The federal government’s lenient work-from-home policies have resulted in millions of square feet of office space sitting empty across the nation, a new report says.
The findings are a reminder that more than three years since the coronavirus pandemic began, the battle over returning to the office continues to rage in both the public and private sectors, presenting difficult problems about the future of work and the fate of American cities, whose downtowns have in some cases been drained of life.
For now, about a third of all workers across the economy who are able to do so are working entirely from home, according to the Pew Research Center, a fivefold increase from before the onset of the pandemic. Another 40% are in hybrid arrangements, coming into the office two or three days a week.
Many corporate executives have grown dissatisfied with hybrid work, demanding that employees spend five days a week in the office. Workers, on the other hand, say they are more productive when working from home — and happier. Some also moved during the pandemic, figuring they would be able to stay remote forever.
Many federal agencies allow for hybrid work, and few have made concrete demands for sustained office presence. No single, overriding policy has governed the Biden’s administration’s approach to returning to the office.
Officials in Washington, D.C., have urged the president to bring federal workers back to the office, arguing that their absence has turned the nation’s capital into a ghost town. They have been joined by Capitol Hill legislators from rural districts who say their constituents lack reliable internet access and need to interact with government agencies face-to-face.
So far, however, the powerful unions that represent federal employees have resisted that push.
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A sea of empty cubicles
A new report from the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog, finds that remote work has taken hold so thoroughly across the federal bureaucracy that many offices are effectively empty.
Of the 24 agencies surveyed by the GAO for the study, 17 “used an estimated average 25% or less of their headquarters buildings’ capacity” during the first three months of 2023, when the study was conducted. No agency used more than 49% of its office space.
Even before the pandemic, the federal government owned too many buildings that it barely used. Now they are being used even less.
“As the country emerges from the pandemic and agencies continue to offer telework as an option, the federal government has a unique opportunity to reconsider how much and what type of office space it needs,” the report’s author, David Marroni, said in recent congressional testimony.
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The cost to the taxpayer
In total, the federal government manages 511 million square feet of office space, according to the GAO. All that real estate costs the federal government about $7 billion to lease and maintain. And those funds, of course, come from the American taxpayer.
“Underutilized office space has financial and environmental costs,” the GAO report notes.
Again, the problem is not new — rather, it has simply been given new life by the stark realities of the pandemic. Back in 2011, the Obama administration released a map of 14,000 excess buildings and structures owned by the federal government across the country (not all the buildings were necessarily offices). Shedding those buildings could save American taxpayers $190 million a year.
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Returning to work, but only slowly
President Biden has been reluctant to take a forceful stance on the issue of federal work-from-home policies, though he did say in his 2022 State of the Union address that he wanted office workers in general to return to downtowns.
In April, Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young wrote in a memo to agency heads that they needed to “substantially increase meaningful in-person work at Federal offices, particularly at headquarters and equivalents, while still using flexible operational policies as an important tool in talent recruitment and retention.”
Downtown Washington, where many federal agencies are located, remains hauntingly empty on many days. But an administration official told Yahoo News that OMB was, in fact, "working closely with federal agencies to update work environment plans" and carry out Young's return-to-office directive.
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Time to sell?
In an editorial responding to the GAO report, the Wall Street Journal suggested the Biden administration should “help federal agencies shed some of their extra space.”
The GAO itself agrees, suggesting the federal government should either sell some buildings or, in other cases, let leases expire. The administration official familiar with OMB plans told Yahoo News that federal agencies are being asked to "engage in space planning exercises that take into account current and future work environments.”
The GAO report points to the sale of the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, a short walk from the White House. The castle-like building, long underused, was controversially bought by the Trump Organization and turned into a Trump International Hotel, which remained open throughout the four years of the Trump administration.
It is now a Waldorf Astoria.
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This article has been updated with comments from a Biden administration official.