In response to the ongoing shift towards remote work arrangements initiated during the pandemic, the state government is aiming to reduce its office footprint by nearly a third over the next four years. Many government workers have embraced the flexibility of remote work, resulting in shared or deserted cubicles in the once bustling office spaces, according to a recent report in The Washington State Standard.
One prominent example is the Health Care Authority, where 98 percent of the staff is eligible for remote work. Despite employing approximately 1,600 individuals, only 100 to 180 employees report to the authority’s Olympia building on most days. Robin Vazquez, the assistant director for employee resources, described the situation as a “ghost town” sometimes. This scenario is not unique, since various agencies across the state face similar challenges.
Although the Office of Financial Management lacks precise figures on state office vacancy rates, the estimated average hovers between 20 percent and 30 percent. The Department of Enterprise Services noted a significant decline in office attendance on the Capitol campus when the Legislature is not in session compared to pre-pandemic times.
Yvonne Knutson, senior budget advisor for facilities oversight and planning at the Office of Financial Management, stated in the report, “We have shifted the entire paradigm.” As part of the state’s downsizing plan, agencies will abandon leased private spaces and move into government-owned buildings. While the state leases approximately 11 percent of its total space, the figure is substantially higher, at 32 percent, in the Olympia area.
The state government’s goal is to reduce overall office space by at least 20 percent by 2025 and 30 percent by 2027, potentially saving around $20 million through 2027. Over the next six years, agencies plan to close operations at 50 leased buildings, relocate from 35 sites, and demolish seven facilities.
As consolidation efforts commence, an increasing number of state employees are expected to share desks. Maurice Perigo, deputy director and chief operations officer at the Department of Enterprise Services, explained that the target is to have one desk for every three individuals who work remotely for at least three days a week.
Historically, work-from-home arrangements were not commonplace in government agencies. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, governments swiftly transitioned to telework as a measure to curb the virus’s spread. Even as the pandemic recedes, state and local agencies nationwide have retained remote work programs, leveraging them as a competitive advantage to attract workers in tight labor markets.
In Washington state, agencies are exploring various methods to downsize office space as more employees embrace telework. One approach involves consolidating agencies operating from multiple buildings into one location. For instance, the Secretary of State’s Office is working towards relocating from six different locations into one.
Another option is to relocate multiple agencies into a single state-owned building. For instance, the Natural Resources building may soon accommodate several agencies, and the Department of Agriculture plans to share a new Thurston County location with the Department of Labor and Industries.
Wesley Kirkman, facilities program director at the Department of Labor and Industries, stated that over 90 percent of their employees can work remotely on most days. By this fall, the department aims to reduce its square footage by approximately 10 percent. However, desk-sharing introduces considerations such as protecting personal information and ensuring adequate file storage space.
During a recent Senate State Government and Elections Committee meeting on March 10, legislators voiced their doubts about the impact of remote work on state employee productivity. This concern has also been raised beyond Washington State in recent months. Senator Perry Dozier, representing Waitsburg, questioned how employees could remain focused and fulfill their duties effectively while working remotely. However, Michaela Doelman, the state’s chief human resources officer, assured that employees working outside the traditional office environment consistently achieved their performance goals.
Legislators also sought information regarding the financial implications of keeping mostly empty buildings operational. Perigo, from the Department of Enterprise Services, explained that many costs associated with these buildings are fixed. The state incurs utilities, heating, and cleaning expenses for entire buildings, regardless of the number of employees present daily. However, Perigo emphasized that closing some underutilized buildings could lead to substantial savings and increased operational efficiency. He added that maintaining and repairing state-owned buildings would be less expensive than leasing private spaces.
Knutson, representing the Office of Financial Management, expressed that opportunities for cost savings in real estate are significant. As of June 2022, the state government occupied approximately 11.7 million square feet across 828 office locations statewide, incurring annual costs of around $218.7 million for leases, debt service payments, and operating expenses. There are no plans to sell or lease state-owned spaces, such as the large buildings around the Capitol campus. Officials anticipate these properties will prove valuable as agencies transition from leased offices.
However, Knutson acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding the state government’s office leases and real estate holdings ten years from now. She emphasized the importance of prioritizing what is best for employees and avoiding the retention of buildings solely as a precautionary measure. She concluded by stating, “We’re constantly evolving.”