Metro said on Thursday that it will substantially boost its commuter operations next month, running more trains during busy times, particularly on high-demand days such as Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. After train safety concerns and a pandemic-driven dip in ridership, the region’s transit agency is getting back to normal at serving the area’s commuters. Which means the moment has come for the Biden administration to make good on the president’s call for federal workers to return to the office.
“It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again” with people, Mr. Biden said in his State of the Union address last March. “We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person.”
Yet a look around downtown Washington’s barren sidewalks, empty restaurants and shuttered shops shows that the city is still suffering. The federal government is Washington’s largest employer, accounting for about a quarter of the city’s employment, and many of its agencies continue to maintain lenient telework policies. Politico reports that the city has the highest work-from-home rate in the nation, and the Wall Street Journal notes that Washington’s office vacancy rate is now roughly 20 percent, a record. About half of federal employees engage in telework.
And Washington is hardly the only place in which federal workplace decisions have major effects; in communities across the map — from Houston County, Ga., to San Antonio to Ogden, Utah — federal civilian employees represent a large share of local workers.
Federal jobs typically attract well-educated workers willing to sacrifice private-sector-size paychecks for professional stability, work-life balance and the gratification that comes with public service.
Work-from-home advocates argue that federal agencies need liberal telework policies to hire and retain talent. But valuable — and sometimes serendipitous — office interaction is lost when colleagues see each other only on a computer screen. It can be more difficult for employers to inculcate values and for workers to learn from one another. Research suggests that workers who do their jobs remotely generate fewer new ideas, leading to less innovation.
Also on the Editorial Board’s agenda
- The misery of Belarus’s political prisoners should not be ignored.
- Biden has a new border plan.
- The United States should keep the pressure on Nicaragua.
- America’s fight against inflation isn’t over.
- The Taliban has doubled down on the repression of women.
- The world’s ice is melting quickly.
As the nation continues a big, unplanned experiment in transforming workplaces, more data will come in on what works. In the meantime, many employers are smartly choosing hybrid work policies, offering employees much more flexibility to work from home than they had before the covid-19 pandemic but still requiring workers to come into the office a few days a week.
Downtown Washington can be more hybrid, too. Even three-days-a-week, return-to-work policies would mean employers would need less office space, so Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is talking about settling 15,000 new residents downtown in the next five years. This would prepare the city for the new workplace reality and combat steep local housing costs.
But even this transformation will not work if federal workers fail to return in greater numbers. Before the pandemic, Washington was booming. Now, decades of progress are at risk.
The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board
Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.
Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).