As agencies consider plans for employees to reenter the office, the General Services Administration is looking at ways it can support telework across the federal workforce and drive down demand for government office space.
Andrew Heller, GSA’s assistant commissioner for facilities management, said the agency plans to roll out at least some of these support services later this year as part of a “Workplace 2030” initiative.
GSA, through its Public Buildings Services, manages about 371 million square feet of real estate across almost 9,000 workspaces. The agency owns about 1,700 of those properties and leases the rest on behalf of tenant agencies.
But Heller, speaking at a virtual conference hosted by the Association of Government Accountants, 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.
“Based on the survey information that we’re getting, we think that reliance on the physical workplace is going to decrease in the future. So it’s really on us to restack our buildings and right-size our portfolio in a smart way that makes sense for our customers, for the taxpayers and for GSA,” Heller said.
As part of the Workplace 2030 initiative, Heller said GSA is looking at offering “space as a service” to agencies later this year. Under this program, GSA would provide dedicated co-working space at GSA’s headquarters, individual workstations and conference rooms.
The program, he added, would allow agencies to share similar types of office space, which would reduce the cost to design, construct and maintain this space.
Heller said GSA is developing the Workplace 2030 initiative around three broad ideas: Most federal employees can complete work anywhere at any time. Technology can bring coworkers together outside a physical workplace and brick-and-mortar office space should be designed with enabling specialized work — with a focus on employee connection and equity.
‘What’s the best way to right-size that space?’
GSA isn’t the only one rethinking office space needs. The Agriculture Department, for example, is fielding a survey among its component agencies to better understand their office space needs, especially if more employees plan to telework after the pandemic.
Scott Davis, the director of USDA’s Office of Property and Environmental Management, said his office will conduct a deep dive on the survey results and balance agencies’ space needs with the goal of reducing office space.
“For years and years in government, we’ve talked about right-sizing space, reducing our footprint. This is actually an opportunity now to really take a look at what our portfolio looks like, in both owned, GSA-leased and commercially leased buildings,” Davis said.
As part of this analysis, USDA will also get a better understanding of the property it already occupies. Davis said USDA is currently in 4,600 leased offices, and is also working with the State Department to conduct an analysis of its real estate footprint overseas.
“If we want to embrace that more robust telework policy, do we really need all the space that we’re paying for? What’s the best way to right-size that space?” Davis said.
In addition to the USDA’s ongoing efforts to review all agency positions to determine whether some of them could be completely virtual, Davis said USDA recently approved a new policy to determine how many workstations it needs to allocate for employees who telework.
“What we found is that if you’re teleworking three or more days a week, you may not get a dedicated space in a facility,” Davis said.
USDA is holding a series of town halls to hear from employees about how telework and other workplace flexibilities could improve employee morale, mental health and wellness.
‘Home office in a box’
As part of the Workplace 2030 initiative, Heller said GSA is also looking at offering federal employees a “home office in a box,” giving workers the options to furnish a home office with work gear needed for their jobs.
“You’d essentially be able to order the types of things that you would have in an agency worksite: A monitor, a keyboard, mouse, maybe a printer, and some other things as well that you might not have at your disposal in your home office,” Heller said.
Through some of the polling and surveys that GSA has done, Heller said GSA found that was a “major impediment” for a larger proponent of more employees to teleworking more frequently.
“When you’re working at home, you may not have all the tools that are at your disposal when you’re sitting at your workstation or your office, in your physical workforce,” he said.
Davis said USDA is taking inventory of office materials in anticipation that more employees will ask for equipment that will enable long-term telework.
“Those things are we’re definitely planning for, and what are going to be the financial ramifications of those things if we have to then recreate someone’s office at home while still maintaining an office at the office,” Davis said.
Don Bice, director of BDO’s public sector practice, said agencies could take the savings generated from a smaller office footprint and put it toward IT investments to support better public services online.
“It’s a bit of a waste of an opportunity if all we think about is how can we save money by reducing our footprint, and not look at what it is we’re doing as a public sector,” Bice said.
While agencies are taking steps to maximize their current office space, Heller said GSA doesn’t anticipate agencies will rush to close out on existing lease agreements
Heller said the vast majority of occupancy agreements agencies have with GSA are cancelable with a written notice giving four months’ notice. But he said agencies probably won’t rush to cancel existing lease agreements
“We’ve had a couple of large projects interrupted and large occupancies where customers are wanting to give back space, but not in any meaningful way. At this point, we really think for the next year or two, agencies and departments are going to be working to figure this out and get a better understanding of how their processes are going to change and how that will affect their physical real estate footprint.