Will Remote Work Drain the Swamp?


Donald Trump’s campaign rallies leading into the 2016 election were energized by his pledge to “Drain the Swamp” in the Nation’s Capital. Little did rally-goers know how politics and circumstance would stand in the way of this top Trump administration goal—a complete reorganization, downsizing and dispersion of bureaucracy. The only physical manifestations of those efforts were the relocation of two USDA research agencies to Kansas City and the Bureau of Land Management to Grand Junction, Colorado.

Earlier mandates to downsize the federal government’s real estate footprint (most implemented before Trump entered office) have had greater effect on reducing the size of the federal government in Washington, DC—at least if you define that by the government’s physical presence. From year-end 2012 to the present, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) reduced its overall real estate footprint by roughly 15 million square feet. All of this reduction occurred in the leased inventory (according to the most recent statistics available from GSA, owned space increased slightly) and, as I’ve observed in a previous article, the significant leased space reduction was made possible precisely because of the high concentration of federal offices in Washington, DC, and the greater potential for consolidation. Based on the most recent national GSA data, 10.7 MSF of the 16.1 MSF leased space reduction has been centered on the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Put another way, the size of DC’s GSA lease inventory declined by 19% while the rest of the nation declined by just 3%.

Much of this inventory reduction (and swamp draining?) in the National Capital Region has occurred not because the government is getting smaller by most traditional metrics such as employment or spending. Still, it is getting smaller because fewer people are being asked to come into the office every day. This was true even before the start of the pandemic; in fact, the catalyst for this trend can be traced to the passage of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010. This law made nearly half of the civilian federal workforce eligible to telework at least part of the time. In the years since, telework became the primary means by which agencies were able to reduce their office space and achieve cost reduction goals. Even so, by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic only 3% of federal workers were teleworking full time. At the peak of the pandemic, that figure rose to 59% (with some agencies topping 90% telework).

At this point, we should observe that there is a difference between “telework” (or “telecommuting” as it’s sometimes called) and “remote work.” Telework is the term generally used to describe a working environment where an employee works from home or some other off-site location that is geographically proximate to that employee’s office, enabling that employee to participate periodically in in-office activities. Remote work is differentiated because the federal employee is required to visit their primary agency worksite rarely, if at all. Under that circumstance geographic co-location isn’t necessary, enabling an employee to work from anywhere.

Now that the COVID-19 crisis is receding, it’s becoming clear that many federal workers will continue full-time teleworking schedules. The pandemic not only accelerated the adoption of telework, but it has also given rise to remote work, which could cause further downsizing in the Washington, DC area (and likely other cities too).

Guidance issued last week by the Biden Administration establishes policy formally enabling widespread adoption of telework and remote work. On June 10th the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and GSA issued a joint memorandum with the subject line: “Integrating Planning for a Safe Return of Federal Employees and Contractors to Physical Workspaces with Post-Reentry Personnel Policies and Work Environment.” The memorandum requires that each agency provide return-to-work plans and it specifically stipulates that “agency leaders can leverage issues such as telework, remote work, and flexible work schedules as tools in their broader strategies for talent recruitment and retention, and for advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the Federal workforce.” The memorandum also allows for alternative work schedules that would render time zones inconsequential. Under this policy, many DC-area bureaucrats may be presented with the opportunity to pack up and move west, or south, or north, or even overseas while still maintaining their federal jobs.

Early indications are that agencies will take advantage of this. Sydney Rose, Chief Human Capital Officer at the Department of Labor (DOL), testified back in November at a hearing of the Senate Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management subcommittee that DOL began advertising many jobs nationwide, rather than tied to particular work locations. Asked about the effectiveness of hiring remote workers, Rose said “It absolutely would work, and it does work … I’ve got an applicant pool that is the entire United States, not just the Washington, DC metro area.” Congressional members are attracted to the benefits as well, especially if it is their constituents who are hired. In this same hearing, the subcommittee chairman Senator James Lankford (R-OK) observed that “Oklahoma has a much lower cost of living than Northern Virginia…There’s a cost savings there…and there’s ready workforce.” And, significantly, unions are beginning to express support too, removing a traditional hurdle to bold workplace re-envisioning.

This is not exactly the Drain the Swamp vision Trump had in mind back in 2016, but it does serve to achieve some of the same goals. His administration sought the wholesale realignment and relocation of agencies and that was met with strong partisan (and sometimes bi-partisan) resistance. Had he simply reframed the issue to one of equity, inclusion, and talent retention, the pandemic offered the perfect means to sell it. Now President Biden’s spending ambitions could expand the federal presence generally, but ironically expanded remote work could siphon employment away from the nation’s capital more quickly and effectively than in any previous administration.

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