How Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate is dealing with its telework-induced high-vacancy offices

Federal workplaces aren't what they used to be, not with a third or half of employees teleworking at least some part of the week.


Federal workplaces aren’t what they used to be, not with a third or half of employees teleworking at least some part of the week. Since only a few people telework 100% of the time, that creates difficulties in managing office space. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with someone dealing with this issue, the Chief Administrative Officer of the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology Directorate, Margie Rowe.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin We know what the director of S&T does, science and technology. What does the administrative officer do?

Margie Rowe I take care of the facilities, the fleet, the mail, the personal property. Part of keeping and running.

Tom Temin And how have things changed from the pandemic to now? Well, let’s start with how things changed when the pandemic hit. And now we’re kind of halfway out of it in terms of people coming to work.

Margie Rowe When it hit, we went totally telework. I mean, it was part of keeping everyone safe. And out of that, we realized that we can work and be successful from our homes. So that was the impetus, along with the S1’s priorities for DHS to consolidate us down into fewer facilities and to reduce the footprint where possible. So as an operational component. But our operations are in our labs and in the field. We were able to reduce our footprint and now we’ve ended up here on campus.

Tom Temin So on an average day, if there are a thousand employees, what percentage, how many out of a thousand are coming in on a given day?

Margie Rowe On a given day here? About 10 to 15% come in across S&T. In our laboratory facilities, they’ve been coming in almost every day throughout the pandemic based on their work. Our work here, program managers, project managers, communications, facilities, IT a lot of that work can be done from home. So, we’ve been lucky and being able to stay at home.

Tom Temin Because there’s a big building here and lots of floor space, but you have reconfigured it such that it accommodates the fact that people only 15% of headquarters people are coming in. Tell us more about that.

Margie Rowe That was done when we moved. We moved out of Vermont Avenue and that was a large move. You know, everybody had their own office. Everybody had all cabinets of paper. So, we got people to go virtual, worked with CIO, installed Teams. So that allows us to do collaboration. And we reduced our footprint so that we do a reservation system. So, the executive front office has permanent location. And then the people you would want if you were coming to the building and you needed help, the facilities office, the CIO help desk, the security office, the personal property office, those people have space every day, all day, same location. Today I’m sitting in a cube that I normally sit in when I come in, make a reservation and just come in and bring your stuff with you every day and then take it home every night.

Tom Temin Now, decades ago, I edited trade newspapers for the government market, and we depended on mail coming in. Just out of curiosity, this just came into my head. What is the state of paper mail that comes to a government agency like this? Does anyone mail anything with a stamp on it to DHS anymore?

Margie Rowe You would be surprised. Yes, we have mail that comes in every day. It gets delivered to our receptionist area and then gets passed out to the various offices across S&T. If it looks important, you know, sometimes we’ll have receptionist will open it up, especially who it’s addressed to, and they’ll send an email, or they’ll place a call and say, you’ve got mail.

Tom Temin We don’t have people sorting big bins of mail and running it through the halls and bins anymore.

Margie Rowe We probably do. That is done on a DHS wide level. So, I just see when the mail guy comes to our portion of the building, but he is pushing a cart, one of those old-fashioned carts, and they hand you your mail.

Tom Temin Some things never change, I guess because I saw an in and out basket somewhere. I think that was FedEx.

Margie Rowe Yes, that was at the receptionist. We have incoming mail, outgoing mail, FedEx, UPS, U.S. mail.

Tom Temin And what about paper consumption with only again in this building or the headquarters, with only 15% of the people in, I imagine copying and stapling and distributing memos. That must be a fraction of what it was too.

Margie Rowe Yes. We did a large effort when we left Vermont Avenue. We did a large effort of digitizing our records. So, we’ve worked with NARA on official records and digitized and move things off. We had a lot of people that spent a lot of time standing at a copy scan machine, scanning things. So, we’ve reduced our records. It’s all now virtual. If we need official documents, wet signatures, those types of things. Our EXEC Sec office takes care of those official records. But everything else now, if you want it printed, you come into the office. And we do still have those people. They come in the day they’re here, they print, and they take it all home and read it on paper.

Tom Temin Yes. And you probably don’t have encouraging people to have printers at home.

Margie Rowe No, we’re not allowed to have printers at home. DHS work has to be done on a DHS computer or a DHS printer. So, you should not be printing at home.

Tom Temin Got it. And the other question I had was telephones because it used to be that telephones were location based, even desk based. And you know, you know, 703 – 695 is the Pentagon, etc., etc.. Now not so much. And sometimes nobody answers the phone. That’s officially on a website for government agency.

Margie Rowe The DHS number does go to a person and then they will route it. There’s a number for S&T which rings at our one reception desk. But like my office phone that was at VTA, it now rings through Microsoft Teams. And I have my cell phone. So, you know, I have two numbers that ring I have to answer them.

Tom Temin But there’s still a physical receptionist even in this day and age.

Margie Rowe There’s one. Yes. And she also does. Well, she, he it’s a rotating position. They do facility support as well because sometimes, you know, people come in, mail gets delivered. People have questions. They don’t know how to get to a conference room. They don’t know where a building is. So, you do have to have a person to answer those questions.

Tom Temin Do you ever get calls from Doctor Kusnezov, the director saying, I’m lonely here. Can we have some more people in the office?

Margie Rowe We don’t get calls. We usually get emails. You know, we had an all-hands-on Monday, so a lot of people came in. He luckily is very personable. So, you know, he’ll sit. He has a little lobby reception area. He’ll sit and read the paper, go through a magazine, talk to people. So, there’s always somebody here. As with most agencies, I’m assuming Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday are big days, Mondays a little lonely, Fridays a little lonely.

Tom Temin So I would think for people that may have kids at home or noisy pets, it would be like a pleasure to come here because that cube farm was quiet, sedate. Some nice views if you want to get up and stretch.

Margie Rowe It can be yes on days when there’s nothing going on. Monday we had everyone in. It was loud because it was like, I haven’t seen you since the last time we were all here. But today, you know, we come in, we work, we use headphones and earbuds when we’re on calls and in meetings. And, you know, it’s nice to see people again.

Tom Temin Now, are you a science and technology person or are you a federal administrator type person?

Margie Rowe I’m an administrator.

Tom Temin And how long have you been doing this type of work?

Margie Rowe I’ve been doing this for 15 years.

Tom Temin So you were pre-pandemic. And it must be just a sea change for people that do. What you do is to keep agencies running kind of unseen in the background.

Margie Rowe Yes it was. And people didn’t realize everything we did because it was just getting done until you move. And then all of a sudden they’re like, wait, where’s this? One of the things we did to help with that is when we started the move process. I did a started out as monthly, then it went to weekly chat and I was on teams, staff logged on. We talked about the move, I answered questions, and one of the surprising things out of that is people know me. I don’t know who they are because on teams you don’t see when you’re presenting. I couldn’t see all 200 faces, so I saw no one and they all see me now and they’re like, hi. I’m like, oh, hi, how are you?

Tom Temin And you must have made some modifications. Since you are the chief administrative officer, you can’t just have open pantry, kitchen views and boxes of cornflakes in the background.

Margie Rowe True. Yes. I you know, we have the virtual background, so it always it always looks very nice. But here, you know, we do have something that’s just come up recently is now that we’re back in the office, all of those office etiquettes that you had, if you come in every day, you remember them. If you don’t come in every day, sometimes you might need to be reminded, take out your trash.

Tom Temin And have you had to remind people, say on teams, when it’s a small meeting, even there, there’s protocols such as like no bathrobes.

Margie Rowe And we haven’t had issues with dress. Although the fun thing is we have seen pets come across in the background. We’ve heard someone go, not now, mommy’s on teams. So, we do still have that happening.

Tom Temin But the government’s going to survive in this 15%, 30%, whatever hybrid mode you think.

Margie Rowe I think you will, but it all is really based on your job. You know, TSA and CBP, they have to be on the ground every day. If you’re an administrator, there’s a lot you can do from your home.

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