Workplace Reimagined 2023: GSA’s Nina Albert, Chuck Hardy, Ryan Doerfler on helping agencies rethink federal office space

“People want better buildings.” It’s as simple and not simple as that.

As federal employees begin to head to government offices more regularly, they have higher expectations for what shared workspaces could and should offer them, said Nina Albert, commissioner of the Public Buildings Service at the General Services Administration.

After working mainly from home since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal employees have embraced hybrid work schedules and have a different expectation for their workstations, explained Albert and GSA Chief Architect Chuck Hardy. That’s led to agencies rethinking their future office space needs as they develop return-to-office plans.

How to reimagine federal workspaces is front and center for agencies in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region in the wake of an Office of Management and Budget memo this spring calling for an increase in “meaningful” in-office work at headquarters offices.

To stay ahead of these efforts, GSA is giving agencies more options than ever to ensure federal employees have the space they need (and want) to meet their missions. Albert, Hardy and Ryan Doerfler, a senior workplace strategist at GSA’s Center for Workplace Strategy, discussed during Workplace Reimagined 2023 what these GSA services and support look like.

Ramping up for federal employees’ return to office

Agencies in 2023 started “slowly dipping their toe in the water,” asking more of their employees to return to the office more regularly, Albert said.

“That was a slow process because, frankly, that dark shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic still loomed, and folks were still trepidatious to come in,” she added.

Many federal employees also want to maximize the benefits of working from home — including avoiding lengthy commutes.

“The pendulum is still swinging, as agency leaders and organizational managers try and understand how to maintain high-quality mission delivery [and] customer service support, as well as continue to maintain a really strong workforce and talent base,” Albert said.

Hardy pointed out that employees working remotely over the past few years have customized their at-home workspaces. They are used to having control over the acoustics and lighting.

“They’ve customized those locations to suit their needs,” Hardy said. “Their expectations coming back to the office are increased — to have that same kind of flexibility, that same kind of customization.”

GSA spent much of the past year providing tools to help agencies understand a hybrid workforce’s impact on office space expectations and requirements.

What people want from federal buildings and workspaces has changed, Albert said.

“They want them to be sustainable. They want the air quality to be really good. They want to know where in the building their teammates or colleagues are sitting — because they want the advantage of collegiality, of collaboration, by working with other colleagues,” she said. “They want visibility as to who’s in the building when and where they are. There’s just a different quality of expectation.”

Getting going sooner rather than later on federal office revamps

While agencies are looking at their long-term office space needs, GSA is offering “low-cost, no-cost moves” to refresh federal offices quickly, Albert said.

“How do you repurpose existing furniture, take the best of what you have, create much more dynamic workplaces that deliver today what the workforce wants — rather than waiting on a three-to-five year plan to materialize? GSA is here to help agencies with that,” she said.

Albert predicted that this coming year, public and private sector organizations will both develop “more definitive plans” about the long-term role of hybrid work and how many days employees will be expected to work in their federal or industry offices.

“That will depend heavily on what an agency’s organizational culture, technology solutions, workforce retention and recruitment plans are,” she said. “All of those things will factor into the decision-making that agencies have for what the long-term hybrid posture is.”

The evolution in how and where people work will also continue to drive technology planning and implementation, Albert said. Federal office buildings need the technology infrastructure to deliver a “frictionless experience” to employees, whether they’re working from home or in the office.

Through its Workplace Innovation Lab, which opened in January 2023, GSA lets agency leaders and their employees test-drive new furniture and technology meant to support hybrid work.

Between February and July, agencies made more than 2,400 individual desk reservations and 2,200 meeting room reservations at the lab. GSA also hosted more than 200 lab tours during this period with more than 4,000 federal employees.

“This allows us to create an office workspace that is safe, healthy, empowering, sustainable. It also allows us to find ways to ensure that hybrid work experience is equitable for those located in their out-of-office workplace as well as in the office,” Hardy said.

Offering federal coworking spaces coast to coast

GSA has also begun letting government employees test out federal coworking spaces across the country, Doerfler said. The agency has established coworking spaces in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Tacoma, Washington.

Doerfler said these new shared workspaces give employees an opportunity to collaborate with their coworkers.

“It also gives those agency leaders a really good sense of which aspects of the workplace are important for their employees and will really entice them to come in or act as a magnet for collaboration,” he said.

As agencies rethink their office space needs, the Biden administration also sees an opportunity to sell office space the federal government no longer needs. Albert said GSA over the long-term is looking at ways to reduce costs by consolidating the government’s real estate footprint.

“The tagline that I always use is, ‘We want better buildings but fewer buildings,’” she said. “Right now, what I believe agencies can expect in this coming year, as well as our taxpayers, is more definitive planning on what is happening at the local level, at the regional level and at the national level across the real estate portfolio.”

GSA is also calling on Congress for additional funds for long-deferred maintenance projects across the federal building portfolio. The agency, in its fiscal 2024 budget request, seeks to regain full access to the Federal Buildings Fund.

The agency hasn’t had that access for more than a decade. The fund holds rent payments from tenant agencies.

Albert said these funds would help GSA consolidate underutilized office space as well as revitalize historic federal buildings.

“That’s the identity of the federal government in many ways. Those are extraordinary historic buildings that have a real impact on the American identity, and so we should be reinvesting in those buildings,” she said.

To watch and read more from 2023 Workplace Reimagined, visit our event page.

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Featured speakers

  • Nina Albert

    Commissioner, Public Buildings Service

  • Chuck Hardy

    Chief Architect, GSA

  • Jory Heckman

    Reporter, Federal News Network