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Underreporting Telework: Agencies Keep Office Space

by Keith Fentress / June 11, 2024

As a seasoned professional in space planning and programming for government buildings, including courts, office buildings, and public safety, I have observed a significant trend in my work over the past few years. When engaging in space planning, many government departments tend to underreport teleworkers. Depending on an agency's mission, the hybrid workforce can be as applicable to the government as to private industry. Thus, reporting telework accurately is critical to the office layout.

Telework and Space Planning

Teleworking is important to space planning because if done regularly (as opposed to episodically), it influences the amount of space a department needs. This affects both the quantity of space and the cost to the taxpayer.

The Right Number of People

Space needs to be planned for the number of people who regularly come into the office. If, for instance, 30% of the workforce is teleworking on an average day, space needs can be significantly reduced, leading to substantial cost savings in building out the space.

The Right Type of Space

Space influences the way we work. The right complement of spaces, including workstations, support spaces, and special requirements, not only accommodates our work but also promotes a department’s mission and operations. Regular telework can influence the number and types of spaces needed to successfully support operations.

The Right Space for the Culture

While hybrid offices are appealing, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution for every department. The nature of the work determines whether teleworking, workstation sharing, and hoteling are feasible. When hybrid offices are an option, it is vital to design the space to foster employee connectivity and to promote the department's culture.

Teleworking can reduce office space, but it places a greater demand on the space to support culture. In these instances, coming to the office must be purposeful and not an arbitrary requirement, underscoring the need for strategic space planning that aligns with a department's values and mission.

Telework Truth

I do not have exact numbers, but anecdotally, I would say that 60% of the federal, state, and local government departments I have worked with in the past two years significantly overrepresent the number of people in the office regularly. In other words, they claim that employees come into the office far more than they do. I have worked with over 50 departments during this time. Here are some of the reasons why I think this phenomenon is occurring.

Leadership Perception

The pandemic brought about significant changes and disruptions in the workplace. During this time, teleworking became necessary, and ever since, government departments have grappled with the challenge of encouraging employees to return to the office. This struggle has led many departments to issue memoranda outlining the return-to-work process.

As we move further away from the pandemic, these memoranda are becoming more directive, some even demanding the return to work. However, many employees have resisted returning to work, placing departmental managers in an awkward position between leadership and their employees. This awkwardness often plays out when performing space planning and is a key reason I feel change management is important in planning space needs.

When I ask managers how often their employees telework and discuss the potential impact it could have on space, I usually receive one of these responses:

  • Our directive says that we must be at work at least “X” number of days per week. “X” is typically three or four days per week, but it is often full-time.
  • Our employees are teleworking, but not regularly.
  • Our office is still transitioning and trying to determine a telework policy.

These statements indicate that the leadership and departments are not yet aligned with telework practices. As I tour the spaces during the planning sessions, I typically find them 50% or more vacant.

In these cases, underreporting telework serves a purpose. It masks when employees are not following leadership's return-to-work expectations. Managers may think that if they do not acknowledge the frequency of telework, leadership will perceive that employees are diligently working in their offices.

Teleworking often has the stigma of leading to lower productivity and a lack of workforce discipline. Managers are less concerned about over-planning their space needs than admitting the difficulty of getting everyone to return to work to meet leadership’s expectations.

Coping with Uncertainty

Since no one could have predicted the pandemic, the same is true about the future after the pandemic. To avoid perception problems and to cope with future uncertainty, government departments often desire to plan space needs for the full complement of personnel, regardless of how many are teleworking.

In doing so, managers try to be as flexible as possible regarding the future. If a plan for a full complement of spaces is made, the space will accommodate whatever employee practices or leadership policies emerge.

This “hedge-your-bets” practice enables departments to promote flexibility as a strategy since future events are uncertain. Thus, flexibility becomes a notion that overrides the number of people teleworking and the cost of building out the full space complement.

Gaming the System

Some managers try to game the space planning process. After all, space is a resource. I have seen managers do this by projecting a large increase in personnel that defies budgetary practicalities, predicting considerably more support space than their office needs, and now underreporting teleworkers. Underreporting teleworkers means that managers will be planning the need for more space than necessary.

The results are the same as those of managers coping with uncertainty. However, the motivations are different. These managers understand the scarcity of resources and try to influence the space planning process to obtain more for themselves.

This follows the logic of asking for more than you need, realizing there will likely be cutbacks. If you only ask for what you need and it gets cut, you must go without enough resources. This is unfortunate in space planning, but it is often human nature. 

What Can Be Done

Having a clear telework policy is the number one thing leadership needs to do before space planning begins. This policy should include who can telework, how often, and how telework impacts the need for space.

Who Teleworks

Leadership must first define a clear telework policy. The lack of a policy results in workplace confusion. When no clear policy exists, departments interpret the lack of direction differently, resulting in planned office layouts that vary greatly from leadership expectations. Several clients have even stopped planning space during design to negotiate the proper telework and related space policies with leadership, resulting in costly delays.

The policy should start by defining who can telework and how often. Different labor categories will likely have differing abilities to complete work outside the office. In addition to labor categories, department culture should also be considered when determining who will telework.

I have found both surveys and focus groups can also help departments understand the number of employees who would like to telework and whether they feel management supports remote work.

How Often

Once you identify the labor categories that can telework, the next step is to determine how often. This has a lot to do with the organization's culture. A traditional organization will likely want more people in the office, which is typically the case with government departments. However, I have seen many exceptions where government workers telework half-time or more without sacrificing public service.

There may be some give-and-take, as requiring people to be in the office a lot may mean you lose key personnel who thrive on the autonomy and life balance of telework. If you require employees to come in too little, it may lead to leadership perceptions that the work is not being performed.

The best approach is to start in the middle, requiring employees to be in the office five days over a two-week pay period. Reevaluate the policy once or twice a year after gathering performance data and adjust telework accordingly.

Space Impact

The final portion of the telework policy defines its impact on space. I believe an employee who teleworks three days or less per week should not have a dedicated office or workstation. The exception to this view is when managers require everyone to be in the office on the same days. I understand the sentiment of bringing everyone together, but this approach does not allow for space consolidation or savings.

When telework occurs three days or more per week, a general rule of thumb is to plan for 60% of the workstations needed for all employees. This is a gross generalization, as all offices are different, but it is a place to start space planning concepts.

I also like to plan for sufficient conference rooms, collaboration spaces, and focus rooms so that there is a seat for every employee when all employees must report to the office at once. In other words, not everyone will have a dedicated workstation, but they would all have a place to sit.

Final Thoughts

Overrepresenting the number of people in office during space planning undermines the effort. Either the office space will be over planned and tax dollars will be wasted, or leadership will question the space planning results often leading to project delays and departmental tensions. The best practice is to be transparent about the actual amount of telework and to communicate this to leadership.

Managers should gather accurate data on telework through a workstation reservation system, occupancy sensors, badge data, IT data, or by regularly counting people in the office. Report on who is working remotely and who is working on-site.

By gathering precise data on telework and office occupancy, managers can ensure that office space planning is both efficient and cost-effective. This transparency helps prevent unnecessary expenditures and fosters trust between departments and leadership. Ultimately, accurately reporting these figures aids in evaluating and refining telework policies for better organizational performance.

__________________________________________________________________________________Government Hybrid Office Guide

Tags: Telework

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include change management, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys adventure travel and outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.