In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has floated a proposal to offer tax credits to employers who allow workers to work from home, primarily as a strategy to reduce congestion on Boston-area roads. Similarly, there are environmental benefits to telecommuting: working from home reduces carbon emissions by reducing the number of people driving to work every day. This comes on top of the fact that people who work from home tend to be more satisfied with their work, along with being more productive.
An easy way to expand telework nationally would be for the federal government to allow more federal workers to work from home. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, this policy change would force the federal government to reconsider how it manages office space, all the while not hurting the quality of public service provision.
The easy political pay-for of going after “waste, fraud, and abuse” is not enough to address the underlying drivers of long-term deficits. That being said, those aren’t good things either. And one area of waste is federal building administration. The federal government portfolio includes nearly 500,000 structures and 2.8 billion square feet of office space. According to a report from the Government Accountability Office in 2010 (the last year the government reported this data), the federal government wastes $1.67 billion dollars a year on operating under-occupied or vacant buildings, not to mention the underlying value of the land.
To their credit, over the last decade the executive branch and congress have worked on initiatives and legislation to eliminate excess real property. The Reduce the Footprint initiative launched in 2015 has resulted in the reduction of about 16.2 million square feet of office and warehouse space and $166 million in cost avoidance. However, about half of the federal government’s real property is controlled by the Department of Defense and the executive branch initiative does not include this property in their inventory due to unreliable data – leaving a massive opportunity for consolidation and savings.
Congress also passed the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act (FASTA) in 2016 which established a board that will seek $750 million worth of excess federal property to dispose. Great idea, except it took over two and a half years to simply appoint members to the board and little progress has been made in divesting federal property through this fast track process.
In total, GAO has made 63 reform recommendations in this area that have not been met and has continued to list federal property management as a high risk since 2001. There is plenty of room for more improvement.
Additionally, the federal government also spends more on office space than it needs to by headquartering a lot of government agencies in the District of Columbia, an area with very high real estate costs. And while it does make sense for some government agencies to locate near the policymaking process, research agencies whose day-to-day work doesn’t require facetime with politicians don’t need to be in the capital. For example, the Center for Disease Control’s mission is not hampered by locating in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifting more jobs to economically distressed areas with lower cost-of-living would make sense.
Slow adoption of telework is the third way that the federal government wastes money on real estate. In a 2013 paper from the economic research firm Global Workplace Analytics, the federal government could save $14 billion a year with a broad federal telework policy. That includes $3.6 billion in reduced real estate spending, $5.8 billion in higher worker productivity, $1.4 billion in lower absenteeism and turnover, along with slightly lower costs in both healthcare (by reducing stress) and transit (by reducing the use of the Transit Benefit Program).
The environmental benefits shouldn’t be forgotten either. According to Global Workplace Analytics’ paper, expanding telework for federal workers could reduce annual carbon emissions by roughly 640,000 metric tons. Assuming a social cost of carbon of $45 per ton, that means almost $29 million a year in environmental benefits from a policy that reduces government spending and increases individual autonomy. That calculation only includes the reduction in fuel consumption from those telecommuters, and not potential additional emissions reductions from other drivers on the road thanks to less congestion.
Furthermore, putting these policies in place simultaneously would lead some to work better. For example, while shifting a couple USDA research agencies from D.C. to Kansas City might be smart policy, some employees of the agencies are upset about moving (which is understandable—switching cities can be hard). Instead, moving the main office to Kansas City while at the same time offering as many current employees the opportunity to work remotely would help assuage those frustrations while reducing both the size and per-square-foot cost of the physical office.
While again, expanding telework isn’t anywhere close to a solution to the federal budget deficit, slow productivity growth, or climate change, it’s a win-win-win policy with cross-ideological and nonpartisan appeal.