Senate Bill Introduced to Define Federal Remote Work Roles; GSA Inspector General to Investigate Agency Telework Policies

Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) recently introduced the Telework Reform Act to codify government definitions of remote work and improve the accountability and transparency of federal telework programs. Meanwhile, the Inspector General of the General Services Administration (GSA) confirmed an audit is underway that is focused on how the agency manages telework and remote positions for over one million federal workers. (Lankford news release, Oct. 12 | Senate bill S. 3015) | Washington Times, Oct. 18)

Congressional Efforts

  • The Senate legislation would require teleworking federal employees to return to their offices at least twice per two-week pay period. The bill also includes measures that would enforce annual reviews of telework agreements, mandate training for managers, and improve performance management, data accuracy, and cyber-security. (Government Executive, Oct. 13 and Federal News Network, Oct. 17)
  • Separately, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) is seeking to add an amendment to federal spending bills that would force agencies to provide details on the cost of telework. “There’s no better way to start paying off our nation’s over $33 trillion debt than a clearance sale on unused office space.” (Washington Times, Oct. 18 | BGov, Sept. 14)

  • A recent letter from the GSA’s Inspector General to Sen. Ernst confirmed the IG’s oversight investigation into the agency’s telework policies. (Washington Times, Oct. 18)
  • As the largest landlord in the United States, GSA’s Public Buildings Service (PBS) owns and leases more than 8,800 assets and maintains an inventory of more than 370 million square feet of rentable workspace. (GSA Strategic Plan Fiscal Years 2022-2026)
  • The Senate actions come as a House subcommittee announced it will hold a second hearing on federal agencies’ post-pandemic telework policies. (See Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15 for coverage of the first hearing).
  • Language similar to the SHOW UP Act is included in House-passed appropriations legislation. (Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15)

Roundtable Advocacy

  • The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers for months to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 2022; RER letter to Senate, April 2023)
  • In April, the White House Office of Personnel Management announced it was ending its “maximum telework” directive to federal agencies (Roundtable Weekly, April 21)
  • In August, the White House ordered Cabinet officials to increase the return of federal employees to their offices. (Roundtable Weekly, Aug. 11)

Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, repeatedly has emphasized that remote working by federal employees is undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. (Commercial Observer and The Hill, April 14) 

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White House Directs Agencies to Increase Return of Employees to Federal Offices

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, above, directed Cabinet officials on Aug. 4 to increase the return of federal employees to their offices this fall as a “critical” part of fulfilling the mission of government agencies. The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers for months to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (Government Executive, Aug. 7 | Axios, Aug. 4 | RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12, 2022)

Back-to-Office Fed Policies

  • Zients informed administration officials, “As we look towards the fall, your agencies will be implementing increases in the amount of in-person work for your team. This is a priority of the president — and I am looking to each of you to aggressively execute this shift in September and October.” (Reuters, Aug 5 and The Washington Post, Aug. 4)
  • Empty federal offices have depressed local economies, according to a July 18 Federal News Network (FNN) broadcast. (Listen or read transcript from Federal Drive with Tom Temin)
  • An updated list of agencies’ return-to-office policies is available online through the Federal News Network. Meanwhile, Republican leaders on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee have also urged agency officials to encourage a return-to-office, threatening this week to “resort to compulsory measures” in their probe of federal agencies’ telework polices.

Roundtable Weighs In Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer

  • In an April letter to all U.S. Senators, Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, emphasized, “The executive branch’s current policies are undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. Federal agencies should return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices.” (RER letter to the Senate, April 12).

In a similar letter to President Biden in December, DeBoer noted that federal telework policies were ignoring “the negative impacts of remote work on cities and communities, labor productivity, and U.S. economic competitiveness, as well as the quality of government services.” (Commercial Observer, April 14 and RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12)

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OPM Ends “Maximum Telework” Status for Federal Government

U.S. Office of Personnel Management logo

On Tuesday, the White House Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that it is ending its “maximum telework” directive to federal agencies. 

Federal Workforce and Telework

  • At the outset of the pandemic, OPM issued a government-wide announcement that federal agencies should “operate as ‘open with maximum telework flexibilities to all current telework eligible employees…'” The April 18 memo from OPM Director Kiran Ahuja states that OPM will withdraw its maximum telework directive effective May 15, 2023. (Gov’t. Executive, Apr 19)

  • “COVID-19 is not driving decisions regarding how Federal agencies work and serve the public as it was at the outset of the pandemic,” wrote Director Ahuja in his memo to the chief human capital officers of federal agencies.
  • The announcement by OPM comes on the heels of guidance released last week from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) informing federal agencies that they have 30 days to develop plans to “substantially increase” their employees in-person work at headquarters.

Roundtable Letters Jeff DeBoer RER Meeting

  • Both the OMB and OPM actions followed appeals from The Real Estate Roundtable for the federal government to end its “active encouragement of remote working for federal employees.” (RER letter to the Senate).
  • “The executive branch’s current policies are undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. Federal agencies should return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices,” wrote Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, in an April 12 letter to all U.S. Senators. 

  • In a similar letter to President Biden in December, DeBoer wrote that federal telework polices were ignoring “the negative impacts of remote work on cities and communities, labor productivity, and U.S. economic competitiveness, as well as the quality of government services.”  (Commercial Observer, April 14 and RER letter to President Biden).

  • “This week’s OPM announcement is another important step forward for our communities, small businesses, and local tax bases that depend on vibrant city centers,” said DeBoer. (Roundtable Weekly, April 14)

Low Office Occupancy Persists Empty office

  • Kastle reported on Monday that office occupancy rates for 10 U.S. cities fell to an average of 46%, a weekly dip of 2.2 points that reflects consistent rates of under 50% since last month. (Kastle’s Back to Work Barometer, April 17)
  • Real estate investor Sam Zell commented this week on the state of the office market and remote work, predicting a reversal in telework trends. (GlobeSt, April 20)
  • “We’re all reading about layoffs in the newspapers. It will be interesting to see what percentage of those who lost their jobs worked from home and what percentage of them are people who came into the office,” said Zell. “The office situation will change. People need to be together to develop their skills.”

The impact of return-to-the office on the industry, communities, and the economy will be a focus of discussion during The Roundtable’s April 24-25 Spring Meeting in Washington, DC. (Roundtable-level members only). 

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