The Biden administration wants to “aggressively” get federal workers back in the office by September or October, according to an email to the Cabinet on Friday, as Axios initially reported.
White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients wrote, “We are returning to in-person work because it is critical to the well-being of our teams and will enable us to deliver better results for the American people.” He did say the move wouldn’t totally eliminate remote work totally.
Last month came the news that most federal agencies have been using less than 25% of their office space. The General Accounting Office said agencies had “long struggled to determine how much office space they needed to fulfill their missions efficiently.”
The move is the latest in the government’s attempt to get federal employees in office. In April, the Office of Management and Budget circulated a memo to executive departments and agencies 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.”
The issue of remote work at the federal level has increasingly become complex. As of September 2022, a General Services Administration report said that most agencies were planning significant cutbacks in the amount of space they use. The GAO surveyed 24 federal agencies on plans to reduce leased space. Of those, 16 said they would reduce the number of leases and 19 planned to reduce square footage over the next three years.
In December 2022, the Real Estate Roundtable — backing firms including Brookfield Properties, Blackstone, Empire State Realty Trust, Starwood Capital, as well as multiple major banks and CRE professional organizations — emphasized just how concerned many in the industry have become over worry that the federal government might give up leased space.
“We therefore respectfully urge you to direct federal agencies to enhance their consideration of the impact of agency employee remote working on communities, surrounding small employers, transit systems, local tax bases and other important considerations, along with the direct effect on governmental service delivery and labor productivity.
“In addition, we ask for your support of legislation to facilitate the increased conversion of underutilized office and other commercial real estate to much-needed housing,” the letter from the group to the administration read.
House Republicans in January 2023 introduced a bill aimed at forcing agencies to have workers return to the office. The bill, if it became law, would have required within 30 days of enactment that every federal agency would have to return to the “telework policies, practices, and levels of the agency as in effect on December 31, 2019, and may not expand any such policy, practices, or levels until the date that an agency plan is submitted to Congress with a certification by the Director of the Office of Personnel Management.”
The chance of the bill passing through Congress and getting a signature from the president was next to non-existent.
Further complicating the picture has been the prospect of conflict with union contracts that would have made it difficult to force people back to offices. Biden has long emphasized his support for unions, and unions have strongly supported his campaign hopes.