Biden: Get federal workers back in the office

US President Joe Biden is telling his Cabinet members to get federal employees back into the office beginning this fall, according to a White House email obtained last week by Axios.

“We are returning to in-person work because it is critical to the well-being of our teams and will enable us to deliver better results for the American people,” Biden wrote in an email.

The email from White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients said that with the end of the COVID-19 health emergency and with fall approaching, agencies will be implementing increases in the amount of in-person work. “This is a priority of the President — and I am looking to each of you to aggressively execute this shift in September and October,” Zients wrote.

The latest White House missive follows a similar one in April that called for leaders to increase “meaningful” in-person work, particularly at agency headquarters in order to improve customer service, according to The Washington Post. The move doesn’t mean an end to  remote or hybrid work among federal employees, according to the email; Instead, it’s calling for workers to spend more time in the office “to build a strong culture, trust, and interpersonal connections.”

Due to remote work policies, only 25% or less of federal buildings were fully utilized at one point last year, according to a Government Accountability Office study of three separate weeks from January to March 2022. “Underutilized office space has financial and environmental costs,” the GAO said. “Federal agencies spend about $2 billion a year to operate and maintain federal office buildings regardless of the buildings’ utilization. In addition, agencies spend about $5 billion annually to lease office buildings.”

The Biden edict mirrors a trend in the private sector. Bosses are imposing more strict in-office mandates as new data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showed productivity slumped slightly since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, productivity declined 1.9%, according to BLS, “the sharpest two-year decline in over 75 years of recorded data.”

“While remote work tends to increase individual productivity, in-person work seems to drive collective or collaborative productivity. As a result, leaders in the private sector and government have been calling for more in-person interaction in offices,” said J.P. Gownder, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

There’s a perception — often unproven — that more days in the office will lead to better overall outcomes, according to Gownder.  “But we know that there are diminishing returns to the number of days spent in-office; after a certain point, employees are coming in just for the sake of coming in, rather than for any real collaborative purpose,” he said.

Studies have shown that most bosses believe remote work hurts worker productivity. A survey of 20,000 people in 11 countries by Microsoft this spring found that 85% of business leaders believe the shift to hybrid work made it harder to remain confident employees are being productive.

The dip in productivity was in stark contrast to the pandemic, when it actually rose. Between the second quarter of 2020 and the second quarter of 2021, labor productivity increased by 1.8%, compared with an average annual increase of 1.4% from 2005 to 2019.

According to Kastle Systems, a provider of key fob security technology for 2,600 buildings in 47 states, the 10-city average occupancy rate on the company’s so-called Back to Work Barometer  was 49.2% last week. While it was a slight drop from a week earlier when occupancy was at 50.2%, it remained close to the highest occupancy rate since March 2020. Additionally, every city on the Back to Work Barometer saw occupancy gains this year. (The Barometer includes cities such as Chicago, New York City metro, Dallas metro, Los Angeles and San Francisco.)

On average, employees save 72 minutes in commute time every day when they’re allowed to work from home rather than in the office, according to the Global Survey of Working Arrangements (G-SWA) study performed by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). And recent studies have shown when employees don’t commute, they more often use the additional time to work.

On average, those who work from home devote 40% of their commute time savings to primary and secondary job tasks, 34% to leisure, and 11% to caregiving.

Research from Gartner found flexible hybrid-work models outperform others in terms of employee outcomes such as intent to stay at an organization, fatigue, and performance. All three translate directly to an organization’s bottom line.

“Progressive organizations recognize this; they will not only be able to capitalize on the benefits of hybrid work, but also be employers of choice on the talent market,” Caitlin Duffy, director of Gartner Research’s HR practice, said in an earlier interview. “Employees want the autonomy, flexibility, and freedom to integrate work into their lives in the way that works best for them, and organizations can provide it by transitioning to hybrid and remote-work models.”

While hybrid has won in the marketplace overall and is an effective policy for many employers and employees, there are trade-offs to  mandating more days in the office, according to Forrester’s Gownder.

“Altogether, agencies must balance the flexibility that drives up employee experience and employee productivity against the cultural and team-based gains associated with in-office work, according to Gownder. One example, he said, is the US government needs to take care to remain competitive in labor markets. 

“It can’t always pay as high a salary as the private sector, so benefits like effective, generous hybrid work policies can help it attract and retain top talent,” Gownder said.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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