GAO officials are calling on OMB to establish standard metrics for federal agencies to use to measure their office real estate needs.

GAO officials are calling on OMB to establish standard metrics for federal agencies to use to measure their office real estate needs. Raimund Koch/GETTY IMAGES

OMB should set office space benchmarks accounting for telework reality, GAO says

The watchdog followed up its September testimony on underutilized federal offices to call for the Office of Management and Budget to set the standard for optimizing federal real property portfolios in an increased telework environment. 

After finding that 17 federal agencies use, on average, 25% or less of their headquarters office space in a recent review, the Government Accountability Office is calling for a standardized benchmark for federal leaders to guide to. 

In a report released Thursday, GAO built upon its Sept. 27 testimony to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and called for the Office of Management and Budget to help craft new metrics to help determine governmentwide office space utilization. 

“The pandemic has lowered the utilization of headquarters office space and has increased the amount of underutilized federal office space,” the report said. “While all agencies have resumed in-person operations, it is clear that the federal workplace has evolved as agencies have embraced telework. OMB directed agencies to use utilization data to determine their space needs but did not say how, and agencies have not reached consensus on new benchmarks on their own.”

The report said agencies currently use a variety of metrics to account for their utilization, which can lead to different measurements and capacity “even for the same building square footage,” necessitating the need for a standard rule. 

The recommendation comes as GAO found that 17 of the 24 federal agencies that make up the Federal Real Property Council — an interagency group of senior officials representing agencies holding 98 percent of all federal real property —used on average a quarter of their headquarters office space, with six agencies using 9%.  

In measuring the utilization of the agencies’ headquarters office space, GAO divided the agencies into four categories, or quartiles, that determined their building’s use by calculating its usable square feet by how many people were there during the day. 

Though office utilization has been a challenge for federal agencies in the pre-pandemic era — with GAO estimating that if all assigned staff were to occupy one of the headquarters in the lowest quartile for one day, it would still only occupy 67% of the space — telework has put a further spotlight on the issue.

The GAO report said that all 24 agencies studied said their in-person workforce has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels and for some, pre-existing telework flexibilities are now used more frequently.  

The Biden administration has been gradually for federal employees to return to the office, with Chief of Staff Jeff Zients calling for an increase in in-person work in August, and the Office of Personnel Management requiring better data on telework usage earlier this month

However, the report said that a lack of clear benchmarks makes it difficult for agencies to adequately develop future office space planning, even in an evolved telework environment. 

GAO officials said in the absence of standardized metrics, some agencies applied a square footage per person, while others tallied workspaces. Attendance metrics were even more varied, making it difficult to measure capacity. 

“A standard method to measure utilization and benchmarks that account for higher levels of telework could help the federal government more consistently identify underutilized space within and across agencies,” the report said. “Having this information could support better aligning the federal real property portfolio with future needs and reducing costs by releasing unneeded space.”

OMB officials agreed with the recommendation.