How EPA 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, EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Infrastructure and Extramural Resources, Dan Coogan.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin All right. Let’s talk about EPA’s telework policy. Just review for us what is in place at the moment for employees.

Dan Coogan Our telework policy, which is communicated out through our work environment plan, sets a number of days which employees are required to come into the office based on the position of that employee. So it varies from frontline staff through managers, executives and political appointees. There’s different areas there. And then we have a separate process which separate from telework, is remote work, which would be those employees that do not come into the office. And then there’s a whole separate, reasonable accommodation process that could play in there. So there’s a few tiers. But our policy kind of distinguishes based on the type of employee in the number of days that they would come into office.

Tom Temin And we’re talking primarily headquarters or this is also the large field offices as well?

Dan Coogan This is national.

Dan Coogan Ok. And on a given day, a typical day, say, a Thursday or Tuesday of every 100 employees that is employed, how many tend to be there? What percentage of people are there on a given day?

Dan Coogan I think we’re similar to a lot of other agencies and organizations that it’s going to vary on a couple factors. So for EPA, we have over 130 facilities nationwide. We have laboratories, warehouses, we have office space. And so if you look at some of our laboratories, you might have a very high number of employees in on a given day. Because the work is so site dependent, you come to certain office spaces, the numbers going to vary, and then it can vary by the week. So what we see is peaks on Tuesdays and Wednesdays trickles down a little bit lower on Thursday and Mondays and Fridays you don’t see the same level of presence, but it really will vary on the facility. We have some facilities where utilization is at 100% on an average day. Others it might go lower than a quarter or go down to maybe even 10% on a Friday. So it’s going to depend on the day and the type of facility and where we are in the country.

Tom Temin And what about by rank? For example, I’ve heard from a lot of agency heads or deputy agency heads that level that while they’re in every day because they just want to, for whatever reason, set an example for being there or feel that the leadership should be in presence. Is that the case at EPA?

Dan Coogan So within EPA, we have tiered the requirement for in office days based on a couple levels. One is our political appointees are required to be in 50% or more. And they on average or in about eight times a pay period during not about eight days per pay period. Our senior executive service employees (SES) are required to be in four days a pay period, and they’re in five days or more on average. Some would be in every day, others might be close to that 4 or 5 day level.

Tom Temin Got it. And again, at the laboratories or physical facilities that require interaction with equipment or machines or experiments, then you’ve got people that just have to be there every day.

Dan Coogan Right. We have much higher utilization in those spaces than we’d see in our office spaces, where in line with our telework policy and our work environment plan, there’s a little bit more flexibility in a lot of the work won’t necessarily be site dependent.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Dan Coogan. He’s the deputy assistant administrator for infrastructure and extramural resources at the EPA. And how do you handle like, location of people when they are in the office? That is to say, does everyone still have the cubicle or office they had before pandemic and they just go to it when they come in? Or have you moved to a hotel type of arrangement?

Dan Coogan So that’s something we’re evaluating now. So like in Washington, D.C., largely it’s tied to the individual, but just general proper usage of our space and our resources is making us consider how best to utilize the space that we have. And so that’s something we work through with our union partners in working through kind of collectively, because we have a large portfolio in Washington, D.C. alone. Here in Federal Triangle Center, we have five facilities that are quite large. And so we’re looking at how best to utilize this space. Now, we do have some facilities where we’ve made progress in that space. And so our region three facility in Philadelphia, that’s kind of one of our spaces that has made the most progress, and really being forward looking and managing a proper space organization. They had the benefit, they were in at least space and they had their lease expired data move over COVID. So that put them in the position of going all right, COVID has changed things. What does the work environment look like for EPA region three? And that team there has really done an excellent job of seeing how space is going to be used from the old way into the new space. Obvious challenge, and this isn’t unique to EPA, to be able to do that at a larger scale is a lot of us don’t move frequently. If we’re not in a privately leased space, we tend to stay in this space that we’re in. And so there are opportunities across our portfolio to kind of do those resets, like we were able to do in our Philadelphia headquarter office.

Tom Temin Yes. So leases are more flexible in the long run basically, than if you occupy a building where the company or the agency name is engraved on the front.

Dan Coogan Well, it would be privately owned a lease. So we release most of our facilities, but they are primarily leased from GSA, the General Services Administration, which is the priority for the federal government, is to get the federal government into GSA owned spaces where we would lease from them. We only have maybe 20 EPA owned facilities when we are in a privately owned facility that we lease, that is where we will tend to have more movements like within our region three facility. So that’s the big factor.

Tom Temin Got it. So in Philadelphia, you’re the reason that the hot dog stands are going out of business.

Dan Coogan We hope not. But, maybe within the given block.

Tom Temin And I wanted to ask about something that seems to be mostly disappeared from work life. But what about mail rooms and physical mail? Does that still come into the offices? And what happens to mail addressed to specific individuals when they’re not there?

Dan Coogan Yeah. So, I mean, we have a requirement that we have to accept physical mail. We have a docket center. There’s actual requirements that has to remain available to the public, so that doesn’t go away at all. Now, the reality is a lot of interoffice communication, and this isn’t just EPA with the federal government, but it’s gone to digital. It’s going to email and things like that. So it would not be a wise use of taxpayer resources to maintain the same tempo of people dropping off physical mail. So that certainly shifted and moved down, shifted back quite a bit. But we still bring in mail, we still have to make sure all physical correspondence is handled at our facilities. We certainly downshifting quite a bit to save resources on the frequency with which it might be dropped off in a given location.

Tom Temin And would it be fair or accurate to say that for the most part, people’s access, then, is by use of a portable electronic device, and therefore they can work pretty much anywhere by virtue of the technology base that lets them access what they need. And they don’t need to be tied to a physical location as much. That’s the trend?

Dan Coogan So I’d say in other agencies, very good investment in information technology has allowed us to adapt to the hybrid work environment. More like a lot of other organizations that have seen there’s benefits to a telework environment, but there’s cost to it and there’s challenges and there’s components of in-person work and being together as a team and building camaraderie. But you can’t replace on a laptop. And so we were intentional about making sure we have the best work environment while using the tools like you’re referencing, that allow employees to work from home, save from commuting costs and the stress of commuting and things like that. But I think we’re finding a good balance, and we make sure to communicate what that balance looks like through our work environment plan to our staff.

Tom Temin Is anyone looking at what the future footprint might have to be at some ultimate point? Say a year from now or whatever?

Dan Coogan Oh yeah. So we’re constantly looking at our space, and this is something EPA has been doing quite a bit going back even to the Obama administration. We’ve made considerable space releases. If you look just in Washington DC, the releases we’ve had have been substantial, because even while COVID is kind of this seminal moment, there was changes in work going back well before COVID that made agencies and organizations think about what their space need was. And so we’ve made a lot of progress. We’re going to continue to looking at our space, and at the same time understanding what’s the best space layout for the work experience for our employees. Something you see is that I think we’re seeing a bit of a shift is, is there a need for a cube farm, which might not really be the case, but there might be more of a need for collaborative conference space. And so that’s where as we’re doing our assessments and understanding what is our space layout look like, we’re being very conscious of and trying to hear back from our employees. The one big thing to this, obviously, is cost. We are dependent on our appropriation levels that Congress sets for us. And so we can only execute to the level that appropriation levels allow.

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