New Public Buildings Service commissioner says federal employees can expect a lot of changes in the places they work

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In the child’s book Pat the Bunny, Paul and Judy could do many things. Well, the General Services Administration can and does do many things. Including provide most of the federal government with office space and other real estate. For a look at GSA’s real estate priorities, and the space you’ll work in, for the next few years, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the new commissioner of the Public Buildings Service, Nina Albert.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Albert, good to have you on.

Nina Albert: Thanks Tom for having me. I’m really excited to be here today.

Tom Temin: And you do have experience in public real estate, in a sense, having been at Metro, and it must be just amazing to arrive at the GSA and see something that is national in scope, plus a thousand times bigger.

Nina Albert: I was gonna say, I’ve been practicing and been in the business of public real estate for over 10 years. Actually, probably more than that, before joining GSA, and there is no comparison. The federal real estate portfolio is among the most diverse, and certainly the broadest all over the country, we have office buildings and warehouses and land ports of entry and courthouses. It’s just fascinating to learn about, and I’m super excited to be here.

Tom Temin: And the top question seems to be and I presume this as a priority for the building service. And that is, how much space will the government actually need in the post COVID era? I don’t think anyone knows for sure what percentage of people will be eventually in offices, whether business or government, but how are you thinking about that? And what are some of the plans going on to try to figure it out?

Nina Albert: Yeah, I mean, you hit the nail on the head, nobody exactly knows. So how we’re approaching this is really as a process. The very first thing, and we have been doing this for the past year or so is listening to our agency partners. What are they seeing on the ground? What does leadership need, from office, from technology, how the two blend together? These are things that we’ve been working with our agency customers, for over the past year, we assembled more than 100 experts from 18 different agencies to identify and create the principles for the future of work. And that’s resulted in an an initiative that we’re calling Workspace 2030. And we have incorporated and been able to incorporate lessons learned already. And that includes and assumes that the future of work will be a combination of office space, work and work from home. So what GSA is looking to do is package real estate and technology solutions. So it’s easier for agencies to select what model works best for them. So now what right like exactly what is the federal footprint look like in the future? Again, it’s not going to be it’s not going to be a process that’s targeting a certain footprint footprint shrinkage. Instead, it’s learning over the next year, putting into place systems that help us understand how many people are in a given in a building at any given time, tracking what federal agencies are going to be doing with their lease space. As it turns out, about 60% of federal leases are coming due in the next five years. So we’ll have a very good idea in the near future, what agencies what decisions they’re going to be making about renewing their leases, I will just say as a general rule, we would like to use any consolidation of space to favor reuse of federally owned facilities rather than to lease new space. This will require an investment in our existing facilities to ensure that they’re modernized and meet the needs of agencies. But ultimately, we believe that investing in federal facilities over leasing saves the federal government and American taxpayers money. So I haven’t totally and immediately addressed your question and what I think is everybody’s question about how much space exactly is the federal footprint better shrink? Or what exactly is the blend of work from home and work from the office going to look like? Instead, I think what we’re aiming toward is, to the extent possible, come reoccupy existing own space. Also, in the future, we want to provide employees with as much access as much flexibility, convenience and amenities as possible, because that’s what workers are really looking for.

Tom Temin: And you might have to change a few skyline engravings and maybe a few of those ugly 70s Brown signs. I’m thinking of the example of the Army Corps of Engineers, a big piece of the army, lots of employees. They are in the same building that says Government Accountability Office on the outside. So you’ve got a big military executive branch agency inside congressional agency office. And so maybe you should also say Gao and Army Corps of Engineers, but that’s the kind of thing you’re thinking of is get people under the federally owned space to the extent that you can.

Nina Albert: Yeah, absolutely. And I’ll give a great example. GSA itself used to occupy a building in at L’enfant Plaza in the heart of Washington DC. we ourselves have consolidated our own space. And so the occupants of that building and L’enfant Plaza have moved over into 1800 F Street, which is in another part of downtown DC. And now, the building that GSA used to occupy is going to be renovated, and the Department of Homeland Security is going to be coming in there and repurchasing it. So it’s those kinds of movements that allow us to really maximize the real estate assets that we currently own.

Tom Temin: And of course, GSA used to be the Interior Department A long time ago. So this is an ongoing process. And in this workspace 2030 initiative, does that also include looking at what is inside buildings. And I’ll make an analogy back in the I believe it was the Clinton administration that GSA had a whole display set up showing possible configurations of really modern work cubicles. And they were pretty cool. And that was the era when it wasn’t assumed everyone necessarily had a PC on their desk as it is today. And looking at the idea of hoteling of people, sometimes teleworking sometimes not some of the models are getting a little long in the tooth for how you hotel people. So is looking at new modes of the interior part of this Workspace. 2030?

Nina Albert: Absolutely. Actually Workspace 2030 is very space solutions oriented. And I would say different than maybe kind of a former model, when everybody was really thinking about how office space was designed. And thinking about how many cubicles, how many offices? Is it open office? I mean, that was the discussion that we’ve been having for the past 10 years. I think looking forward, what people are going to be really looking, looking at is, what is the? How do space and technology interact, right. If a portion of your team is working from home, and another portion is in the office, and you all want to have a conference call, today the tech is not there, there needs to the people who are in the conference room are interacting with each other. And the people who are working from home, need to still feel connected and a part of that group. And how does technology enable you to do that and have really a seamless connection and experience regardless of whether you’re from home or physically in the office. So it’s those types of qualities of connection that we’re looking at both virtual physical. And as for the proportion of, you know, workstations versus versus offices, I think that slowly, that conversation is going to change quite a bit because of exactly what you just said, there are people who are going to be working a portion of time in the office during a week, a portion of time at home, it could even be a very different model than that, where people are only coming in for certain types of meetings. So you might have a surge of people all at once. And how do you have office space that accommodates a whole variety of uses for the exact same space. So yeah, Workspace 2030 considers all of those types of things. But the key, I would say, part of the conversation right now is how do we really get a package of real estate space plus technology that allows for a variety of different work modes that will fit a variety of different agency and employee needs?

Tom Temin: And a lot of the federal owned real estate is aging or is old actually. But yet some of it is also historic. Because absolutely GSA hired some of the top architects of a given era to design different stages of buildings, even the brutalist that was a famous architect. So do you also envision trying to maybe exact from Congress ways of really renovating some of the older shells so that the architecture is preserved, but the interior really meets 21st century needs?

Nina Albert: I don’t know how you know so much about the federal portfolio, it’s very impressive. 30% of federally owned assets are historic buildings, or I should say office buildings are historic. And so you’re right, it presents a challenge in terms of modernizing those facilities. So yeah, I mean, in order to make these kind of what I call bigger muscle movements, that is reducing that leased, not with a “t” but an “ed” at the end, footprint and moving folks and repurposing our existing facility. Yeah, that will take an investment. And, when we talk about modernization, there’s, a couple different levels of modernization that we’re talking about. One is just the repurposing of space, making sure that it’s well suited for the technology needs that the current workforce has. But it also means retrofitting these buildings so that they are as sustainable as possible. We have a goal of having net zero buildings for every major renovation or new construction project. And that’s really important and also challenging to do in historic buildings. But we have a track record of doing it, and that’s what we’d like to see more of. And then the third thing I was going to say is just making sure that all of our buildings are designed for accessibility of a wide variety of different customers, and occupants. And so it’s not just ADA, it’s also for visitors to be able to come and feel welcome in federal buildings, it’s allowing us to have the ability to maybe rent ground floor space, all of those accessibility elements that really have our federal buildings contribute in a rich way to the community around them is the entire opportunity set that we have.

Tom Temin: On that energy front. You sort of answered my next question, because going back to the Ford administration, I guess it was when we had the first oil shock, there has been this drive to reduce the energy consumption per square foot or per building, or whatever the case may be. It sounds like there’s still room to go then in squeezing out the energy footprint, because it seems every administration – doesn’t seem – every administration has come in and set lower bars, and there’s still room for more improvement.

Nina Albert: Oh, absolutely. I mean, honestly, across the in the buildings industry is a recognition of the contribution that buildings make to greenhouse gases. And so I think there’s a lot of focus on energy consumption. But there’s also a lot of water that buildings use. So water reduction, um, there’s a lot of waste that gets produced by the people who are inside of buildings. And so how do you construct a building so that you can recycle, you can compost, you can do all these types of things that will really minimize landfill waste that goes to landfills, for example.

Tom Temin: And without making it seem like you’re working in a barnyard.

Nina Albert: Right. Absolutely, absolutely. And then now, of course, with this administration’s focus on electric vehicles as well, because automobiles are a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to buildings. So not only are we trying to absolutely reduce or eliminate if possible greenhouse gas production as a result of running buildings and powering buildings. But also now how do we implement EV infrastructure into our buildings, so that we can encourage more and more people to be driving electric vehicles.

Tom Temin: And I want to get back to a point that you mentioned earlier, and that is accessibility to the public. I mean, I’m frankly old enough to remember when you could walk into the Commerce Department building to name one and say hi to, if there was a guard, and just walk down to the cafeteria and have lunch, which was in those days cooked by a federal employee, not by a contractor. But that’s a long time ago. Today, they are very fortress like, and not particularly welcoming. And often there is not a whole lot of space devoted to the huge security and waiting around requirements that are just there, because of the times we live in. Is that something specifically that you’re looking at to try to make them more welcoming, consistent with the security needs of people coming to visit federal agencies?

Nina Albert: Yeah, I think there’s a couple different ways to answer this question. I mean, first and foremost, we do have to ensure the security of the building and the security of the employees within the building. So that’s not going to change. I think that the accessibility of buildings that I was referencing is both accessibility for people of all abilities to walk and just access the buildings from a physical access perspective. But the other points, to your point, about having buildings be welcoming, that’s absolutely something that is that can be handled through different design solutions. People might not realize it, but there are a lot of federally owned buildings that actually are customer facing, and I’ll use the Social Security Administration as an example. I mean, they are a customer serving a public serving facility. So how do we design it, though their facilities so that they can really handle appointments now, if that’s what they’re going to be doing, or large volumes of people, I mean, just making that a much more friendly experience. GSA also manages a whole number of daycare centers, for example, and those are publicly facing How do we make that that frontage available so that again, it feels a little bit more inviting, as opposed to kind of the impression that you are left with. And then, as you mentioned, the cafeteria, I think that where there are large buildings with maybe hundreds or thousands of federal employees within it, how do you make that food service area, maybe more of a retail type of destination where both employees and the public can you so you can designate spaces, so that they again, make the building feel much more accessible, but also bring our federal employees closer to the communities that they serve.

Tom Temin: And before we close, maybe review some of your experience at Walmart at the Washington Area Metro Authority, because so many federal employees interact with it daily, and as do millions of other citizens and visitors to DC. Tell us about that experience.

Nina Albert: Well, my time at Metro was one of the highlights of my career, I got to work with a fantastic leadership team. And at the time that I was there, and even to this day, the people in Metro are just 100% committed to this Washington region, making sure that the trains run on time. And that what is sort of a national exemplar of high quality transit services maintained. And so it was a great experience. Some of the things that I really learned and look forward to bringing forward into my new job is, again, we’ve talked a little bit about this, and you could probably hear it in our interview today is how important public real estate is in terms of what he can do to achieve other community goals. And so at Metro, I spent a lot of time working with local communities, making sure that their economic development objectives, their local hiring, and business contracting objectives were met, we can do that, and we do do that at GSA. And so I’m looking to make sure that again, not only the federal population is served, but that the communities that all of our facilities are located and also get a benefit from our being there. So that is something that I bring forward. And honestly real estate’s fun and right now could not be a more exciting time to be leading the federal public building service and I loved my time at Metro. And I feel incredibly honored to be able to join the Biden administration, and lead the federal portfolio.

Tom Temin: Nina Albert is commissioner of the Federal Building Service at the General Services Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Nina Albert: And thank you Tom.

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