At this year’s Energy Exchange 2022 on Oct. 25-27, Brian Gilligan, a sustainable design expert for the US General Service Administration (GSA), and Tom Chaleki, the Chief Readiness Support Officer at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) teamed up with PLASTARC’s Melissa Marsh for a panel entitled “'Reimagining the Future of Work and Workplace.”
The moderator, GSA high-performance buildings advisor Michael Bloom, opened the conversation with data showing a decline in in-office work even before COVID-19 lockdowns. Many US employers were already shifting towards hybrid work, but the pandemic accelerated federal agency conversations about optimizing physical space. Relevant questions include: what work is best completed at home and what’s best completed in the office? What are the drivers for returning to work? How do people actually use offices?
"We need to rethink our day-to-day habits, workplace policies, and our cities,” Marsh said. This reimagining includes transforming and adding value to occupied physical spaces, resizing facilities, tailoring workspaces both at home and in the office, and managing transportation for employees coming into the office. Even though fewer people are returning to in-office work, those who do are using roadways with individual vehicles, rather than taking public transportation. Increased data sharing between the private and public sectors is necessary to generate a variety of different predictors and an ultimate solution to a range of urban design and pos- pandemic issues.
The panelists agreed that collaboration, commitment, and a willingness to work across agencies and forge deeper relationships with the public is critical in both this reimagining and in tackling climate change.
Shifting the physical office footprint was a key topic. According to Chaleki, even pre-COVID, occupancy in the DHS offices was rarely at full capacity. DHS covers a wide variety of agencies, including the Secret Service, TSA, ICE, FEMA, and the Coastguard, which makes spatial negotiations more challenging. For instance, DHS leases multiple buildings which may stay empty for long periods of time, which is unsustainable. To address this, Chaleki and others are exploring consolidation plans, such as housing two organizations in one building, creating flexible and collaborative spaces, and opening empty space to public use.
Gilligan, who plays a key role in GSA’s Workplace 2030 and its healthy building effort, is dedicated to addressing the implications of reduced workplace utilization—especially with 80 percent of their employees coming into the office less often. GSA’s workplace consulting team, including BHDP and PLASTARC, have been working to survey the agency's employees for a more detailed understanding of workspace needs. Together, they are synthesizing this data into strategies that meet the needs of GSA employees working both digitally and in physical office environments. Employees working from home benefit from additional accommodations to make their workspaces comfortable and sustainable. In the office, a reduction of equipment would align with fewer occupants, while lessening equipment-generated emissions. Various health and wellbeing technologies, such as acoustics, air temperature regulation, tailored furnishings, and even a shortened commute, will also result in a smaller carbon footprint.
Like DHS, GSA leaders are reinventing the agency’s physical spaces to address an expanding range of less-traditional office uses, from hosting events and speakers to public outreach and learning programs. In Washington, DC, GSA offers demonstration space to test workplace innovations where GSA and federal agency leaders can explore future workplace solutions before implementing more broadly. As part of a continued effort to expand the services and resources available to the federal workforce, GSA are also leveraging their relationships with coworking and service office providers. Together these approaches enable both a more effective and a more sustainable model for workplace.
While GSA, DHS and a range of other organizations are setting an example through action, these leaders endeavor to accelerate change for both federal agencies and the private sector. As we say at PLASTARC, ”smart buildings are social buildings” and with these initiatives we are getting one step closer.