Sen. Ernst: Telework ‘bolsters’ claim federal agencies don’t need DC headquarters

Large swaths of the federal workforce are still out on mandatory telework because of the coronavirus, but the government could save billions of dollars each year if agencies continued to embrace work-from-home options even after the pandemic.

Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics, told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Wednesday that agencies could save $11 billion annually — about $13,000 a year per employee — if the all telework-eligible federal employees worked from home for half their workdays.

Federal employees would also benefit, Lister said, saving $2,500-$4,000 a year on commuting costs and everyday purchases like ordering coffee and paying for dry cleaning.

According to the Federal Work-Life Survey and Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, teleworking employees say they’re more engaged, more satisfied with their job and less likely to leave their agency.

Global Workplace Analytics based its findings on the Office of Personnel Management’s most report on telework, which found 42% of the federal workforce was eligible for telework in 2018, and 22% of the federal workforce teleworked in some capacity that same year.

The federal government, in turn, could reduce its office space by 25% and save $1.7 billion a year in reduced real estate costs.

The General Services Administration, the government’s landlord, has also been the biggest federal adopter of telework. The agency, as a result, decreased its office space square footage by 32% in the past four years and cut its operations and maintenance costs by $10 million.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said the federal government, with its office footprint of more than 350,000 buildings, stands out as the country’s largest consumer of energy, and could see substantial savings in that area as well.

“The sudden shift to implementing flexible work strategies like telework across the federal government has given us an opportunity to examine how those alternative methods actually work – or do not work,” Carper said. “This is our opportunity to find out what works, and do more of that.”

GSA across multiple administrations has focused on shrinking the federal real estate footprint and maximizing each square foot of office space. The rise of telework at some agencies in some cases could make it easier to scale back on office space.

Sen. Shelly Capito (R-W.V.) said an IRS building in Martinsburg, West Virginia can accommodate all of the several hundred employees who work there, but on any given day, only about 10% workforce actually goes into the office.

However, long-term telework after the pandemic would also require a significant rethinking of the civil service, especially around issues like locality pay.

“We’re also hearing in the private sector, ‘Does that mean I’m going to take a pay cut if I if I’m making San Francisco wages and I move to Alabama? Do I make the same amount?’ There’s a lot of these questions that we don’t have answers to that I think the government can help start to set the example,” Lister said.

Meanwhile, long-term telework for federal employees could open the door to moving some agency headquarters outside the D.C. metro area — the focus of several Republican-led bills in recent years.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced the Strategic Withdrawal of Agencies for Meaningful Placement (SWAMP) Act last year, which would remove legal barriers keeping agencies from moving their headquarters outside the D.C. metro area.

The bill would also prohibit agencies based in the capital region from entering into new leases, making significant renovations or beginning new construction projects.

The legislation hasn’t made it out of committee since it was introduced. A House version of the bill introduced in 2018 also never made it out of committee.

The SWAMP Act, Ernst said Wednesday, would allow more job creation and greater opportunities for communities beyond the capital region.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our federal workers have successfully done their jobs from outside of DC, showing us that they don’t necessarily need to be in Washington to do their jobs,” she said. “I think this bolsters my argument that we can and should move more jobs out of Washington and closer to the folks who know the needs of their states, their farms and their businesses best.”

None of these changes, however, can become a reality without a major shift in how agency leadership and supervisors feel about their employees teleworking. Even with the pandemic still looming over much of the U.S., agencies including the State Department, IRS and Environmental Protection Agency have required more employees to come back into the office.

In May, a Federal News Network survey of nearly 1,200 federal employees found that 52% of respondents believed their agency’s views on telework would change because of the pandemic. However, nearly 28% said they weren’t sure and another 20% said their agency wouldn’t change its views.

“Managers simply don’t trust their employees to work untethered, and I think the biggest thing that we already have learned is that now they realize that their people are productive, and they can tell that they’re productive,” Lister said. “But we still need a lot of training on managing by results rather than butts in seats.”

Lister said employees who telework full-time sometimes struggle with maintaining a “sense of esprit de corps” and feeling connected to their company, but a mix of work-from-home and in-office work helps to address some of these problems.

Whether or not long-term telework sticks around in the federal workforce after the pandemic, businesses are already gearing up for a new normal. Nearly one-in-five private-sector chief financial officers plan to keep at least 20% of their workforce working remotely after the coronavirus pandemic to cut costs.

Before the pandemic, Dell Technologies had 65% of its employees opt for workplace flexibilities that allowed them to telework several days a week, and any given day, about 30% of its workforce was teleworking.

During the pandemic, however, Mark Pringle, Dell Technologies’ senior vice president of corporate real estate, global facilities and environment, health and safety, told the committee that the company shifted more than 90% of its workforce to work from home “nearly overnight.”

From 2013 to 2016, Dell saw more than $50 million in total cost savings from its Connected Workplace program — $12 million of which came from real estate cost savings. Looking at the next five years, Pringle said Dell Technologies projects cutting 20-30% of its real estate for further cost savings.

“COVID-19 has exacted a devastating public health and economic toll on our country. One of the best ways to recover from both catastrophes is to reimagine work in ways that genuinely improve the quality of life for our nation’s workforce,” Pringle said.

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