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Congress explores pros, cons of remote work trends

Remote work trends in the private sector are getting fresh attention from U.S. lawmakers. Two hearings last week looked at aspects of this shift to flexible and full-time remote work.

In two separate hearings this week, Congress heard how the private sector is shaping remote work trends. Lawmakers are interested in applying private sector practices to government departments. They also see the potential for big real estate cost savings with telework. 

But the hearings, which were held Tuesday and Wednesday, also exposed fuzziness around remote work trends. Some private firms may keep higher levels of remote work, but others may want more employees back in the office.

The Senate Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management subcommittee, which held the first hearing, wanted to learn what it could from the private sector.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), subcommittee chairman, said the pandemic has smashed assumptions about the potential of telework in government. Only about 22% of federal employees worked remotely for part of the time before the pandemic shuttered government offices. Lankford indicated that number was now too small. 

"We need to reevaluate [remote work] eligibility, and how this is determined," he said.

President Donald Trump has broadly opposed telework, but the pandemic has increased the number of federal workers working remotely, at least temporarily. The IRS, for instance, reported that 62% or about 50,000 of its 80,000 employees worked from home at the start of the pandemic.

But remote work trends, post-pandemic, remain fuzzy. Lankford's hearing brought the benefits and drawbacks of remote work to the fore.

The Williams Companies Inc. in Tulsa, which employs 4,800, handles about a third of the natural gas in the U.S. The pandemic prompted a shift to remote work, but Williams has not made a final decision on a long-term telework policy, said Lane Wilson, senior vice president and general counsel at Williams.

The value of in-person collaboration

While Williams sees benefits in remote work, "we are also cognizant of the value of the in-person collaboration and idea generation that happens organically in an office environment," Wilson said. 

Michael Ly, founder and CEO of Reconciled, had a different take. The online bookkeeping and business accounting service in Burlington, Vt., is entirely virtual and was so before the pandemic. 

Ly, who also testified, said his firm, which has 30 employees in eight states and services small businesses around the country, uses Zoom and Slack to recreate virtually what happens in an office setting. These collaboration tools "allow us to create spontaneous meetings and interactions and collaboration that normally happened within an office," he said.

We were able to access a workforce that traditionally can't go into a physical office -- and that's stay-at-home moms.
Michael LyFounder and CEO, Reconciled

Use of virtual tools begins on an employee's first day with onboarding, according to Ly. The remote work model also helps with recruiting, he said. 

"We were able to access a workforce that traditionally can't go into a physical office -- and that's stay-at-home moms," Ly said. "These are moms that need to be available for their school-aged children." 

A hearing Wednesday held by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works focused on how the remote work trend can reduce government office space.

Mark Pringle, senior vice president of corporate real estate at Dell Technologies Inc., was among those who testified.

Dell saves millions in real estate costs

Dell has been running a Connected Workplace program since 2009 with the goal of allowing 50% of its workforce to work flexibly by 2020. Before COVID-19, 65% of Dell employees participated in a flexible work program, which typically means they are in the office two days a week and at home the rest of the week. The pandemic increased Dell's percentage of remote workers to 90%.

The flexible work program is saving Dell about $12 million annually in real estate costs, Pringle said.

The U.S. government employs some 2.2 million civilian workers. The U.S. General Services Administration, which manages a big portion of federal property, owns and leases more than 377 million square feet of space in 9,600 buildings, not including Defense Department holdings.

Since the pandemic began, Dell has been surveying employees to help with future planning for remote work. It found that only 10% to 20% of employees want to return to work full time, and 60% want flexibility to work from the office and from home.

The push toward flexible work arrangements may change the very concept of an office.

The traditional office is "transforming into a community hub where employees come to collaborate," said Seán Morris, a principal at Deloitte Consulting and COO of its government and public services business. Morris also testified at the Wednesday hearing.

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