GSA Video and Case Study: Work is What You Do, Not Where You Are

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Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie is a Workplace Consultant at Herman Miller and the former Editor of Work Design Magazine. She’s currently based in Pittsburgh.

See how GSA‘s 1800 F Street project in Washington, D.C. is transforming the government workplace in this video and case study, sponsored by AgilQuest

Case study

Click here to download the full PDF version of the GSA case study, Work is What You Do, Not Where You Are: How GSA’s 1800 F Street Project is Transforming the Government Workplace

The case study is chock full of images, drawings, and interviews with GSA employees, designers and strategists from Gensler and The Building People, and AgilQuest experts. The full text of the case study, along with select images, is copied below.


When the General Services Administration — the U.S. agency that manages nearly 375 million square feet of federal office space — opened their renovated headquarters at 1800 F Street NW in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2013, less than half of the building’s employees showed up. It was the intended result of an initiative that began with an Executive Order mandating that federal agencies shed unused office space, cut costs, and, in response to the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, find a way to move government employees to more flexible styles of work.

As the government’s leader in real estate management, GSA committed itself to setting a new workplace standard for all federal agencies. To date, by consolidating six D.C.-area leases into one 800,000 square foot building, running an extensive series of measurements to determine how much (and what kind of) space they really need, and implementing their Smart Building and Smart Occupancy technology strategies they have:

  • Achieved a 2:1 worker-to-workspace ratio in an effort to create a more mobile work environment, supporting 4,400 employees with only 2,200 desks
  • Saved $24 million (nearly 50 percent) in annual lease costs by consolidating six leases into one. On top of that, they’ve saved another $7–8 million by sharing all service costs (security and supplies, for example)
  • Reduced carbon and energy consumption by 50 percent, saved 16 million kilowatts of energy annually, and avoided 16,000 metric tons of CO2
  • Integrated Smart Occupancy and Smart Building initiatives to connect the building’s occupancy data (who is where, when) with its building systems, yielding an additional 10 percent energy savings
  • Given their employees the ability to choose the best place to work each day by engaging in an extensive period of research and measurement to determine the right mix and right amount of focus and collaboration space, and encouraging mobility both inside and outside of the building, enabled by BookIT, a re-labeled version of AgilQuest’s OnBoard workplace management system and Commander BI workplace analytics platform

According to Janet Pogue McLaurin, a principal and workplace sector leader at Gensler, GSA’s workplace strategy partner and interior architect on the project, the renovation is “not about changing the way people work — it’s about changing the way that they use space.”

“GSA really wanted to develop a demonstration project that showcases what works for them,” she said. “We know that every federal agency has a different mission, but they could all glean something from this project that makes them think differently about space.”

Photo by Doug Lucy for AgilQuest.
Photo by Doug Lucy.

Consolidating six buildings into one and breaking the bond between work and place

In addition to the presidential mandate to shed unused space and the Telework Enhancement Act that encouraged a more distributed workforce, Martha Johnson, GSA’s administrator at the time, floated the challenge — an admitted “moonshot” — of consolidating all of GSA’s D.C.-area employees into one location. Her goal, in addition to reducing costs, was to help to break the idea that work and place is the same thing.

“Work is an activity, and then there’s this place called 1800 F,” said John Vivadelli, the president of AgilQuest, the provider of the Smart Occupancy and Smart Buildings technology behind GSA’s BookIT. “By breaking those bonds, [they could] use that infrastructure to support new ways of working in the most efficient way possible.”

In the early stages of the building renovation, led by Shalom Baranes Associates and which was underway before GSA made the decision to consolidate, they moved half of the employees out of the existing 1800 F Street building and into temporary swing space. Here, the employees had to key in and out, and according to Chuck Hardy, the chief workplace officer for GSA, this was where the fun started.

It’s not about changing the way people work — it’s about changing the way that they use space.

“That’s when we looked at the numbers and saw that, on the best day of the week, we were getting about 45 percent population inside the building,” said Hardy. At first, he wondered if the swing space was driving a drop in attendance. But after further observation and research, he realized that this was how it had always been. “We just couldn’t tell because of the tall partitions, the space, and the way the building was laid out,” he said. “And looking at that underutilized space — here we are, the real estate managers of the government — we had to ask, how can we better manage it?”

One of AgilQuest’s goals for GSA was to put technology in place to gather and evaluate information to make it easy for them to share space — an approach that could conceivably be applied across all federal agencies.

“It’s the same stuff: the same space, the same conference rooms,” Hardy said. “How can we figure out a way to take the information about that space, realize that it’s only used [half of the time] on average, and allow people to choose places to go to work? More than just at home, more than just at 1800 F, but within any building that’s in the federal government.”

Now that the transformation is complete, with 4,400 GSA employees working out of one building with 2,200 seats, utilization numbers still hover just under 50 percent. It seems counterintuitive — collapsing six buildings into one, but not moving the needle on utilization — and yet, GSA sees it as the positive outcome of Johnson’s “moonshot”.

“[They] broke work from place and said to people that it’s ok to work in the location that best fits what you want to do,” said Vivadelli. “By doing that, it freed people up to pick the place that best suits them.”

“Martha had a great saying that really became a rallying cry for the design, that ‘Work is what you do, not where you are’,” added McLaurin. “And so the whole idea of decoupling space from status, and really thinking about the activity, became a huge driving force on the project.”

Video still courtesy of Jason Cheung.

Managing the integration of people, buildings, and technology

Initially, employees were skeptical about the feasibility of shedding space and going unassigned. To quell suspicion and win support, GSA implemented a thorough change management program that included workshops with Gensler, e-learning courses with AgilQuest, and a series of living labs.

Gensler led a series of workshops with 35 GSA leadership teams over a period of two weeks, sharing and building upon information that they had already gathered: badging and utilization data, answers from a survey about work styles, and facts about how many people are actually in the building on a given day.

“Armed with that, we modeled the data right in front of them, and asked ‘How many of your staff are never here? Always here?’, et cetera,” said McLaurin. “So according to what you’ve told us, this is how many seats you need. And in nine out of 10 interviews, we had leadership realize that this was not as scary as they’d imagined. And that started to tell us that we could easily start to absorb far more people into the building than we’d originally thought.”

The number of layers it takes to get to a senior executive in the government used to be many. Now, for the first time in GSA’s history, we’re sitting with the leadership.

While Gensler helped to show how people would use the new building, AgilQuest was busy helping to build bridges between the people and how the technology platform would affect how they use the space.

“We provided our AgilWork e-learning training to about 5,000 managers,” said Wister Jefferson, the GSA account manager for AgilQuest. “We didn’t cover things like how to book a space — that was provided separately. AgilWork was change management training for the managers. It not only showed them how to work in this new mobile environment, but also how to work with their employees.”

Aside from the formal training offered by vendors, employees eased into the changes gradually with living labs and the informal pilots that played out as a result of the swing spaces.

“Because [early in the renovation] they had to swing out, employees were forced to move into that environment temporarily before it was permanent,” said Linda Osgood, who, at the time, was the chief of staff for the Public Building Service, one of GSA’s two main services (presently she’s the managing director of The Building People, a corporate real estate and facilities consultancy). “At the same time, the Public Building Service stayed in 1800 F and squished together on the third floor, and started mimicking those new behaviors: desk-sharing, using the AgilQuest system, scanning files to get rid of paper — all that stuff that changes the culture.”

Video still courtesy of Jason Cheung.
Video still courtesy of Jason Cheung.

Larry Melton, then GSA’s assistant commissioner of facilities management (now president of The Building People), indicated that as much as he was part of the team deploying the new workplace for GSA, he was also an end-user, and shared his own experience of coming to adopt the new ways of working encouraged by the new space and technology:

“When the opportunity presented itself to go into the open, temporary space, I had to think, Now how do I work differently?” he said. He noticed right away that the open space contributed to more listening and overhearing of conversations that helped him and his team to do their work more effectively.

Added Hardy, “The number of layers it takes to get to a senior executive in the government used to be many. Now, for the first time in GSA’s history, we’re sitting with the leadership of our Federal Acquisitions Service, our Public Building Service, and the administrator of GSA within 39 feet of each other, in open office.”

How GSA’s workplace technology enables choice

“The focus of 1800 F and the focus of GSA’s workplace technology is choice,” said Hardy, addressing the flexibility and variety of work styles now available to GSA employees. “If you provide the appropriate level of choice, that’s going to get an employee, one, engaged, and two, the most productive.”

For example, pre-renovation, 1800 F Street was chock-full of big conference rooms, but there were not many one- or two-person meeting spaces, which they discovered were the size of most meetings at GSA. Now, in addition to a variety of workstations in the new, open spaces, the availability of meeting rooms of various sizes has also made a big difference, and AgilQuest’s software has helped to make the choices as accessible as possible for employees.

“When people are asked what they value most in their workplace, it always comes back to choice,” said Torrance Houlihan, the AgilQuest VP who oversaw the integration of the technology that has enabled the building. “There is a lot of underlying technology,” he added. “But it wasn’t implemented for technology’s sake. It was implemented to let people choose how and when they’re going to interact with the building, and then to give them feedback from the building when they do that.”

We transitioned them from having fixed, assigned spaces to having a very dynamic and flexible and movable work environment.

For example, with AgilQuest’s OnBoard, employees badge in when they arrive at the building, and once they do, they’re reminded if they have a reservation for a particular workstation. If they have a reservation, the system is poised to automatically power that space up when the employee gets to it. If they don’t have a reservation, they’re prompted to make one. In the mean time, no building services are firing to power empty spaces. This marriage of GSA’s Smart Building (which encompasses data points like HVAC, electricity, and lights) and Smart Occupancy (which concerns who is where, when) initiatives has yielded both a powerful solution for the workforce, as well as an additional 10 percent energy savings.

Video still courtesy of Jason Cheung.

The building itself is shaped like an “E”, with three long wings branching off a center spine. They placed all of the common areas along the spine, creating small neighborhoods punctuated with enclosed spaces like meetings rooms, focus rooms, and the few private offices that still exist in the building.

“We transitioned them from having fixed, assigned spaces to having a very dynamic and flexible and movable work environment,” said McLaurin. “And so it’s setup to be a series of different work environments, some of which are highly collaborative, some which support more intensive work (think legal or financial groups), and other areas are very dynamic and very flexible.”

During the series of workshops that Gensler ran with the leadership teams, they gave choice of what kind of work environment they wanted, and then “made sure we had the right mix throughout the entire building,” she added.

Added Hardy, “It was really an engaging and transparent process for everyone. We really wanted to find out how people work and their work patterns.”

Video still courtesy of Jason Cheung.
Video still courtesy of Jason Cheung.

What the future holds for the government workplace and beyond

Two years in to phase one’s completion, GSA has succeeded at reducing unnecessary costs and has geared its workplace up to attract a new generation of workers. But the ultimate proof of the initiative’s success will come when they can see that it has had a positive effect not only on their own their agency, but also on agencies across the government.

“My focus as chief workplace officer for GSA is really working with other agencies and getting them to where they need to be, to get their spaces aligned with their mission and their culture and their technology,” said Hardy.

He added that, when advising other agencies, he emphasizes the process of GSA’s transformation — not necessarily the look or their culture-specific policies.

The building is right for GSA. But the process is right for everybody.

“This is a result of a process that GSA went through to determine what was the right space needs and what was the right ratio of space types and the right amount of choice for a GSA employee to carry out GSA’s mission,” he said. “It’s not something that we’re looking to commoditize and cookie cutter across government, because every agency is different.”

The positive outcomes of engaging in the process are hard to ignore: all said, GSA has reduced six leases into their one headquarters, which saves them $24 million annually, alone. “And then by consolidating those locations into one, we started saving on the shared services — whether it’s security costs, delivery costs, the multiple supply areas of each building — that saved another $7-8 million,” said Hardy. “So you’re looking at between $31-32 million annual cost avoidance by that single location.”

Taxpayer ears should perk up at those stats, but organizations outside of the government ought to be taking notes, too.

“The things that GSA learned and exposed and has improved on doesn’t just apply to the government,” said Houlihan. “These are the same problems that we see in industries all around the world.”

“The building is right for GSA,” concluded Hardy. “But the process is right for everybody.”


A special thank you to Jillian Erhardt for her graphics work on the case study PDF, and to Lost Note Productions‘ Jason Cheung for his work on the video.

Disclaimer: GSA’s participation in the development of this video and case study does not constitute an endorsement of Work Design Magazine, AgilQuest, Gensler, or The Building People, or the products and services they offer.

This content was sponsored by AgilQuest.

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