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Mayor of Washington, D.C., pushes for workers to return to the office

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There's a tension in American cities right now between the old way of working and the post-pandemic future. It's about downtowns built to serve commuting office workers and those commuters who've gotten used to working from home, as NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: On a recent morning in Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke in front of a coffee shop trumpeting what she called the real story of downtown D.C.

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MURIEL BOWSER: More people are returning to the office during the work week. Most recently, Metro reported their highest morning ridership day since the pandemic.

WAMSLEY: Some of those people returning to the office and taking Metro's trains and buses are her own employees, D.C. city workers. Under current policy, workers at city agencies have to be in the office at least three days a week. Now, Bowser wants them to go into the office four days a week, no matter how productive they are at home.

CHARLES HALL: The purpose behind that is really threefold.

WAMSLEY: Charles Hall is director of the department of human resources for D.C. government.

HALL: No. 1, we want to enhance our engagement with the community. We believe we can do that more the more that we're in person.

WAMSLEY: No. 2 is to increase collaboration between colleagues.

HALL: And then No. 3, we want to continue to encourage persons to support local businesses.

WAMSLEY: The city's office buildings are less bustling than they used to be. The number of employees entering offices in the D.C. metro area is now just over half what it was pre-pandemic, according to badge swipe data from Kastle. Many city workers are deeply unhappy with the policy change, especially the notion that it's their job to keep the city's economy humming with their own spending.

MARY: I'm a person that likes to be behind the scenes.

WAMSLEY: Mary, who asked to go by her middle name to avoid professional repercussions, has a desk job with the city. She says going into work at the office really doesn't put her closer to the people she serves.

MARY: I feel like I am more in the community when I work from home because I can take my lunch break and go and hop on the streetcar and grab something to eat. I can go for a walk and see my neighbors and say hello to them at lunchtime. I feel like I'm more involved in my community when I telework than when I go into the office.

WAMSLEY: Taylor is another D.C. city employee who asked that we not use his last name. He says the four days in the office rule makes him feel less valued for the work he does than for the sandwich he might buy.

TAYLOR: It feels bad to, you know, have my status as a lunch purchaser thought of as more important than the work I give them for 40 hours a week.

WAMSLEY: The new policy is also a nudge to the region's largest employer, the federal government. In her inaugural address last year, Mayor Bowser pointedly asked the White House to either get most federal workers back to the office or vacate some of their vast office space.

TERESA GERTON: It's pretty clear that COVID has sort of changed the balance in what people expect.

WAMSLEY: Teresa Gerton is president of the National Academy of Public Administration. She says the White House has been trying to get federal employees back in the office, but workers aren't interested.

GERTON: So there's a huge tension between having people back in the office, trying to make one size fit all, and then the real potential that in this kind of tight labor market, folks will decide to vote with their feet and choose a different line of employment.

WAMSLEY: She points to a recent government report that found telework among federal employees had led to better staff engagement and retention, and saved money on real estate and commuting. There are big impacts on hiring, too. Last year, the Treasury Department said its telework openings have been attracting more than 20 times more applicants than fully in-person positions. Gerton says that when leaders make decisions about the return to office, it's tempting to do what she calls pressing the easy button.

GERTON: And say, well, we've got everybody back to the office. Now we're fine. When in fact, the real answer about what the future of government work should look like has to be complex and nuanced. It's an opportunity to reimagine what government work looks like.

WAMSLEY: And redefine what a vibrant city looks like, too. Laurel Wamsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.