Jan 19, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: W.H. demands proof from Cabinet officials on return-to-office

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients in the Oval Office at the White House on May 16, 2023 in Washington, DC. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients is ratcheting up pressure on Cabinet secretaries and agencies heads to bring their workforce back into the office, telling them to "personally track" their progress and develop "concrete plans" to achieve their goals.

Why it matters: Zients is convinced that the federal government will work more efficiently and effectively when employees are in the office at least 50% of the time.

  • His aggressive push has yielded some results, but Zients — who has experience in the public and private sector — is plainly frustrated that more federal workers aren't back at their desks.
  • "Your agency should have a system for monitoring implementation progress fully in place," Zients emailed agency and department heads Friday afternoon.
  • "I expect that you are personally tracking your progress, and taking appropriate action to meet your agency goals," he wrote.
  • While he praised every agency for making progress, Zients also noted that "some of your agencies are not where they need to be."

Diving the news: In his email on Friday, Zients praised five agencies for hitting their goals last year, including the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Energy, Defense, State, as well as USAID, according to a copy of the email obtained by Axios.

  • "To highlight just one example, Secretary Blinken has set an expectation at the State Department that all employees will be in the office 3 or 4 times a week, recognizing that when it comes to diplomacy, there's no substitute for engaging face-to-face," Zients wrote.
  • Zients is directing departments to submit their action plans to the Office of Management and Budget by next Friday, January 26th.

Zoom out: In August, Zients started to push the federal workforce to transition away from permanent remote work.

  • With over 2.2 million employees, the federal government is the largest employer in the country.
  • In November, Zients was calling agencies heads to personally press them to get more aggressive with their plans, signaling out the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for praise as the first two agencies to hit the benchmarks of workers spending five of every ten work days in the office.

Zoom in: Zients's approach to bringing the federal workforce back into the office – born of his firm belief that in-person contact leads to better teamwork — involves carrots and sticks.

  • At the White House, he has opened up the Navy mess and held happy hours in his corner office – with fine South African wines – for junior and senior staff.
  • Later this month, he'll be throwing an off-campus party for White House aides with his own money to help gird them for what promises to be a grueling year ahead.
  • And Cabinet chiefs of staff will be invited to the White House for drinks later this month.

The bottom line: In the corporate world, that battle over return-to-office appears to have died down.

  • Just 6 out of 158 U.S. CEOs said they'll prioritize bringing workers back to the office full-time in 2024, according to a new survey released by the Conference Board, Axios reported.
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