Lessons from the pandemic have big implications for federal offices and employees, lawmakers and experts say.
An average federal employee could save up to $4,000 a year by teleworking, according to a recent analysis.
That was one finding lawmakers on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee heard during a hearing on Wednesday about how the federal government could potentially expand telework after the pandemic. While the Trump administration ordered “maximum telework” as the novel coronavirus began spreading in March, some top administration officials have been pushing to reopen offices and pull back on telework.
“The consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics determined that if all federal employees eligible for telework had telecommuted just half of the time, the federal government could reduce its need for office space by 25%,” said committee chairman Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. There are about 2.1 million federal employees nationwide––42% of which were eligible for telework in fiscal 2018, according to the most recent data––who work in some of the 9,600 buildings the federal government owns and leases.
“Taxpayers could [annually] save $1.75 billion dollars in real estate costs alone and over $11 billion in total costs. Through such telework federal employees would also save on personal expenditures such as food, commuting, gas and dry cleaning,” Barrasso said. Besides real estate, cost savings for the government would come from more productivity and continuity of operations during disasters, less absenteeism and turnover, according to the analysis.
Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, said that by expanding telework the federal government could “absolutely reduce [its] real estate footprint.” She noted that the company calculated the savings based on federal employees eligible for telework working remote half of the time. The government’s lease portfolio includes more than 187 million square feet of office space, valued at $5.7 billion in annual rent, according to an inspector general report published in June.
By working from home, “a typical employee saves between $2,500 and $4,000 a year just in sort of the surface stuff: the getting to work, the dry cleaning, the $3, $4, $5 coffee depending on where you are,” she said. “There's even more savings” if an employee moves to a more affordable area.
Mark Pringle, a senior vice president at Dell Technologies, said based on his company’s success in expanding telework between 2013 and 2016, he “absolutely” agrees that the government could benefit from expanded telework. With more telework there will be less use of buildings, which will help the government reassess what property it actually does and does not need, he said.
Michael Benjamin, chief of the Air Quality Planning and Science Division for the California Air Resources Board, said the pandemic has demonstrated that “It actually is very feasible for an institution or an agency to work effectively and to manage people remotely.” As federal agencies are starting to bring employees back to their workplaces, some, such as the Defense Department––as Federal News Network recently reported––are already considering how to make some telework arrangements permanent.
However, Benjamin pointed out there will always be a large segment of the economy that cannot work from home.
Witnesses and lawmakers also discussed potential challenges that will need to be addressed before the government can successfully expand telework. These include: ensuring connectivity access and affordability, creating productive relationships among employees, onboarding new employees virtually and assessing compensation to determine if employees who move to less expensive areas should take a pay cut.
“Government can help start to set [an] example” by addressing some of these lingering questions, said Lister.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said the success of federal employees working from home during the pandemic “bolsters my argument that we can and should move more jobs out of Washington.” During the previous two sessions of Congress, Ernst introduced legislation that would move agency headquarters throughout the country, closer to their stakeholders. Similarly, Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Financial Management, said during a hearing on Tuesday that it might be time to update the decade-old policies on telework for the federal workforce based on lessons learned during the pandemic.
Correction: There are about 2.1 million federal employees, 1.2 million.