Nov 30, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Inside the Biden White House's aggressive back-to-office push

Illustration of a large hand pushing a reluctant smaller businessman forward.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients, facing huge numbers of federal workers who aren't coming to the office, is privately pushing Cabinet secretaries to break their staffs' stubborn work-from-home habits.

Why it matters: Only about half of Cabinet agencies have achieved the White House's goals for returning to offices by January, according to an administration official. Zients wants to inject more urgency into the effort.

  • With over 2.2 million employees, the federal government is the largest employer in the country.
  • In D.C., the reluctance of some 200,000 federal workers to return to the office has devastated local business downtown.

Driving the news: Following up on his Cabinet-wide memo this summer, Zients has been calling agency heads this week to press them on how much progress they have made, according to the official.

  • He's holding up the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the first two to hit the benchmarks of workers spending five of every ten work days in the office, as examples that federal workers can be convinced to return.
  • Last week, Zients hosted lunches for two separate groups of Cabinet secretaries, where the importance of in-person work was again discussed, among other issues.
  • He also made in-person visits to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy to meet with senior leaders and rank-and-file workers to explain how crucial they are to the president's goals.

What they are saying: "The president was clear in his State of the Union. Jeff (Zients) has been clear with the cabinet," VA Secretary Denis McDonough told Axios.

  • "He's been clear, because he understands management. He understands efficiency. And he understands how well-functioning organizations work."
  • "It is really important to make sure that we're getting the new team trained," McDonough said, mentioning priorities like the PACT Act, for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. "And we're sharing that culture and there's no better way to do that than in person."
  • "Greater in-person presence is essential to our ability to problem-solve, build trust, and foster the community needed to tackle the global challenges USAID works on every day," USAID administrator Samantha Power said in a statement.

Zoom in: Metro ridership in the D.C. area, where federal employees account for one in three downtown jobs, is only at 57% of its pre-pandemic levels.

  • Biden officials point to a more than 20% increase in Metro ridership since they first directed agencies to increase meaningful in-person work.
  • D.C. Mayor Muriel Browser called in January for the White House to "get most federal workers back to the office most of the time."
  • In July, a Government Accountability Office report found that "17 of the 24 federal agencies used on average an estimated 25 percent or less of the capacity of their headquarters buildings."
  • In September, return-to-office rates in nonfederal buildings were at 62%, compared to 33% in the federal buildings, according to an analysis of cellphone data by JLL, a real estate services company, WTOP reported.

Zoom out: The White House is bracing for political attacks from Republicans, with GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy vowing to cut 1 million federal jobs, that government employees are getting paid without working.

  • House Republicans are demanding better data on how many federal workers are actually showing up to the office.
  • "Are the telework policies in federal agencies putting mission accomplishment—and the American taxpayer—first?" asked Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas.), the chair of the Subcommittee on Government Operations and the Federal Workforce, at a hearing Wednesday.
  • "The president himself is telling federal employees to get back in the office, and they aren't coming back."

The other side: The return-to-office push isn't universally loved by workers, either in the private or public sector.

What we're watching: McDonough makes a point to dine in the VA's canteen once a week, to talk with workers and take their temperature. That's valuable insight for any young, ambitious employee.

The bottom line: Zients, who led an effort by then-President Obama to reorganize the federal government in 2011, has long pressed for more efficiencies in government.

  • He also wants to ensure that the institutional knowledge is passed down to the next generation of leaders. And that requires in-person interaction.
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