Editor: Empty offices are a reason why NM has to cancel the teleworking plan

Mixed signals are coming out of Santa Fe regarding the state government’s need for office space amid a pandemic-driven work-from-home trend.

New Mexico pays between $10 million and $18 million for unoccupied office space, according to a report filed Tuesday with the Legislative Finance Committee.

If the area is not used, the state could save a considerable amount in operation by giving up. But first, state officials need a stricter telecommuting policy that should help determine exactly what percentage of the state workforce is likely to return to the office — even on a part-time basis.

And that’s where things get fuzzy.

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

The current teleworking directive allows agency heads to give reasonable notice to terminate or amend an employee’s teleworking contract. It also requires employees working remotely to be able to show up at their workplace at short notice.

Union leaders negotiated the terms with the governor’s government in June 2021. However, a spokeswoman for the governor said changes are in the works – a point reiterated by General Services Secretary John Garcia.

He suggested that most state employees would eventually return to personal work.

And yet, the flexibility of telecommuting could be an important incentive to hire more workers. According to data from the State Personnel Office, in September there was an average vacancy rate of 24.3% for low-level positions.

And while it’s unclear what changes might be made to the existing telecommuting policy, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett announced on Tuesday that the state has no plans to significantly downsize office space – meaning taxpayers will foot the light bills pay for a lot of empty offices.

“It is important that the state have available office facilities for all government employee positions as we continue to emerge from the state’s pandemic policy,” she told the Journal in a statement.

It seems that the report to the LFC raised more questions than answers, but it offers the state an opportunity to examine the value of teleworking from different angles: the savings in office space, employee satisfaction, the possibility of hiring new employees and compete with private companies and their impact on the delivery of services.

Part of the analysis was to examine whether teleworkers who occasionally need to be in the office could form an office community 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 vantage point, it appears to be part of the “new normal” that has been taking shape since the worst of the pandemic subsided.

Of course, any decision to allow government employees the flexibility of working from home would need to be accompanied by assurances that it would not affect service delivery.

But if there are reasonable ways to enable remote work — and save taxpayers millions — this plan deserves careful scrutiny and a policy framework to justify it.

The report to the LFC rightly stirred the pot. Some lawmakers said the report’s findings should prompt Lujan Grisham’s government to examine how a remote working policy for state employees will affect 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 the state government.

In response to the pandemic and increased telecommuting, some states have already moved to reduce their office space needs, the LFC report says.

No reason for New Mexico not to join the ranks of the fit.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is not signed as it reflects the opinion of the newspaper and not the authors.