Federal government falls short of return-to-office goals

The real estate industry was hoping the federal government would set an example for a return-to-office movement. But that seems unlikely now.

The federal government’s own push to bring workers back to the office has fallen short of its goals, the Wall Street Journal reported. The failure comes despite several pleas to bring government workers back, including a letter sent to cabinet agencies in August.

“We still have work to do,” a spokesperson for Joe Biden’s administration said regarding office returns.

The Government Accountability Office recently conducted a review of two dozen federal agencies, taking a three-week sampling of occupancy at agency headquarters. An estimated 17 agencies — more than two-thirds — used no more than a quarter of their headquarters’ capacities during that span.

Washington, D.C. is getting the brunt of federal office workers’ absences. About 270,000 people in the nation’s capital are employed by the federal government, but the district’s office vacancy rate hit 20.3 percent in the third quarter, according to Cushman & Wakefield, a record for the market.

Some agencies, such as the Department of Veteran Affairs and the U.S. Agency for International Development, have reached their workplace goals. Other agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Patent and Trademark Office, moved in the opposite direction and vacated spaces upon lease expirations.

The costs of federal government office space are high. Agencies spend about $2 billion annually to operate its own buildings and another $5 billion to lease space from private landlords. Those expenses matter little to employees, who want to enjoy the perks given to private employees, including avoiding long commutes and having more hybrid work conveniences.

Even local governments appear to be having an easier time bringing back office workers, or at least are giving employees fewer opportunities to work remotely. Last month, roughly 71 percent of federal agencies offered hybrid policies compared to 59 percent of all government agencies, according to Scoop Technologies.

Republicans in Congress introduced legislation mandating federal employees return to their pre-pandemic schedules.

The General Services Administration manages upwards of 360 million square feet of office space across 8,000 properties.

Holden Walter-Warner

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