a period of time that is not available here," said Wawzonek in the Legislative Assembly.

An out-of-territory arrangement, she continued, "is not for people who simply prefer to live somewhere else, who might have family that they'd like to see. It's not a matter of convenience."

As part of a remote-work deal, the employee must perform at the same level or better than they would at their office.

The policy allows an employee to work remotely from any community if their job is based in Yellowknife, but not the reverse — a person in Yellowknife can't work a job based in another N.W.T. community.

The Finance department said that of the 96 people working remotely, 45 are doing so full-time and 51 have a hybrid arrangement.