Biden Administration Calls Federal Workers Back to the Office

The retreat on telework came after a critical letter from The Real Estate Roundtable lobbying group

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The Biden administration requested new workplace guidelines from federal agencies on Thursday that would “substantially increase in-person work” in 2023 and beyond. 

The call to bring government workers back to the office came just one day after The Real Estate Roundtable, an industry lobbying group, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate on April 12 blasting the federal government for encouraging remote work and asking lawmakers to suspend federal telework rules. 

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Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, authored the Biden administration’s April 13 letter to dozens of federal agencies asking them to implement new workplace rules and policies by this spring. Among those are guidelines that will offer a roadmap to increase in-person work attendance while also maintaining flexible remote-work operations so as not to harm recruitment efforts. 

“It is the expectation that as a part of these assessments agencies will continue to substantially increase meaningful in-person work at federal offices, particularly at headquarters and equivalents, while still using flexible operational policies as an important tool in talent recruitment and retention,” the letter stated. 

Jeffrey DeBoer, president and chief executive officer of The Real Estate Roundtable, told Commercial Observer that the policy change is an example of positive communication between the government and the private sector. 

“This is certainly good news from the administration, but it’s also not fully reflective of a pre-pandemic set of workplace rules for the federal government,” he said. “So we welcome what they’ve done and we look forward to working with them as they further perfect it.” 

The Biden administration’s sudden shift in policy came hours after a letter from The Real Estate Roundtable to the Senate argued that federal agencies should return to pre-pandemic workplace attendance practices once the federal COVID-19 emergency declarations officially end on May 11. 

“The federal government’s active encouragement of remote working for federal employees should end,” the Roundtable’s letter said. “The executive branch’s current policies are undermining the health of cities, local tax bases, and small businesses.” 

The Roundtable argued that “a significant portion” of the workforce must return to the office to permanently improve the post-COVID economy. The letter told senators that the federal government sets the tone for overall workplace habits and that federal policies that have embraced remote work for the better part of three years have created a negative downstream effect on the private sector across the country. 

“The current policy ignores the negative impact of remote work on cities and communities, labor productivity and U.S. economic competitiveness, the quality of government services, community safety, public transportation systems, and other downstream economic and social consequences,” the letter stated. 

The Real Estate Roundtable sent a similar letter in December requesting an end to remote work for federal employees. The House of Representatives recently passed legislation that supports this position: the Stopping Home Office Work’s Unproductive Problems (SHOW UP) Act.

The decision by The Real Estate Roundtable to target the federal government is not simply a flippant example of private industry attacking the public sector. With more than 43 million square feet leased by the General Services Administration (GSA) — the agency that provides office space to government tenants — the federal government is the largest office tenant in the entire U.S. 

Of the $5.5 trillion of debt that finances the $20 trillion commercial real estate and multifamily market, government-sponsored enterprises comprise $1.1 trillion (or 20 percent) of commercial mortgage holdings, according to The Real Estate Roundtable. 

Federal agencies are expected to develop new work environment action plans within 60 days. However, the Biden administration memorandum offered federal agencies some leeway on granting federal employees an option to work from home.

“Planning should recognize that some operating units have improved performance while using workplace flexibilities, while also optimizing in-person work and strong, sustainable organization health and culture,” director Young wrote. 

Brian Pascus can be reached at bpascus@commercialobserver.com