Senate Bill Calls for More Federal Telework Data as Study Shows DC Agencies Using 12 Percent of Office Space

A bipartisan Senate bill introduced on April 3 would increase oversight of federal telework policies after a recent report showed government agency headquarters in Washington, DC are using an average of 12% of their office space. (Committee news release and Public Buildings Reform Board report)

Congressional Push

  • The Telework Transparency Act (S. 4043) from Sens. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Gary Peters (D-MI), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, would require agencies to gather information on how telework impacts agency performance and federal property decisions. (Government Executive, April 8 and Federal News Network, April 3)
  • Last month’s report from the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB) concludes that the “massive scale” of underutilized federal property creates an “outsized opportunity to save money and improve outcomes through property disposals and smarter real estate decisions.” (GlobeSt, April 9 and Bisnow, April 3)

Roundtable Efforts

Jeffrey DeBoer, President and CEO, The Real Estate Roundtable
  • The Real Estate Roundtable wrote to members of the Senate about the need for the federal government to end its “active encouragement of remote working for federal employees” and for federal agencies to return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices. (RER letter to the Senate, April 12, 2023 and Commercial Observer, April 14, 2023)
  • Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, sent a similar request to President Biden, noting 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.” (RER letter to President Biden, Dec. 12, 2022)
  • The economic impact of remote work in the public and private sectors will be discussed next week during The Roundtable’s Spring Meeting in Washington, DC. (Roundtable-level members only).  

Policymaker guests will include House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), House Financial Services Committee Member Rep. French Hill (R-AR), and Jared Bernstein, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

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GAO Reports All Federal Agencies at Less Than 50 Percent Occupancy

Government Accountability Office

More than half of the federal workforce is not working in their agency offices, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) released a list this week based on the GAO data that shows federal space utilization percentages range from a low of 7% to 49% with most agencies using less than 30%. (Agency list | Sen. Ernst news release | DailyMail, Dec. 6)

Federal Employees’ Return to Office

  • The GAO statistics released by Sen. Ernst, the Ranking Member of the Senate Small Business & Entrepreneurship Committee, covers 24 agencies for one week between January and March 2023. Sen. Ernst told Federal News Network this week that she is pushing the federal government to get workers back to their offices or sell their unused space.
  • In August, Ernst demanded investigations into federal departments and agencies to determine the impact of telework on the delivery and response times of government services. That same month, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients directed cabinet officials to increase the return of federal employees to their offices. (Federal News Network, Nov. 30 | (Government Executive, Aug. 7 | Roundtable Weekly, Aug. 11)
  • Since the pandemic, Congress has held multiple hearings and introduced legislation in both the House and Senate about the government’s remote work policies. (Roundtable WeeklyDec. 1)
  • The General Services Administration’s (GSA) Robin Carnahan recently told the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability that her agency sees an opportunity to reduce the government’s real-estate footprint by up to 30% in the coming years. (Federal News Network, Nov. 14)

Roundtable Response

  • RER Chair John Fish (Chairman & CEO, Suffolk), above, expressed the industry’s concern about government employees’ reluctant return to their offices in last week’s Wall Street Journal. “Other parts of the country with large federal workforces are also struggling to bring back workers. Whether you’re talking about downtown Boston, or Denver or Northern Virginia, occupancy is down substantially,” said Fish. (WSJ, Nov. 28)

Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer has consistently emphasized that federal policies promoting remote work undermine the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses. The Real Estate Roundtable has urged President Biden and national policymakers to end government policies that encourage remote working arrangements for federal employees. (RER letter to President BidenDec. 2022; RER letter to Senate, April 2023)

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The Administration and Congress Continue to Urge Federal Agencies to Return to the Office

Although the Biden administration and Congress continue to urge federal agencies to end pandemic-era telework policies, officials acknowledge they have yet to reach their return-to-office objectives, with only about half of cabinet agencies having achieved the goal of workplace return by January. (Axios, Nov. 30)

Congressional and Administration Efforts

  • On Wednesday, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability held a hearing titled, “Oversight of Federal Agencies’ Post-Pandemic Telework Policies,” to discuss the current status of telework policies within various federal agencies.
  • White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients has been privately urging cabinet secretaries to address the significant number of federal workers who continue to work remotely, encouraging a shift away from persistent work-from-home practices. (Axios, Nov. 30)
  • RER Chair John Fish (SUFFOLK) (above) was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, voicing the industry’s concern for stalled return to the workplace. “Other parts of the country with large federal workforces are also struggling to bring back workers. “Whether you’re talking about downtown Boston, or Denver or Northern Virginia, occupancy is down substantially,” said Fish. (WSJ, Nov. 28)
  • Unions representing federal workers strongly support work from home and have pushed back against the Biden administration’s workplace return goals. (BGov, Sept. 14; Federal Times, Aug. 7)
  • Since the pandemic, Congress has held multiple hearings and introduced legislation in both the House and Senate aimed at solidifying official government definitions of remote work and enhancing the accountability and transparency of federal telework policies. (Roundtable Weekly, Oct. 20)

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 August, the White House ordered cabinet officials to increase the return of federal employees to their offices. (Roundtable Weekly,Aug. 11)

Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer has repeatedly emphasized that remote working by federal employees is undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses.

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Potential CRE Losses Cited as Major Economic Concern in Fed’s Financial Stability Report

Elevated commercial real estate valuations are increasingly viewed as a near-term risk that could stress the U.S. financial system, according the Federal Reserve’s October 2023 Financial Stability Report. The central bank’s semiannual report also cited inflationary pressures, interest rate increases, and global economic volatility as vulnerabilities—even though survey data was collected before the recent escalation of geopolitical tensions in the Middle East. (Fed’s Financial Stability Report, Oct. 2023)

CRE Risk Emphasized

  • Seventy-two percent of all participants in the Fed’s survey cited the potential for large losses on commercial real estate and residential real estate—along with persistent inflation and monetary tightening­—as major risks.
  • The CRE asset valuation problem noted in the Fed Report is influenced by an ongoing lack of price discovery, which creates significant refinancing challenges. GlobeSt reported Oct 24 on the report, noting that “With transactions down and many sellers holding off, waiting for improved pricing while a lot of buyers look for bargains in distress, it’s hard to tell how much properties should be worth.”

WorkPlace Return Pressure

  • The Fed report warns, “If the economy were to slow unexpectedly … investor risk appetite and asset prices might decline, and valuations in the office building sector appear particularly vulnerable given the ongoing uncertainty surrounding post-pandemic norms regarding return to work. A correction in office property valuations accompanied by even a mild recession could result in significant losses for a range of financial institutions with sizable exposures, including some regional and community banks and insurance companies.”

Additional risks that continued to feature prominently in the Fed survey were associated with the reemergence of banking-sector stress, market liquidity strains, and volatility.

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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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Congress Seeks to Include Legislative Language in Spending Bills Addressing Federal Workers’ Return to Offices

House and Senate lawmakers are looking to change current federal workforce telework policies by including language in annual spending bills under consideration by Congress. Yesterday, a House Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee held a hearing on “Oversight of Federal Agencies’ Post-Pandemic Telework Policies” and efforts to mandate federal workers return to their offices. (BGov, Sept. 14)

Federal Telework

  • 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. 12, 2022)
  • The White House 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. (Government Executive, Aug. 7 | Axios, Aug. 4
  • In the House, Republicans inserted language into the Financial Services-General Government spending bill (H.R. 4664) that would defund any agency that does not return to 2019 telework practices.
  • The House bill states, “Within 30 days of enactment of this Act, the Committee requires Federal agencies to reinstate and apply their pre-pandemic telework policies, practices, and levels in effect as of December 31, 2019, or they cannot obligate or expend funding for fiscal year 2024.”
  • The Senate’s Appropriations bill for FY 2024 (S. 2309) is far more flexible, requiring agencies to only “examine how policies for in-person work, telework, and remote work impact agency productivity and performance as well as how effectively and efficiently agencies are able to carry out their missions and serve the public.” (Government Executive, Sept. 5 and FedWeek, July 18)
  • 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. “You have bureaucrats that are doing bubble baths during their conference calls for work. So you federal employees that are out there, we’re coming after you,” Ernst said recently. (BGov, Sept. 14)

Roundtable Calls for Workplace Return

  • Today Real Estate Roundtable Chairman Emeritus Bill Rudin (Co-Chairman and CEO, Rudin Management Co.) discussed the return-to-office trend in New York City, the challenge of property conversions, the need to increase the housing supply, and other issues facing CRE on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street.

Marcus & Millichap President and CEO, Hessam Nadji and former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, will lead the live webcast discussion on the economic factors, including Federal Reserve policy, impacting the commercial real estate market. DeBoer, Tom McGee, President and CEO of ICSC and Sharon Wilson GĂ©no, President of NMHC will join the conversation as CRE industry leaders. (Register here)

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 â€” 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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Work-From-Home Arrangements Linger, Most Federal Agencies Using Less Than 25% of Office Space

Empty office space

Overall workplace occupancy registered 49.1% last week, according to Kastle’s 10-city Back to Work Barometer, which showed return to office rates vary significantly over the course of the week. Additionally, a recent Department of Labor American Time Use Survey showed that nearly 35% of Americans worked from home on an average day in 2022, down from nearly 40% in 2021. (Axios, June 23)

Public Sector

  • In the public sector, federal government offices remain largely unoccupied, according to a new report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that revealed most agencies are using their headquarters less than a quarter of the time.
  • The GAO report shows that 17 of 24 agencies’ buildings were at 25% capacity or less after an analysis of 21.5 million square feet (SF) of usable federal office space during three weeks of Q1.
  • The empty federal offices have depressed local economies, according to a July 18 Federal News Network (FNN) broadcast. (Listen or read transcript of Federal Drive with Tom Temin)
  • The House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management addressed the GSA report in a July 13 hearing called “When the Lights Are On but No One’s Home: An Examination of Federal Office Space Utilization”)

Roundtable Response

RER President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer

  • In April, The Real Estate Roundtable wrote to members of the Senate about the need the federal government to end its “active encouragement of remote working for federal employees” and for federal agencies to return to their pre-pandemic workplace practices. (RER letter to the Senate, April 12)
  • Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, above, sent a similar request to President Biden last December, noting 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, Dec. 12, 2022).

A study released in May by New York University and Columbia University researchers shows how the disruption from remote work could impact municipalities. “The fiscal hole left by declining office and retail property tax revenues would need to be plugged by raising tax rates or cutting government spending. Both would affect the attractiveness of the city as a place of residence and work.” (Work From Home and the Office Real Estate Apocalypse, May 15 and Roundtable Weekly, May 26)

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New Research Shows Severe Impact of Remote Work on Office Sector

empty office remote work

An updated study released this month by New York University and Columbia University researchers concludes “remote work is shaping up to massively disrupt the value of commercial office real estate in the short and medium term.” (Work From Home and the Office Real Estate Apocalypse, May 15) 

Municipal Finances and Financial Stability 

  • The researchers—Arpit Gupta, Vrinda Mittal, and Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh—find a $506.3 billion value destruction for the U.S. office market between 2019 and 2022. Post-pandemic hybrid work arrangements have led to large drops in lease revenue, occupancy, lease renewal rates, and market rents in the commercial office sector, according to the updated research, affecting CRE cash flow at a time when the Federal Reserve has aggressively raised interest rates. (Fortune, May 25)
  • The report notes, “Higher quality buildings were buffered against these trends due to a flight to quality, while lower quality office is at risk of becoming a stranded asset. These valuation changes have repercussions for local public finances and financial stability.”
  • The report also concludes that the fiscal hole left by declining office and retail property tax revenues may lead municipalities to increase taxes or cuts in spending—negatively affecting the attractiveness of cities as places to live and work, which may risk the activation of an “urban doom loop.” The authors note, “Future research should explore these implications and study the role for local and federal policy.” 

Moody’s Outlook 

Moody's Chief Economist Mark Zandi

  • Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi, above, noted in a series of tweets this week that CRE prices fell in the first quarter of 2023 for the first time in more than a decade, led by drops in multifamily residences and office buildings, according to Moody’s Repeat Sales Index. (Zandi will be a guest speaker at The Roundtable’s all-member Annual Meeting on June 13 in Washington, DC.)
  • “Lots more price declines are coming with prices expected to be off 10% peak-to-trough by mid-decade. Demand for space is weak due to remote work and online retailing. Lots of multifamily units are being built. And credit to refinance and purchase properties is tough to get,” Zandi tweeted.
  • Bloomberg reported on May 17 that Zandi noted if the US economy slips into a recession, the price declines could get worse. “We’re on a razor’s edge here,” Zandi said. 

Roundtable Request for Flexibility 

Roundtable Chair John Fish

  • The Real Estate Roundtable continues to emphasize the need for federal regulators to allow more flexibility for lenders and borrowers to restructure commercial real estate loans facing potential default—as the Federal Reserve reported recently that CRE poses a potential risk to financial stability. (Fed’s Financial Stability Report, May 2023)
  • Real Estate Roundtable Chair John Fish, above, (Chairman and CEO, SUFFOLK) summarized the industry’s views in a May 9 MarketWatch article, noting that the Fed and regulatory agencies should grant more flexibility for borrowers, including corporate real estate developers, to restructure CRE loans. 

In addition to Mark Zandi and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Smith (R-MO), The Roundtable’s Annual Meeting next month will also include Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-TN), and other policymakers. 

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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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