GSA awards coworking space contract in bid to rethink federal office space

The General Services Administration, building on lessons in workplace flexibility learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, is giving the federal workforce new opportunities to keep working outside of their traditional offices.

GSA last week took the first major step in implementing its long-term future of work strategy by awarding a first-of-its-kind contract to WeWork and four other vendors — LiquidSpace, Deskpass, Expansive (formerly Novel Coworking) and The Yard — to provide flexible coworking spaces for federal employees nationwide.

GSA in its original solicitation asked vendors to submit proposals for shared office space that includes workstations,  wireless internet, printers, copiers and fax machines, as well as shared kitchens, restrooms and open seating areas.

The contract, whose total GSA estimates is $50 million, harkens back to a similar concept the agency experimented with more than a decade ago.

GSA in 2011 pulled the plug on funding more than a dozen D.C. area telework centers, forcing half to close and the rest to continue operating under a private-sector model. The centers, which cost GSA about $3 million a year to operate, offered federal employees a workplace close to their homes without having to commute to their offices.

Office technology,  however, has come a long way in the past decade, and the contract for coworking space builds on what GSA and Public Buildings Service officials have already described as a long-term rethinking of federal office space.

GSA in its solicitation said the flexible coworking services will enable the federal workforce to “occupy only the space needed in order to meet their missions and promote a responsible use of taxpayer dollars.”

“Working beyond the confines of traditional government offices has become more common. Government employees are now commonly equipped with technological tools to work from anywhere. The freedom provided by technological advancements allows agencies to efficiently and flexibly pursue mission success through the utilization of employee mobility and telework,” GSA wrote.

The federal government remains the country’s largest occupier of office space, while multiple administrations have focused on shrinking a wide-ranging portfolio of owned and leased facilities. PBS manages about 371 million square feet of real estate across almost 9,000 workspaces.

The contract award expands on concepts GSA is already exploring as part of Workplace 2030, a strategy that rethinks federal office space in light of the widespread adoption of telework during the pandemic.

Andrew Heller, GSA’s assistant commissioner for facilities management, said last month the agency will soon offer “space as a service” to agencies later this year. Under this program, GSA would provide dedicated coworking space at GSA’s headquarters, including individual workstations and conference rooms.

Heller said survey data gathered by GSA indicates that agencies will rely less heavily on office space in the future, presenting an opportunity to shrink the federal real estate footprint.

GSA is also pursuing a “home office in a box” concept as part of Workplace 2030, giving workers the option to furnish a home office with the equipment needed to keep teleworking.

GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan, in a recent interview, said this program will help support agencies as they evaluate their office space needs post-pandemic.

“When it comes to real estate, that means helping customers right-size their footprint, helping them look at offerings that we’re putting together, like a home office in a box that can help folks keep doing their best work wherever they are,” Carnahan said.

GSA recently went through its own right-sizing of office space. The agency in 2018 announced it would consolidate its  National Capital Region office in L’Enfant Plaza to GSA’s headquarters building at 1800 F St. NW.

The former National Capital Region office building, which used to accommodate about 1,000 GSA employees, will go through renovations and will be occupied by the Department of Homeland Security.

GSA’s Public Buildings Service Commissioner Nina Albert said the agency developed its Workplace 2030 initiative in collaboration with more than 100 experts from 18 agencies to understand key tenets behind the future of work.

Albert told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin the strategy is built on the premise that the future of work will be a combination of working out of traditional office space and working from home. By packaging real estate and technology solutions together, she said GSA can help agencies develop hybrid workplaces that don’t require all employees to be in the same physical location.

“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?” Albert said.

The timing of this rollout could have significant implications for the scope of the federal real estate footprint. About 60% of federal leases will expire within the next five years, giving PBS an opportunity to discuss office space utilization rates with tenant agencies, as well as options to consolidate.

“It’s not going to be a process that’s targeting a certain footprint shrinkage. Instead, it’s learning over the next year, putting into place systems that help us understand how many people are in a building at any given time, tracking what federal agencies are going to be doing with their lease space,” Albert said.

Albert said PBS would generally prefer any consolidation of office space to focus on federally owned facilities, rather than moving to new leased space. That consolidation, she added, will require the agency to invest in existing facilities to make sure they‘re modernized and meet the needs of tenant agencies.

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