Managers struggling to call workers back to empty offices should cheer up, because it could be worse. A new report shows that federal government buildings have reached their own tier of ghost town, making corporate towers look bustling in comparison. These vacancies could be either a burden or small gift to taxpayers, depending on how agencies respond.
A report last week from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that, on average, the headquarters of federal agencies are about 20% occupied each week. The finding is based on surveys conducted with 24 agencies between January and March. These headquarters are a small share of the federal government’s 511 million square feet of office space, but the GAO took them as a representative sample.
The near-uniform emptiness across different agencies is another way the government stands out. Weekly attendance in the bottom quarter of surveyed offices is a measly 9%, and not one reported attendance above 50%. Compare that with corporate offices in New York, where average in-office attendance surpassed 50% last month, according to turnstile operator Kastle Systems.
The GAO notes that the government had a head start in the empty-office trend because many federal buildings were little-used long before Covid. For one surveyed agency, the report found that “if all assigned staff entered the building on a single day, it would still only use 67 percent of the building’s capacity.”
These inefficiencies cost taxpayers, who pony up about $7 billion a year to lease, operate and maintain federal office space. And though agencies face no profit motive to manage space wisely, a recent federal law is meant to serve that purpose.
The Federal Property Management Reform Act of 2016 mandates that the executive branch create and carry out annual plans to reduce its unused space. The law was passed by a GOP Congress and signed by President Obama, but it has spurred little action. The GAO report says the law has “improved the focus on real property management,” yet concedes that “federal agencies continue to have unneeded space.”
House Republicans seeking a small victory could demand that the Office of Management and Budget enforce the law and help federal agencies shed some of their extra space. The merits of working from home may be up for debate, but there’s no need to fund empty offices from the public purse.
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