IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Will Government Buildings Be Empty After the Pandemic?

COVID-19 proved even to skeptics that a lot of government business can be done from anywhere. So what happens to all the physical spaces that cities and states invested in to house their workforce?

Government building that fades off to the right
Many state and local CIOs are coming to the realization that the sudden shift to remote work brought on by the pandemic in March 2020 could become a permanent aspect of 21st-century life, with wide-ranging implications.

When she sent her 120 full-time employees home in March 2020, Annette Dunn, CIO for the state of Iowa, had a feeling of déjà vu. Just the year before, her entire IT team was forced to work remotely when their Des Moines office building was flooded. In January 2021, the Office of the CIO took over the lease of another state agency for two floors in a privately owned commercial office building that Dunn said was an upgrade over the state-owned building that had been flooded.

“We had just moved into this new office space in January and then we had to go remote again,” she says. One positive aspect was that her team already had experience working remotely, and as of April 2021, 95 percent of those employees were still working from home. “When I go into the office, it’s almost not worth it, because there are maybe one or two people in a two-floor radius,” Dunn said. “It’s very sparse, so I just make sure that I connect with everybody remotely.”

Like most other CIOs, Dunn is now evaluating a number of options for her team and the office space they lease. If the move to telework does continue indefinitely, state and local governments are going to look for savings in office space consolidation.

“It’s a very nice, new facility,” Dunn said, “and I’m very sad to say that I don’t think we’re going to be able to fill it, and we will have to rethink that.”

Also like most other CIOs, Dunn admits she has been pleasantly surprised by how well the current setup seems to be going. “I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if I said remote working doesn’t work, because it has worked,” she said. “That being said, we’ve always had the ability for staff to go into the office, as long as they meet COVID protocols around hand sanitizing, wearing a mask and social distancing.”

In surveying employees, Dunn found that about half are very interested in some level of telework going forward. “If we do that, I can’t justify having this nice, beautiful office space,” she says. If they adopt the “hoteling” concept, in which employees use a booking system to reserve generic desk space on certain days, they might have to give up some of their leased space. While considering how much space to keep in planning for future growth, her office would look into whether another state agency is looking for space to sublease. “Those are the conversations we’re starting to have,” Dunn said.

Kate Lister, president of Carlsbad, Calif.-based consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, said that, traditionally, state and local government has been behind on the telework curve. “The resistance in government and elsewhere has been the middle management attitude that you have to be seen and have butts in seats. … It’s just that managers don’t trust their employees, and government, more than a lot of places, has that command-and-control nature,” she said.

But the widespread adoption of remote work starting last year is changing minds. “Forced into it, they find that it’s working very well, and productivity and employee engagement are up,” Lister added.


The Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 required federal agencies to quantify some of the results from their remote working initiatives each year. The Social Security Administration reported $900 million in real-estate savings in 2018 and 2019, and the General Services Administration reported a 40 percent reduction in space and millions in real-estate and administrative savings.

The resistance in government and elsewhere has been the middle management attitude that you have to be seen and have butts in seats.
Organizations often begin remote work efforts because of the cost savings, Lister added, but end up identifying other positives. “Once they’re in it, they find out that the benefits are far more around human growth. But to get the C-suite’s attention and to get the chief financial officer to sign off, it often takes making a solid business case.”

CIOs who are thinking about reversing remote work policies should perhaps think twice, Lister added. She cited a survey of U.S. Department of Education employees after a telework policy was reversed in 2018. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said the telework rollback had hurt morale, while only 2 percent felt it had a positive effect. In addition, 75 percent did not feel being back in the office had improved collaboration, and 86 percent said they knew someone who had left or was considering leaving the agency because of the telework rollback.


Executives in King County, Wash., are currently devising their “Future of Work” plans. King County offices are closed to the public and employees through the July 4th holiday. “We are looking at what it means to reopen, and what the transition period will be like, because we’re not going to open up and all of a sudden be back to normal,” said CIO Tanya Hannah. “It’s not going to happen that way.”

Working on the IT department’s future, Hannah is currently planning for the 460 employees to stay remote longer term, building in some flexibility as offices reopen. “We’re going to position the teams so they can pick the frequency they wish to come into the office — once a week, biweekly, but a minimum of once a month.”

There are several reasons she’s chosen that particular approach. Some area schools are going to be in hybrid mode in the fall, and she has to worry about attracting and retaining IT talent against that backdrop. “One of the things I’m very concerned about is women leaving the workforce,” Hannah said, noting that it may be necessary to move beyond traditionally flexible options like four 10-hour days to things like job-sharing.

“The Seattle market is competitive, so we need some value propositions. I also want to ensure we have a good organizational culture, because we’re losing that connection the more we stay apart.”

Hannah’s department will move to a hoteling concept for desk space. That decision means that the IT department will be in a much smaller footprint than they were before, likely losing about 10,000 square feet in office space. Beyond IT, King County has cut back on commercially leased space more broadly. “All of this has a major impact on how we’re going to set up,” Hannah said. “I’ve actually given up my office space to accommodate the closure of a building.”


CIOs are working with facilities and real-estate executives to understand the long-term impact of the pandemic on their physical space needs. “We are definitely encouraging and working with departments to identify positions that can telework full and part time post-pandemic, which will lead not only to space savings, but also to cost and energy savings as well,” said Jason Kenney, deputy director of the Real Estate Services Division for the state of California. The state recently built three new state office buildings, with more in early construction, but Kenney points out that even before the pandemic those buildings were designed for flexibility.

If you build it, will they come?

City leaders in Portland, Ore., are trying to figure out how the shift to remote work will impact their shiny new workspaces. After nearly two-and-a-half years and about $200 million of renovation, the Portland Building held a grand reopening celebration on March 19, 2021.

For the previous year, the 14 floors of office space for approximately 1,700 employees have been quiet.

“We’ve witnessed the effectiveness of teleworking, and many bureaus have expressed interest in right-sizing their physical footprint and re-examining who — and what work — can be remote,” said city Chief Administrative Officer Tom Rinehart in a recent presentation. “This year, we will begin charting a path forward, including impacts on the city’s costs, operations and culture.”

Some findings of the city’s research include:
—Telework has worked much better than the city previously thought it could.
—Many employees are likely to have some sort of hybrid schedule that includes a combination of telework and in-person office work.
—The collaboration and support of workplace culture and connection is missing with full-time telework.
—The city needs better ways to support videoconferencing when in the office, with the assumption that some employees may be teleworking and need to be in meetings with those in the office.
—If employees do not have their own assigned workspaces, the city will have several decisions to make, including whether it will turn to shared, reservable hoteling and/or drop-in hoteling spaces, and whether spaces would be broken down by city bureau or available to all city employees. The city must also carefully weigh space needs to minimize the risk involved in making projections about a brand-new office scenario.

“Back in 2016, when we really started ramping up on the building that’s been happening in Sacramento, we recognized that we’re building a building that’s going to last 150 years,” Kenney said. “We wanted to make sure that the space planning was telework-enabled. The way we handled the IT infrastructure in the building included a push toward worker mobility within the buildings themselves. The way we emphasize collaboration drove the ability to work anywhere in the building. The way we equipped conference rooms with every room having a video monitor or projector was intended to be a bridge between the work of today and the telework of tomorrow.”

The state is focusing on consolidating agencies into the new buildings, and while some departments may grow, there are definitely those that are not renewing the leases they currently have, Kenney said. He gave this example of the impact: One new building, pre-COVID, was slated for 3,250 employees. But because the California Natural Resources Agency and its departments have embraced telework, they are now projecting the building could accommodate 4,400 workers. “All of that, ultimately, is driven by telework. And we didn’t have to do anything. It was largely just rearranging how people fit into the building.”


The 134-person enterprise IT team of the city of San Diego has been working from home for a year, and CIO Jonathan Behnke doesn’t yet have any specific return-to-work plan in place. “We still have many staff members who have to go through the vaccination process,” he said in mid-March, “so at this point, we’re still taking a wait-and-see approach.”

We’ve witnessed the effectiveness of teleworking, and many bureaus have expressed interest in right-sizing their physical footprint and re-examining who — and what work — can be remote.
Behnke said, however, that it’s likely the team will adopt some sort of hoteling model. “We already have some office space constraints,” he added, “and the remote work model has proven itself in the past year, so we’ve got all the right tools in place to explore it further.”

The city has a large real-estate footprint, with somewhere around 400 locations, he said. “As we look at the big picture, there are common spaces in our downtown campus that might be leveraged differently.”

The decision about remote work longer term also will require alignment across the city’s executive team, and leadership in key departments like human resources and real-estate assets. “We want to ensure that we provide a high level of public service that exceeds or meets what we were providing before the pandemic, and we want to make sure we’re providing a safe and effective environment for our employees and the residents and businesses that we serve.”
The city’s Performance and Analytics Department conducted an employee sentiment survey and continues to do periodic updates to help department heads evaluate opportunities and areas of concern. “They surveyed city departments about remote work tools and the technology that they need to be effective,” Behnke said. “We’ve been using that feedback to shape the services that we’ve provided the employees who are working remotely.”


Some CIOs see the move to remote work as an opportunity to open up their recruitment strategies. “If we go 100 percent remote work with some staff, why couldn’t we hire in the rural areas of Iowa?” asked Dunn, although she added that poor broadband coverage could be an issue in many areas.

Whether remote work opens up the possibility of hiring people who don’t live nearby is “the million-dollar question that public and private sectors are grappling with,” King County’s Hannah said. The county’s human resources policy states that you have to live close enough to come into the office. “Someone living in rural Washington may be an option,” she said.

San Diego’s Behnke said there are workers in certain IT specialties who are difficult to attract and retain. “If the private-sector market is letting people work from home three days a week and are having a lot more flexibility in their schedules, then in the public sector, we have to match that,” he added, “so we’re going to have to watch the larger market to see how trends develop.”

Lister agrees that as they compete with the private sector for talent, CIOs are going to have to offer flexible work options. “When most companies are offering this and 95 percent of their people say they want it, if government agencies don’t offer it, they’re just going to be looking at the back of their employees’ heads as they walk out the door.”