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Will Government Buildings Be Empty After the Pandemic?

COVID-19 proved even to skeptics that a lot of government business can be done from anywhere. So, what happens to all the physical spaces that state and local governments invested in to house their workforce in California?

The following is an excerpt from a more comprehensive article that first appeared in Government Technology, sister publication to Techwire.

Many state and local CIOs are coming to the realization that the sudden shift to remote work brought on by the pandemic in March 2020 could become a permanent aspect of 21st century life, with wide-ranging implications.

Kate Lister, president of Carlsbad-based consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, said that traditionally, state and local government has been behind on the telework curve.

“The resistance in government and elsewhere has been the middle management attitude that you have to be seen and have butts in seats. … It’s just that managers don’t trust their employees, and government, more than a lot of places, has that command-and-control nature,” she said.

But the widespread adoption of remote work starting last year is changing minds. “Forced into it, they find that it’s working very well, and productivity and employee engagement are up,” Lister added.

CIOs who are thinking about reversing remote work policies should perhaps think twice, Lister said, citing a survey of U.S. Department of Education employees after a telework policy was reversed in 2018. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said the telework rollback had hurt morale, while only 2 percent felt it had a positive effect. In addition, 75 percent did not feel being back in the office had improved collaboration, and 86 percent said they knew someone who had left or was considering leaving the agency because of the telework rollback.

Across the state, CIOs are working with facilities and real-estate executives to understand the long-term impact of the pandemic on their physical space needs.

“We are definitely encouraging and working with departments to identify positions that can telework full and part time post-pandemic, which will lead not only to space savings, but also to cost and energy savings as well,” said Jason Kenney, deputy director of the Real Estate Services Division for California’s Department of General Services. The state recently built three office buildings, with more in early construction, but Kenney points out that even before the pandemic, those buildings were designed for flexibility.

“Back in 2016, when we really started ramping up on the building that’s been happening in Sacramento, we recognized that we’re building a building that’s going to last 150 years,” Kenney said. “We wanted to make sure that the space planning was telework-enabled. The way we handled the IT infrastructure in the building included a push toward worker mobility within the buildings themselves. The way we emphasize collaboration drove the ability to work anywhere in the building. The way we equipped conference rooms, with every room having a video monitor or projector, was intended to be a bridge between the work of today and the telework of tomorrow.”

The state is focusing on consolidating agencies into the new buildings, and while some departments may grow, there are definitely those that are not renewing the leases they currently have, Kenney said. He gave this example of the impact: One new building, pre-COVID, was slated for 3,250 employees. But because the California Natural Resources Agency and its departments have embraced telework, they are now projecting the building could accommodate 4,400 workers.

“All of that, ultimately, is driven by telework,” Kenney said. “And we didn’t have to do anything. It was largely just rearranging how people fit into the building.”

At the southern end of the state, meanwhile, the 134-member enterprise IT team of the city of San Diego has been working from home for a year, and CIO Jonathan Behnke doesn’t yet have any specific return-to-work plan in place.

“We still have many staff members who have to go through the vaccination process,” he said in mid-March, “so at this point, we’re still taking a wait-and-see approach.”

Behnke said, however, that it’s likely the team will adopt some sort of hoteling model.

“We already have some office space constraints,” he added, “and the remote work model has proven itself in the past year, so we’ve got all the right tools in place to explore it further.”

The city has a large real-estate footprint, with around 400 locations, Behnke said.

“As we look at the big picture, there are common spaces in our downtown campus that might be leveraged differently.”

The decision about remote work longer term also will require alignment across the city’s executive team, and leadership in key departments like human resources and real-estate assets.

“We want to ensure that we provide a high level of public service that exceeds or meets what we were providing before the pandemic, and we want to make sure we’re providing a safe and effective environment for our employees and the residents and businesses that we serve,” Behnke added.

The city’s Performance and Analytics Department conducted an employee sentiment survey and continues to do periodic updates to help department heads evaluate opportunities and areas of concern.

“They surveyed city departments about remote work tools and the technology that they need to be effective,” Behnke said. “We’ve been using that feedback to shape the services that we’ve provided the employees who are working remotely.”

He noted that workers in certain IT specialties are difficult to recruit and retain.

“If the private-sector market is letting people work from home three days a week and are having a lot more flexibility in their schedules, then in the public sector, we have to match that,” he added, “so we’re going to have to watch the larger market to see how trends develop.”

Lister agrees that as they compete with the private sector for talent, CIOs are going to have to offer flexible work options.

“When most companies are offering this and 95 percent of their people say they want it, if government agencies don’t offer it, they’re just going to be looking at the back of their employees’ heads as they walk out the door.”