As the federal government’s landlord, the General Services Administration has begun rethinking the office space needs of its tenant agencies. This fresh look at how and where federal employees work most certainly was affected by the pandemic mandates more than two years ago that directed many feds to work from home.
Although the Biden administration called on the “vast majority” of the federal workforce to return to the office this spring, recent office reentry plans focus on supporting a hybrid workforce that comes into the office for only part of the workweek.
To support a hybrid federal workforce, GSA wants to provide workplace solutions that build on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Workspace is meant to connect. It’s in service of the employees, and we need to evolve it as well, if we’re going to remain relevant,” GSA Chief Architect Chuck Hardy told Federal News Network during Workplace Reimagined.
Changes likely in how agencies use federal real estate
Ryan Doerfler, a senior workplace strategist at GSA’s Center for Workplace Strategy, said agencies are increasingly willing to share office space, which creates the opportunity for reducing costs and increasing opportunities for collaboration.
“For some agencies, onsite work will certainly become an essential part of the mission, but others may move to a more distributed model, redirecting real estate costs toward technology or services that empower your workforce,” Doerfler said.
Agencies have an opportunity to shrink the federal real estate footprint, as they rethink their office space needs, said Nina Albert, commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service.
But agencies, as part of this process, will also need to reinvest in spaces that support a federal workforce that’s comfortable working outside of the traditional office environment.
“Through consolidation activities, we can further reduce the footprint and save the government money. It does take money to save money, and so that’s what we want to work with agencies on,” Albert said.
Federal remote workforce by the numbers
Research from the Office of Personnel Management shows more than a million federal employees effectively worked remotely during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
OPM’s research found the portion of federal employees eligible for telework increased from 39% in fiscal 2019 to 50% in fiscal 2020.
The agency also found that 90% of telework-eligible employees participated in their agencies’ telework programs.
Doerfler said federal offices will remain a critical place to collaborate and access secure resources, as well as remain the primary workplaces for federal employees who can’t telework or choose not to.
“The office is necessary, but its purpose is shifting, in large part depending on the degree of hybrid work that an organization adopts. The office won’t go away. It will just change,” Doerfler said.
Purpose-built facilities, including GSA-owned courthouses, laboratories and law enforcement facilities remain essential to the day-to-day work of tenant agencies, Albert said. But the government’s expansive general office space creates an opportunity for transformation, she added.
Adopting design principles and more for the future
GSA is looking at several “common design principles” that will become standard for future office space, Albert said. Some of these include ensuring the use of efficient heating and air conditioning systems and providing for workspaces with natural daylight to improve employee productivity.
“I talk about the building of the future being a healthy and sustainable building because our employees today want to know that the building they’re going into is healthy, particularly in a post-pandemic world,” Albert said. “Future generations are going to demand and want to know that the building they’re occupying is going to be climate-resistant or -resilient. It’s going to be highly efficient, and it’s going to have access to natural daylight.”
To better understand the future office needs of tenant agencies, GSA, through its Workplace 2030 initiative, brought together 120 workplace and real estate experts from 18 federal agencies to understand how they managed the shift to remote work.
“Workplace 2030 is GSA’s effort to build on this shared experience, to imagine how the future workplace should evolve to ultimately better support federal agencies,” Doerfler said.
GSA expects that federal offices will need to evolve to focus on collaboration and work flexibility.
Hardy said agencies need the right balance of space meant for teams to meet and share ideas, and also workstations for individuals to focus on their own tasks.
“We’re continuing to evolve our understanding of what ratios and types of spaces we have. So it’s away from the one-size-fits-all, ‘Here’s your cubicle — make everything work within that,’ and ‘Here’s your conference room — make everything work within that,’ ” Hardy said. “A variety of spaces, a variety of environments, empower the employee, in a kind of curated choice, to find the best location to do the best work they can do within the office when they go there.”
Addressing the technology needs of future federal workers, too
Technology will play a continued critical role, Albert said. For instance, federal buildings will need to have conference rooms with technology that supports hybrid meetings.
GSA, through its Workplace Innovation Lab, will allow agency leaders and their employees to test new furniture and technology meant to support hybrid work.
“That technology backbone has to be in place when you are sharing space. You have to introduce and account for some predictability, so that the worker, when they’re coming to the office, knows where they’re going to go, knows where other people are,” Albert said.
To maximize the value employees get out of their in-office days, federal buildings should have “collision spaces” — areas where employees interact with each other on days when they report to the office, she said.
“You might not know who’s in the building anymore because there’s not that regular schedule. So you want to create spaces where people can come together and naturally run into each other,” she said.
Albert said offices will still need to include “focus rooms,” or spaces where individuals can spend time alone on projects.
“The individual workstation will continue to be needed in an open environment,” she said. “Because when teams are together, you want to encourage that cross-talk, that teamwork, and that open-office environment is very supportive of that.”
Adding coworking space where needed
To increase workspace options for federal employees, GSA last year awarded contracts to WeWork and four other coworking providers.
“We recognize that as employees become more mobile, there will be situations where a federal employees is out in the field, let’s say away from their home office. They may need a place to go, an office setting, maybe a desk to sit down at … for a few hours, maybe a day or two, where they’re at this location,” Doerfler said.
GSA also has a version of this program under development, in which GSA provides coworking space through its portfolio of federal buildings across the country.
“It allows federal agencies to have their employees work in federal buildings, in a more secured environment. If it was through flexible coworking services, it might be at a location where that vendor may be allowing other individuals to work there,” Doerfler said.
GSA, through its “home office solutions,” helps provision federal employees with the furniture and technology approved by their agencies to need to effectively telework from home.
Doerfler said the program gives federal employees the tools they need to make their home office their primary workstation.
“For those individuals, their home office is now their primary office. And what used to be their home office is now a secondary location, if you will, a destination to accomplish very specific activities. Maybe it’s meeting with peers, maybe it’s working on a specific tasks, and they need to do it in specially controlled space. Maybe they’re going in just simply to reconnect,” he said.