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Inside The Lab Where The Federal Government Is Figuring Out The Future Of Its Office Footprint

The federal government is the largest office tenant in the U.S., leasing more than 180M SF from private landlords. The future of that portfolio could be determined inside a new 25K SF facility in downtown D.C.

Entrance to the General Services Administration's Workplace Innovation Lab

On Monday, the General Services Administration will begin hosting facilities managers, interagency teams and other groups of federal workers at the Workplace Innovation Lab, located at GSA's headquarters at 1800 F St. NW.

The facility has been transformed from a standard bank of cubicles and office space into a tech-enabled showroom for movable and modern office furniture. As President Joe Biden faces pressure from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Republican lawmakers to call workers back into the office, the lab shows how hybrid work is top of mind for government officials.

The federal government has made only piecemeal progress on bringing workers back to the office, but it hasn't slowed its drive to consolidate space. This month, the GSA is slated to complete its auction of an empty, 110K SF office building in Alexandria. It also downsized the nearby campus of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by 800K SF in November, and experts say the federal office footprint's long-term decline is likely to continue as a cost-saving measure.

That has big implications nationwide, but especially in the Washington, D.C., area, which hosts just under a third of all federal office leases. 

Hardy said that previously, the federal government made decisions about office layouts when a lease expired or was altered, which typically meant about once a decade. But with the future of the office in such a period of rapid change in work culture, the GSA is looking to find solutions that can shape-shift quickly.

"Standard real estate policy is to put in place a 10-year lease. Can you even guess how we’re going to be working in 2033?" GSA Chief Architect Charles Hardy said during a tour of the lab. "Thats why agility or flexibility in space is important."

Chief Architect Charles Hardy shows off an updated phone booth with an adjustable sit/stand desk during a tour of the GSA's Workplace Innovation Lab.

The lab is sectioned off based on the vendors participating in the study, which is running for one year with the possibility to run longer with current or new vendors. Allsteel, Miller-Knoll, Haworth/Price Modern, Kimball International and Swiftspace/VOE have all provided products for use by government employees, with Cisco providing much of the technological backing of the lab.

This technology is helping create more seamless connections between government employees working in different places.  

"People know how to contact other people, some are meeting somewhere in Denver, but the rest are in the office, and they know how that works," Hardy said. "So now, how do you get the space in a supportive role that is an enabler of those kinds of meetings?"

Workers are able to contact the GSA to reserve space for a certain period of time at the lab similar to a private coworking space. The federal government is then collecting user feedback and using tracking technology to monitor occupancy in real time. That data is then shared with the vendors in exchange for the free use of their office furniture, providing both the public and private sector insight into what kinds of office layouts and technologies workers like the best.

"If the initial data says nobody's sitting in those workstations over there, then they come and say, ‘We’ll swap this out,’” Hardy said. “It sends a message back to them because maybe those workstations are past their prime."

Much of the space is composed of modular, movable cubicles and more casual seating arrangements, with a greater emphasis on softer, living room-like spaces than the federal government would have been comfortable with pre-pandemic, Hardy said.

Multiple office vendors provided the GSA with modular cubicles for workers to use and reconfigure.

The idea is to replicate the work-from-home environment while also encouraging collaboration. To that end, there's a heightened embrace of noise-dampening fabrics and modern phone booths with virtual meeting technology, some of which also offer adjustable sit/stand desks for added comfort.

Meeting technology from Cisco demonstrated at the site also includes cutting-edge noise-canceling technology — Hardy said during one demonstration prior to launch, Cisco's microphones were able to remove the sound of a siren played from a visitor's phone from the sound of a meeting. 

As the government works to make its offices more flexible and reduce its footprint, many owners of older office buildings with GSA leases are likely becoming nervous about losing a tenant. 

But Hardy said his focus with the lab is to worry less about which spaces are closing and worry more about how the federal government can more effectively use the space it keeps.

"It’s giving people something they can touch, kick the tires on and see what they like," Hardy said.