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Michigan Republicans want to forbid remote work for most state staffers

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State workers are expected to return to work in a hybrid form by May 1, but Republican lawmakers are considering a move that would prevent agencies from deciding to let remote work continue. (Shutterstock)

Months of extensions end May 1 for thousands of employees of the state of Michigan who’ve spent the pandemic working from home.

But many of those workers won’t spend their full work week in the same place: Depending on their agency and type of job, staffers may have the option of working from home or choosing a mix of in-office time and remote work.

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Hybrid work is common among the nation’s largest employers, but the concept is political in Lansing: This week, Republicans who lead House subcommittees approved bills to tie state funding to a ban on most remote work.

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“Services to taxpayers have suffered because of state government shutdowns and staffing restrictions,” said House Appropriations Chair Thomas Albert, a Republican from Lowell who spearheaded the concept. 

“State government functions better and serves taxpayers better when employees are interacting with customers and each other in-person.”  

Under the proposal, state employees who weren’t working remotely prior to Feb. 28, 2020 would have to be back in their offices exclusively in-person by Oct. 1, the start of the next budget year. Of the 48,000 state workers, about 49 percent have worked remotely over the past year. 

In an emailed statement to Bridge Michigan, Albert said the state should follow the lead of private companies that are returning to in-person work. 

A spokesperson for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer didn’t return messages seeking comment, but her fellow Democrats say the idea is a non-starter. 

“It's already hard to keep good people in state employment,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel of East Lansing, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“The idea that the Legislature can dictate the individual working schedule of an individual state employee is silly and an overreach.”

Hertel noted that while he’d like to see more state employees return to offices, the pandemic has changed how people work.

Shrinking space

The debate comes as Michigan officials continue to examine their long-term needs and what work may look like in the future for the state’s 45,000 employees.

Michigan has 14 million square feet of office space around the state. A year ago, officials started to plan cost savings from evaluating the state’s office use — an effort that the former director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget expected to yield a “drastic reduction in the state’s footprint.“

Realigning space was needed, former Director Brom Stibitz told Bridge, to adapt to the likelihood that thousands of state office workers could retain partial work from home schedules.

That’s still the plan.

According to a report submitted to the Legislature on April 1, the state will vacate 564,290 square feet of leased offices by 2024, a 12 percent reduction from 2019. 

The 20 agencies will occupy 3.8 million square feet of private office space, down from 4.4 million in 2019. 

The state also will retain use of about 10 million square feet in state-owned buildings, with more offices added to those buildings as space needs — thanks to flexible work days — decline.

The effort is expected to save the state millions of dollars in rent, while DTMB is asking for $1 million from the state to make the transition.

Among the offices making changes due to work-from-home is the Department of Natural Resources, which nearly cut by half its 14,000 square feet of leased space. It’s able to do that, according to the report, by moving some people into state-owned offices. The rest will no longer have assigned desks, allowing remote work.

Also planning flexibility for staff: the department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and Technology, Management and Budget. 

Combined, the two departments will occupy nearly 300,000 fewer square feet in state-owned and leased buildings.

In addition to those agencies planning for flexible work and less space, “more may do so as post pandemic plans become more solidified,” said Caleb Buhs, spokesperson for DTMB.

“Each department, and in some cases individual offices, have their own plans for a return to state facilities,” Buhs said. “This is based on their own department leadership decisions about how best to provide top-notch customer service in the most effective and efficient way possible.”

At DTMB, that means requiring that all staff work at least two days per week in the office. 

Beyond that, Buhs said, each employee will work with their manager to determine the best schedule for their role.

Changes in private industry, other states

Michigan isn’t the only state looking to trim its physical office presence in the aftermath of COVID-19. 

This year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal indicated the state was in the process of relinquishing about 767,000 square feet of space, saving the state an estimated $22.5 million per year. 

The Republican proposal to tie state agency funding to in-person work flies against what many researchers — including a team from Stanford University that conducts monthly workplace surveys — say is becoming the norm.

“The idea of a full return is dead,” Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford who is among the researchers, told NBC News when the team’s 2022 forecast was released in January.

Michigan-based companies like Ford, DTE Energy and Rocket Companies are all planning hybrid home and office schedules for the workers, according to a report in The Detroit News. 

Most national companies seem to be on a similar path, except for global investment bank Goldman Sachs, which told its employees it wanted them back in the office five days per week. 

Junior bankers revolted, threatening to leave for tech firms.

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Many workers are stretching the concept of where to work, no longer limiting the choices between work and home. Instead, the “third place” is also a workplace: Coffee shops, libraries or other locations. Sometimes, work is done from a vacation-like location or even in another country.

According to the latest survey, interest in working remotely has waned over the past year, but it still remains more than 50 percent of work time.

And there’s still a gap — representing about a full day — between worker desires and employer plans for post-COVID working from home. Employers worry about coordinating hybrid plans and investment in technology to make it work, though studies have shown productivity increases.

Researchers also are finding that workers increased their expectations for flexibility during the pandemic.  Faced with a decision to report back to an office full-time, about half said they’d either do so while looking for another job or quit outright.

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