One widely-discussed result of the COVID-19 pandemic is a massive increase in the share of the United States workforce that works from home. The virus forced companies to invest in work from home technology, creating the infrastructure for continued remote work options, especially among white collar workers, once the virus abates.
The federal government should also work to make it easier for its workers to telecommute. As I wrote back in October of last year, expanding remote work options for the national workforce would help the government save on real estate costs, as well as increasing productivity. Unfortunately, bureaucrats are currently skeptical of making telework more regularly available once the virus abates. They’re making a mistake.
The Trump administration’s skepticism and often hostility to telework predates the current crisis.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, for example, raised concerns that employees working from home slack off more, and that telecommuting reduces productivity. However, the evidence is not on Perdue’s side. Instead, there are three main reasons why allowing federal employees more telework options is a good idea.
Remote work can help employers—including the Feds—save money through three channels: higher worker productivity, lower real estate and other overhead costs, and lower absenteeism. According to a 2013 paper from Global Workplace Analytics, an economic research group, a broad expansion of federal telework would have saved taxpayers $14 billion a year.
Even prior to the current crisis, 81 percent of General Services Administration (GSA) employees worked remotely at least once in 2018. This yielded $30 million in savings from real estate and administrative costs.
When it comes to telework, there are some upfront costs: as RAND noted recently, employers switching to telework have to buy technology to facilitate remote work, in some cases out of concern for cybersecurity. However, the pandemic forced many agencies to make these investments as part of the $46 billion in supplemental funding they received in the CARES Act. These investments include $300 million each for the Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration, and $497 million for the Department of Interior to produce telework technology. When the virus wanes as a concern, agencies should keep this technology functioning to continue to make telework an option wherever possible.
While the evidence is mixed, most research on remote work shows that workers actually (on average) become more productive. There are some downsides, particularly for people who work remotely every day of the week for a long period of time, but telework does not have to be every day, for everyone.
So far, it looks like telecommuting has made the federal workforce more effective. A May survey from the Federal News Network found that 52 percent of federal employees felt that they were more productive from home, while 40 percent said they saw no difference in productivity. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf agreed with this assessment, saying that while initially some feared that there would be a dropoff in work quality, he’s seen “great efficiencies” since the switch.
Attracting New Workers
The civil service is aging. According to the Office of Personnel Management, as of 2019, almost 15 percent of the federal workforce is over 60 years old, while just 7.5 percent is under 30. When those older workers retire, the government may face a staffing problem. Now, for people interested in reining in federal spending, that might not seem like a bad thing. But using retirements as a tool to shrink governments is foolish. For example, in a regulatory agency, a smaller workforce doesn’t mean fewer regulations, it means fewer people managing regulatory compliance. Red tape would become more painful for businesses, as an understaffed agency would force longer approval processes. As libertarian economist Tyler Cowen has emphasized recently, limited government doesn’t have to mean incompetent government.
Keeping work from home options in place is a great way to make the public sector a more attractive landing spot for young people, as people currently entering the workforce strongly value flexibility, including remote work. Unlike other potential employee perks, however, remote work can help attract new workers while lowering, instead of increasing, costs to taxpayers. Continuing telecommuting as an option at least a few days a week would be a cost-effective way to build a dynamic federal workforce for the future.