Managers at Veterans Affairs Canada expect their office buildings on P.E.I. will remain empty for some time to come, though there have been mixed emotions for staff mostly working from home since the pandemic began.
"It's always been the health and safety of our employees first," said Sara Lantz, acting assistant deputy minister of corporate services for Veterans Affairs, which has about 1,500 employees on the Island. Most are working from home, though special permission is granted sometimes if a person needs to go into the office.
She said the department cannot keep workers at a safe physical distance from each other in its P.E.I. premises, and Veterans Affairs Canada wants to maintain the status quo as long as services are still being provided to veterans.
Lantz said a recent survey of home-based staff suggested the model seems to be working, so Veterans Affairs is not in a rush to move people back into offices.
"Most employees, somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent, were happy with the support from the department," she noted.
Lantz said there is no date to reopen offices. Occupancy levels may be increased eventually as work spaces are reorganized and decluttered, but health and safety inspections will be needed before that happens.
She expects many staff will continue to work from home for at least part of their work weeks even after the pandemic ends.
How do I entertain my toddler, plus go on this meeting? — Tanya Wilshire, Veterans Affairs Canada
"There's a lot of people that feel they're much more productive at home, and want to stay at home part time into the future," she said.
Lantz said COVID-19 may end up saving taxpayers money in the long run if flexibility over home-working results in "a more efficient use of space and employees' time." That's because large buildings are costly to run.
'Baptism by fire' for some
Tanya Wilshire works for online services with Veterans Affairs Canada, and has been working from home since March.
"It was very much a baptism by fire," said Wilshire. "I was in denial for the first months, thinking we were going to go back."
Wilshire has a four-year-old son, so when schools and daycares closed during the pandemic, she and her husband like so many other parents, had to juggle parenting and work responsibilities.
"How do I entertain my toddler, plus go on this meeting?" was a constant question, she said. "When you have your personal life constantly around you at home, it's almost like you are living at work."
The family is operating with more of a routine now and she's grateful to not be rushing out the door each morning to get to work.
She said she misses human interaction but working online has helped her connect to more colleagues than she would have at the office. She said she feels employees working from home are more dedicated than ever because they want to help veterans cope with the pandemic.
"If you would have asked me two years ago, 'Could all of Veterans Affairs work at home?' I would have been 'no, there's no way.'
"And now we've proved it," she said. "I'm very confident the work is being done."
Wilshire said ideally when the pandemic is over, she would like a hybrid agreement where she could work from home and the office.
Union concerned about mental health
The union that represents many Veterans Affairs employees said the work-from-home model can be "precarious" at times.
Debi Buell, president of the Union of Veterans' Affairs Employees in Charlottetown, said employees' mental health is the main concern.
"How resilient certain people are with having to work from home and not being able to go into the workplace every day."
Buell said she's heard from employees who are struggling as well as employees who have no issues with working from home.
She said it's going as well as can be expected, but it's important that employees don't feel isolated.
The union has also made a request through its national office to question the Treasury Board on compensation for things such as internet and heating costs for employees working from home — specifically, whether they'll be able to claim these costs as a small business would.
"We should be compensated as far as we're concerned."
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