Empty offices: No post-pandemic plans to reconfigure state buildings

Published: Sep. 27, 2022 at 6:28 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Remote work has taken off ever since the start of the pandemic. Now, with Vermont state office buildings back open, many remain largely vacant, and state officials say it’s likely they will never go back to the way they were.

The pandemic has permanently reshaped the workplace and how organizations have handled the return to work.

“I think it’s the new normal,” said Vermont Human Resources Commissioner Beth Fastiggi. “I would say that prior to the pandemic, about 67% state employees had said that they had never worked remotely. And now post-pandemic, we have about 3,200 employees working remotely either part-time or full-time, and that translates to about 40% of our workforce.”

That means many buildings are not being used to their full potential, raising questions about plans to repurpose them.

“It’s around 4 million square feet of office space. Prior to the pandemic, most employees came to the office about maybe four to five days a week. Then, for the employees that could go home during the pandemic, we went home during the pandemic,” said Department of Buildings & General Services Commissioner Jennifer Fitch.

But even though the buildings might not be used as much, Fitch says there is still a need for them. There are no plans to sell any buildings and repurposing them into something like housing is more difficult than it seems. “if we have employees that are working three days or more in the office, they need a dedicated desk for their space. Maybe at some point we will decide that we’re ready to reduce or consolidate space, but the thing to know there is it’s very expensive to basically downsize and refit space,” she said.

Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson says fewer employees making their way into the city has affected its revenue but that she understands why more people are staying home. “I think it’s a really good thing for folks that have that flexibility if they have the option to be home or work from home. But it certainly impacts those businesses, by the lack of folks being just downtown. It also impacts the city’s parking revenue,” she said.

Although the future for the buildings themselves is still uncertain, officials say that what’s most important now is remaining open to new and creative possibilities. “I think until we kind of figure out that cadence, we won’t really have the ability to say, let’s let’s collapse our space or let’s consolidate our space,” Fastiggi said.

According to the most recent figures, the state of Vermont owns 232 buildings with 3.5 million square feet of space.