President Biden is asking his Cabinet to “aggressively execute” plans for federal employees to return to their offices for work this fall after years of remote work prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The White House’s push to cut down remote work comes after a Government Accountability Office report published last month found that 17 of the 24 federal agencies used, on average, an estimated 25% or less of the capacity of their headquarters buildings.
Every Cabinet member received an email last week urging them to bring federal workers back to the office, according to Axios. This, as even some senior administration officials never fully moved to Washington, D.C., including former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
“We are returning to in-person work because it is critical to the well-being of our teams and will enable us to deliver better results for the American people,” White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients wrote in the email.
“As we look towards the fall, and with the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, your agencies will be implementing increases in the amount of in-person work for your team,” he continued. “This is a priority of the President — and I am looking to each of you to aggressively execute this shift in September and October.”
Zients said the update will not eliminate remote work but instead would combine the flexibility of working from home “while ensuring we have the in-person time we need to build a strong culture, trust, and interpersonal connections.”
Biden’s wish for more in-person work is felt by several cities and businesses also struggling to bring workers back to the office after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Americans have grown comfortable with the flexibility telework allows. Even Zoom has asked employees within 50 miles of a company office to return for in-person work at least two days a week on a hybrid schedule.
The president has been discussing, with limited success, efforts to bring federal workers back to the office since the spring of last year. He said in his State of the Union address in March 2022 that “the vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.”
The White House has been gradually reopening up since the summer of 2021, with staff returning and holiday celebrations and White House tours resuming.
The Office of Management and Budget sent guidelines in April for agencies to develop plans to increase in-person work while still allowing some flexibility for telework.
But Zients wants to speed up these plans to reduce remote work. Since taking over as chief of staff in February, Zients has prioritized returning to in-person work to improve the office culture.
Zients opened the White House’s Navy Mess for in-person dining in March for the first time since Biden became president. The chief of staff has also started hosting in-person town halls, with a Zoom option for people who cannot fit in the room, where lower-level staffers may ask questions. Zients’ senior staff meetings in the mornings and evenings are in-person as well, with Zoom options available if needed.
The White House has faced pressure to reduce remote work from congressional Republicans, who have attributed delays and backlogs in agencies’ work to telework. But Democrats have also joined in on demanding federal workers return to their offices, including Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser.
“We agree with the White House that we can deliver more when we come together in person, and we applaud this latest action by President Biden,” Bowser said in a statement Monday to Fox 5 DC.
Bowser previously expressed support for a return to in-person work in her inaugural address in January.
“We need decisive action by the White House to either get most federal workers back to the office most of the time or to realign their vast property holdings for use by the local government, by nonprofits, by businesses, and by any user willing to revitalize it,” she said at the time.
Washington, D.C., has felt the economic impact of telework, as several buildings in the district remain emptier than they once were. Local businesses and politicians in Washington have been pressuring the White House to demand more in-person work.
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