Government Balancing the Pros and Cons of Return to Office

In the fall of 2023, the Biden Administration encouraged cabinet secretaries to ramp up the required in-office time for workers. This January, the goal was for more than 400,000 federal employees to be required to be in the office for two or three days per week. The move to more in-person time varies widely across government, with DoD and Intelligence agencies leading the way due to the sensitive nature of their work. When not required due to the nature of the work, the push for in-person staffing in civilian agencies is driven by the desire for tangible and intangible benefits. Policies across defense and civilian agencies are being helpfully tracked by Federal News Network.

Better Use of Office Space

The Government Accountability Office found that, on average, 17 federal agencies use 25% or less of their headquarters office space. This raised calls for setting benchmarks for federal office space utilization, though what that benchmark should be, is up for debate. One line was drawn in the sand with The Utilizing Space Efficiently and Improving Technologies (USE IT) Act, requiring all government office buildings to be at least 60 percent occupied. While it passed the House, additional debate will take place over appropriate occupancy and usage measurements. In the meantime, the White House has proposed devoting $425 million next year to create a real estate optimization program to reorient federal buildings around current space needs and expedite disposal of unneeded buildings. Reimagining how the government uses space impacts how the federal workforce will work.

Improved Collaboration and Productivity

The intangible goals of increased in-office time include improved collaboration and camaraderie among employees. These goals are frequently cited as reasons to develop a hybrid style of work. Many who favor increased in-office time cite the need for new employees to better connect to the mission by interacting with constituents and colleagues alike. The hands-on, live-observation realities of in-office work are especially beneficial to young and new workers looking to advance in their careers.

The Risks of In-Office Mandates

While younger workers may benefit the most from in-office interactions, they are also the group least in favor of strict in-office mandates. Gen Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) will make up 25% of the global workforce by 2025. The government needs to walk a careful line to attract and retain these younger workers to meet workforce needs for cyber skills as well as diversity.

A disdain for in-office mandates extends beyond generations. A study of commercial-sector companies found that 42 percent of companies that mandated office returns witnessed a higher level of employee attrition than anticipated. This feeling seems to carry over to the federal workforce, according to a National Science Foundation (NSF) survey that saw 42 percent of respondents say being required to work in the office four days per pay period would significantly affect them. In fact, 27 percent of NSF employees view such in-office expectations as "unworkable," making them consider finding new employment or retiring under these conditions. Similarly, a survey of Environmental Protection Agency employees revealed a strong preference for telework, with 65.9 percent of employees indicating that they would consider leaving the agency if telework and remote work opportunities were diminished. Even prospective employees seem to prefer remote work, with remote job listings on the USA Jobs portal getting 17 times more applications than in-office positions.

To learn more about how the government is balancing in-office and remote work, check out these resources:

  • LEAP HR: Government 2024 (June 4-5, 2024; Denver, CO) - Hear how the most forward-thinking state and local government HR leaders are re-strategizing to attract next-generation talent, employ non-monetary total rewards, create a workforce plan for the great retirement, and recruit and retain all-important public sector workers.
  • FedTalks 2024 (June 5, 2024; Washington, DC) - The federal government is in the midst of a digital transformation that has the potential to reinvent the way agencies provide citizen services and perform their most essential functions. Discuss how leadership, workforce development, innovation, and cultural management remain key to navigating the massive shifts in how agencies serve their missions in the digital age.
  • ATD Government Workforce (September 5, 2024; Washington, DC) - Stay ahead of the curve in talent management and workforce development within the public sector.
  • The Future of The Workforce (white paper) - The strength of any organization rests on its most important asset: its people. However, an aging workforce, cumbersome hiring processes, a lack of consistent reskilling options, and a competitive job market filled with young, digital-savvy candidates make it difficult for the government to meet workforce demands--now and in the future. Hear from experts from various federal agencies on the future of the federal workforce and the critical need to reform federal hiring.
  • Another "New Normal": 5 Tips For Return to Office Work-Life Balance in Government (white paper) - This publication discusses five tips to consider when shifting to in-office work, including the social aspect and finding a mentor, dealing with the ever-growing to-do list, changes in funds needed, and the last resort of a career change.
  • Government Event Outlook (white paper) - This paper looks at the state of professional events and identifies several key principles, including understanding where people are working, that will lead to event success in 2024 and beyond.

Explore more insights for hybrid work; check out additional events and resources on GovEvents and GovWhitePapers.

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