Editorial: Empty offices one reason NM must resolve telework plan - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Empty offices one reason NM must resolve telework plan

There are mixed signals coming out of Santa Fe regarding the state government’s need for office space in light of a work-from-home trend sparked by the pandemic.

New Mexico is paying somewhere between $10 million and $18 million for unoccupied office space, according to a report presented Tuesday to the Legislative Finance Committee.

If the space isn’t being used, the state could save a considerable sum on operations by relinquishing it. But first, state officials need a firmer telework policy that should help determine just what percentage of the state’s workforce is expected to return to the office — even on a part-time basis.

And that’s where things get fuzzy.

While some state workers have been recently required by agency heads in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration to return to in-person work, the LFC report said that, as of August, up to 38% of state employees still worked from home for some amount of time on any given day.

The current telework policy allows agency heads to rescind or modify an employee’s telework agreement with adequate notice. It also requires that employees working remotely be able to report to their worksite on short notice.

Labor union leaders negotiated the terms with the governor’s administration in June 2021. But a governor’s spokeswoman said changes are in the works — a point reinforced by General Services Secretary John Garcia.

He suggested most state workers would eventually be returning to in-person work.

And yet, the flexibility of telework could be an important enticement to recruit more workers. There was a 24.3% average vacancy rate for rank-and-file positions as of September, according to State Personnel Office data.

And while it’s unclear what changes might be made to the existing telework policy, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett indicated Tuesday the state does not plan to downsize significantly when it comes to office space — which means taxpayers are paying the light bills for an awful lot of empty offices.

“It is important that the state maintains available office facilities for all state employee positions as we continue to transition out of pandemic-era state policies,” she told the Journal in a statement.

It seems the report to the LFC has sparked more questions than answers, but it offers an opportunity for the state to examine the value of telework from a variety of angles: the savings on office space, the satisfaction it gives employees, the ability to recruit and compete with private enterprise and its impact on delivery of services.

Part of the analysis should explore whether teleworkers who must occasionally report to the office could enter an office-sharing arrangement with colleagues.

We can already hear the sighs. “Another government study of how government works?” But there are some fundamental issues that need to be resolved in the interest of efficiency. First and foremost, whether telework has legs. From our perch, it appears to be part of the “new normal” that’s taken shape since the worst of the pandemic subsided.

Of course, any decision to allow state workers the flexibility of working from home would have to come with assurances that it won’t affect the delivery of services.

But if there are sensible ways to allow remote work — and save taxpayers millions — that plan deserves careful consideration and a policy framework to justify it.

The report to the LFC has rightly stirred the pot. Some lawmakers said the report’s findings should prompt Lujan Grisham’s administration to study how a remote work policy for state employees is impacting government operations. And Garcia, the General Services secretary, said some of the report’s recommendations could be adopted, including changing how his agency calculates office space needs across state government.

In response to the pandemic and increased teleworking, some states have already moved to reduce their office space footprint, the LFC report found.

No reason for New Mexico not to join the ranks of the efficient-minded.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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