This chart shows the percentage of people working from home -- pre-pandemic. The highest percentage was in Nelson County with 11.8%. Courtesy of Hamilton Lomboard.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigned on getting the state back to normal – or something close to a COVID normal – after nearly two years of pandemic-induced restrictions.

He is keeping that promise in one big way. The question is: Should he?

Youngkin announced recently that he is ending remote work for state employees, calling them back to their offices by July 5 unless they get a specific exemption to telecommute. Those who want to work remotely two days a week need the permission of a cabinet secretary. Those who want to work remotely more than three days a week need the permission of the governor’s chief of staff.

A business administration expert at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business warned that this policy would put state government at a market disadvantage compared to the private sector.

“If they want to stay competitive in this market and retain talent, which is really hard to do these days, they need to be able to match and exceed people’s expectations because it’s not the other way around at this point,” Roshni Raveendhran told Richmond’s WRIC-TV.

It’s an interesting day when we have a Republican governor doing something that seems to run counter to what the free market is saying. On the other hand, Youngkin is very much acting like the employer that he is: Workers generally like remote work; employers sometimes not so much. Across the country, we’re starting to see this tension between companies that want workers back in the office and workers who like being able to work in their bathrobes. Apple – generally thought to be a hip, progressive, with-it kind of company – wants workers in the office once or twice a week. After May 23, it wants them there at least three days a week. That was too much for some Apple workers; the company’s director of machine learning announced he was leaving in protest, according to The Verge. “I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team,” he wrote. That guy probably won’t be applying to work for the Youngkin administration.

It’s easy to frame the governor’s decision in partisan terms but I’m not sure that’s the best way to view it. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is a Democrat (sometimes mentioned as a candidate for governor) and he welcomed Youngkin’s decision. “Thank you @GovernorVA for this decision,” he tweeted. “It will help bring more people back into downtown Richmond, supporting our local economy!” As the saying goes, all politics is local. New York Mayor Eric Adams – also a Democrat – has urged an end to remote work, saying that people working from home is “draining” the city’s economy. “We need people back to work,” he said at a news briefing this spring. “The financial ecosystem is crucial. I need the accountant in the office, so that they can go to the local restaurant, so that we can make sure that everyone is employed.”

Meanwhile, we have rural areas that are clamoring to attract remote workers – more people to reverse their declining populations, more people with spending money to boost their economies. That’s where Youngkin’s remote work policy is most interesting politically. It’s not the push-and-pull between employers who want workers in their cubicles and workers who want to work on their couch (although there is that). It’s that here’s a Republican governor taking an action that, if you play things out to their logical conclusion, doesn’t help (and in the long-run might hurt) some Republican-voting areas. If some state government worker in Richmond wants to work from his or her apartment in the Fan instead of going to work in the James Monroe Building, that might make a difference in Richmond but doesn’t affect us out here in Southwest and Southside. But if that worker’s option is to live in Floyd County rather than on Floyd Avenue, then suddenly that gets our attention. Why is the governor taking a pre-pandemic view that everybody has to be in the office? The world has changed, time to change with it. Why isn’t he taking the lead in encouraging a remote state workforce – a trend that could potentially help rural localities? To the extent that the communities that voted most strongly for Youngkin have embraced remote workers as an economic development goal, Youngkin should at least be talking up remote work as a general principle. Taking actions that seem to discourage remote work by state government employees indirectly undermines the argument that the most pro-Youngkin localities are trying to make. Youngkin can’t very well help rural localities make their case for remote workers if he’s insisting state workers be back in their cubicles.

Now, I must declare my interest: I’m obviously here to be an advocate for Southwest and Southside. The more people who work remotely, the more that will benefit those regions. If state government suddenly depopulated its Richmond offices of everyone who possibly could work from home, not all those office workers are going to wind up here, of course. Most certainly won’t. But every little bit helps. The governor says he wants to look out for Southwest Virginia. Great. Here’s a way to do that. The poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty says “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Many rural areas across Virginia are effectively erecting metaphorical monuments that say “give me your Zoom workers, your telecommuters, your virtual colleagues yearning to work where they want to live …” And not just rural areas either: There’s now co-working space in downtown Lynchburg aimed at remote workers who don’t really want to work from their dining room table but do like the idea of living in the Hill City.

I’ll also point out that we at Cardinal have some experience with all this: We all work remotely. We have no office at all. (That also means if you donate to us, you can be assured your money goes straight to supporting more journalism. As we like to say, as a nonprofit, we pay no shareholders, and, as a virtual newsroom, we pay no landlords.)

I realize that, as governor, Youngkin can’t do something that hurts Richmond just to help Roanoke – or Russell County – but the signal he’s sending on remote work isn’t very forward-thinking. Republicans, more than Democrats, like to talk up the virtues of innovation in the marketplace. This doesn’t seem very innovative. It also doesn’t seem to help Virginia reach an official state goal of having 20% of its workforce telecommuting.

Yes, Virginia has such a policy – written into state law since 2004, or, as some prefer, the dark ages of the internet, at least for those of us on this end of the state.

The story of how Virginia came to codify such a goal is a story in the state’s geopolitics.

In 2001, two different Fairfax County Democrats – Del. James Scott and Del. Robert Hull – sponsored bills directing the secretary of administration to develop a teleworking commuting policy for state workers. Hull’s bill was merged into Scott’s, and it passed unanimously and was signed into law by Gov. Jim Gilmore (a Republican, if you’re keeping score at home). In 2004, two more Northern Virginia Democrats – then-Del. Brian Moran of Alexandria and then-Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington – came back with bills to tweak that law by requiring each state agency to have, by July 1, 2009, a goal of “not less than 25 percent of its eligible workforce participating in alternative work schedules.”

Such “alternative work schedules” did not necessarily mean telecommuting, although they could. The law at the time simply referred to “the use of alternate work locations that are separate from the agency’s central workplace.” That was the first time Virginia set a specific goal of any kind for such “alternative work schedules.” Moran went on to become secretary of public safety under two governors – Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam – so has some experience managing a remote workforce (although probably not many prison guards are working remotely). I asked him recently what prompted this goal way back in 2004, which was still the era of dial-up for many of us. Here’s what he told me by email: “It really was for survival on Nova roads and traffic congestion on 95. Even though most state workers [are] in RVA it seemed like a good place to start and lead the way for [the] private sector.”

The law got tweaked a few more times, most significantly in 2008 when the General Assembly added an even more specific provision, distinguishing telecommuting from a mere “alternative work schedule.” This one requires: “By January 1, 2010, each state agency, except the Department of State Police, shall have a goal of not less than 20 percent of its eligible workforce telecommuting.” That measure came from Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax County, and was signed into law by Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat.

I’ve been listing the party affiliation of everybody involved because that’s often how the world works, but not necessarily here. The one unifying theme is that all these initiatives came from Northern Virginia legislators, regardless of party.

That law has been tweaked a few times since, but the 20% goal has remained in place for 14 years. Now, a goal is merely aspirational, even one written into the Code of Virginia. The state could codify a goal of launching a mission to Mars but that doesn’t mean the administration is mandated to build a rocketship. This is more of an “it would be nice if …” kind of provision.

Still, there it is, in black and white. So, how are we doing? Did we ever hit that 20% goal? Yes and no.

No, in that in 2019, pre-pandemic, 18.7% of the state’s workforce was remote, according to the governor’s office.

Yes, in that during the pandemic the remote percentage went much higher. We just don’t know how much higher, the governor’s office says.

That means if the governor’s goal is to return us to a pre-pandemic normal, the state’s remote workforce will still be below what the Code of Virginia calls for – aspirationally, of course.

Some may read this as criticism of Youngkin. I prefer to think of it as encouragement. Even with his new policy, the governor still has an opportunity to meet – and exceed – that official goal. Yes, that might strike some as going backwards – we’d be hitting 20% by falling rather than rising – but, hey, I’m trying to help the guy out here. (But mostly I’m trying to help out Southwest and Southside.)

If you’re curious, and I always am, Virginia’s 18.7% pre-pandemic figure is right in line with other states. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that pre-pandemic, about 18% of state government workforces nationwide worked remotely. The federal rate was 27%; the economy-wide rate was 13%.

During the pandemic, all those numbers shot up. Again, we don’t know what the rate for Virginia’s state workforce was but, nationwide, the overall remote rate for state workers hit a high of 62% in May 2020 and then gradually declined. If Virginia was typical, then we’re about to experience quite a drop. So how low should it go? As a remote worker myself, I’m quite fine with 62% as long as the government works efficiently. Obviously the governor isn’t – and he won the election, I didn’t. Still, it does seem worth asking what the ideal percentage should be.

Some potentially relevant facts and figures: Connecticut recently decided to make remote work permanent for much of its state workforce (permanent as in up to four days a week; apparently one day in the cubicle is still required). The Wall Street Journal reports that this will be “bruising” for the economy in the state capital of Hartford, but Connecticut valued other priorities than the restaurants in downtown Hartford. Connecticut’s going one direction, Virginia is going another. As for the figures, there’s this: It looks like about 25% to 35% of the nation’s workforce is now working remotely, according to research from Stanford economics professor Nick Bloom that was reported in Fortune magazine. If Virginia returns to pre-pandemic figures, it will be lagging behind what the marketplace is doing. That doesn’t seem a good place to be. If we really believe the hidden hand of the marketplace knows best (that used to be Republican dogma), then shouldn’t Virginia be striving for that same 25% to 35%? Or more, if it wants to be a leader? And what politician doesn’t say they want Virginia to be a leader?

And that brings us to this: Will any legislator try to amend that aspirational goal in state law? And, if so, what percentage should the state set as a goal? Before, it was always Northern Virginia legislators who pushed telecommuting for state workers. In this new economy, it ought to be legislators from Southwest and Southside.

More on remote work:

The localities that benefit the most from remote workers.

How Nelson County became No. 1 for remote work.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.