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Government Executive Future of Federal Workforce Event

Administrator Robin Carnahan gave Keynote Address

Good morning everyone. I’m Robin Carnahan, the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration.

It’s great to be with all of you. Thanks to GovExec for inviting me to join virtually and share a few thoughts about what may be on the horizon for the federal workforce.

Now, I’m the first to admit that trying to predict the future is a dangerously fraught business, but understanding where things stand at this moment with the federal workforce in light of all the challenges and changes of the past 20 months can be useful in helping us set our course going forward.

Like most people around, most of GSAs staff have been teleworking full-time throughout the pandemic. We have about 12,000 employees at GSA, and I’m lucky that team members will often send me notes about how things are going with their work.

Recently, I got a note from a longtime employee saying how grateful he was for being able to telework. He told me that his wife was going through cancer treatments and that teleworking had made such a difference for his family because it allowed him the flexibility to drive her to and from chemotherapy appointments... and be around and close after each treatment. He said, “I can’t express how much of a difference it makes just to be able to grab a glass of water for her.”

As a cancer survivor myself, I know what a relief it is to have one less thing to worry about when you’re going through treatments and how much stress is involved for family members as they balance added responsibilities.

I’ve heard from lots of other people as well about how telework has increased their productivity and improved their team culture. People regularly mention how they’ve been able to be more productive, have fewer distractions, spend more time serving customers and less time commuting, and surprisingly some even tell me they have felt more - not less - connected to their teams.

Stories like these drive home the fact that employers across the board have a unique moment of opportunity - right now - to reimagine where and how people work, and how we deliver for our customers. It’s an unusual moment when everyone, whether in the public or private sector, is thinking about these issues, and I’m excited to see the federal government and GSA leading the way in both delivering for customers and empowering the people who serve American taxpayers every day.

Now I realize that most of you here today already “get it.” You’ve been through the fire and quickly adapted your organizations over the past 20 months to respond to the pandemic by:

  • moving thousands of employees to remote work, many for the first time...
  • redesigning programs and systems to support both your employees and customers in this new environment; and
  • finding innovative new ways to retain a sense of community and belonging.

None of that has been easy, so I want to take a minute to say thank you for what I know has been the most challenging period of your careers.

The good news is that, today, new cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. are declining and more of our workforces are getting vaccinated - hopefully both of those trends continue.

And while I know that some of us look forward to getting back to offices, we also have learned that many of our colleagues can just as effectively do their jobs without the requirement of being in the office every day.

With that in mind, now really is the time to think hard about how to take advantage of this moment to build a better workplace, to support tomorrow’s workforce, and to serve our customers - the American people - better than ever before.

I was sworn in as GSA Administrator just a few months ago, but I had worked at GSA in the “before times”... pre-pandemic. So I knew that GSA already had open workspaces in the DC headquarters and also widely offered telework options to staff. So once the pandemic hit, the GSA team was able to make a fast transition to working-from-home. But that certainly wasn’t always the norm across government.

Fast forward to today - not only are agencies rethinking their own work environments, there is also a cross government collaboration called Workplace 2030 that is doing the same for the entire federal workforce.

Up front, we should acknowledge that every agency has its own unique mission and there will always be the need for some in-person, on-site work. For example, building managers, construction engineers, and lab techs have been working on-site throughout the pandemic and will likely continue to do so going forward.

There are also situation-specific needs for in-person collaboration. Many teams benefit from gathering in a conference room with a whiteboard to brainstorm new ideas and collaborate on projects, so the need for shared spaces are also likely to remain.

Discussing all of these workplace needs is what Workplace 2030 is doing, and that work will have a big influence on how we at GSA approach our jobs. After all, we manage about 371 million square feet for our federal partners, including about 1,700 owned and 7,000 leased properties. And notably, 60% of our leases are coming due in the next 5 years.

So the question is this: What should we all be doing right now to seize this unique opportunity... to make our workplaces better suited for the future and save money for taxpayers?

I’ll start with two suggestions.

First, now is the perfect moment to experiment and try new things. For example, if a team can just as effectively work from home, agencies should be thinking about how to ensure they have all the tools they need to be effective. One offering the GSA team is developing is the concept of an “office-in-a-box.” Your agency could quickly access everything needed to set up a remote office - a monitor, keyboard, mouse, chair, internet access and other furnishings.

For those who prefer working in an office, we’re experimenting with flexible co-working spaces. For example, we’re piloting a FlexHub site at GSA’s HQ at 1800 F Street in Washington. It’s open space reserved for federal employees from any agency who can come in and access ready to use office space as needed.

In addition to experimenting, the second thing we need is better data collection. Common sense suggests that using and consolidating into federally-owned facilities is better for taxpayers than signing new leases. And it’s clear that many agency are going to be expanding telework options and thus using their office space very differently than before the pandemic.

But in order to track that cost savings, we need to work closely with partner agencies to collect more data about building usage. That’s why we’ll be advocating for the use of Occupancy Monitoring Systems to help understand current usage and to predict future demands on real estate.

Bottomline, now is the time to keep an open mind to new workplace solutions that maybe you’ve never considered. I saw a great example of this recently in St. Louis where the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency - NGA - came to us with a unique problem. They have a new building set to open in 2025, but they needed unclassified collaboration space much sooner than that. Our team found a leasing solution at a co-working space at a tech startup in downtown St. Louis. As a result, NGA was able to launch their project - called Moonshot Labs - where NGA teams work alongside other government, industry, and academic partners.

I’m proud to say we helped NGA build out this cutting-edge space on time and under budget, in the middle of a global pandemic and in the midst of supply chain challenges. Just last week I heard from NGA leaders again about how pleased they are with this space and the cutting edge work being produced in this new collaborative environment.

GSA is ready to be your partner in rethinking and delivering your future workspace - whatever they might be.

Building great workplaces means nothing, though, unless we have great teams fully empowered to do great work. We’ve done a few staff surveys at GSA to better understand how the pandemic has reshaped the way they work and to ensure our teams are set up for success going forward. I want to share what we found with you and would guess you may be hearing similar things at your own agencies.

First, having access to the right tools and technology is crucial for folks to do their best work. When it comes to hardware, GSA and most other federal agencies have been able to adapt. But going forward we intend to redouble our focus on software and the digital tools we need to improve the overall customer experience of both internal and external agency users. We’re also focused on expanding our offering of “shared services” like login.gov and cloud.gov and other secure software tools that agency-partners need to effectively and efficiently fulfill their missions.

Second, many GSA employees have found working from home both easier and more productive and are eager to maintain some flexibility in where they work. As a result, many teams and managers will lean more heavily into telework than they did pre-pandemic. Our guiding principle on these issues will be continuous learning and soliciting feedback from customers, managers and employees and iteration to ensure we’re delivering the best possible value to customers and taxpayers.

Bringing employees into the discussion and the decision-making process as much as possible is important so that we can closely align what’s best for our mission with what’s best for our workers. Listening pays off.

There is no doubt that this could require us to rethink some HR policies in significant ways. We’ll be happy to share any useful learnings we uncover along the way. And I hope you’ll do the same, so we can learn together.

I’ve said more than once over the past few months that one of the things that keeps me up at night is how we in government can retain and recruit new talent. Workers everywhere have been forced to rebalance their work and private lives over the past 20 months and employers are responding.

Listening to and responding to the needs of our current work force is crucial but only half of the challenge - we also need to attract the tomorrow’s workforce and that’ll only happen if we’re agile and responsive to their needs.

Like many of you, we at GSA were thinking about these issues well before the pandemic. A few years ago when we stood up the Technology Transformation Services to help federal agencies meet their fast-changing tech needs, most of the tech talent interested in doing that work didn’t live in Washington and didn’t want to move. So for many years now, they’ve been doing impactful work as part of a remote, distributed team across the country.

Overall, it’s becoming clear that the most dynamic and successful organizations will be those that listen and adapt quickly to changing needs...and for those of us in government, it’s time to recognize that our ability to effectively serve the American people has become more dependent on the technology we use rather than by the physical places we work.

That’s a huge paradigm shift - but I think we can navigate it by staying focused on our goal -- the North Star -- to deliver an outstanding experience for our customers and value to taxpayers.

At GSA, we’ve closely measured our customer satisfaction over the past two years. It’s one of the most important metrics we measure.

And interestingly, we’ve found that customer satisfaction scores have gone up.

For example, we survey our federal customers in leased and owned buildings - from 2019 to 2021, overall satisfaction on their projects is up 5%. That’s a good sign, particularly since we haven’t been able to meet these customers in person.

But please, don’t feel like you need to wait for a survey, I’m interested in knowing whether GSA is meeting your building, acquisition, and technology needs. If not, I’d like to know how we can do better. So, please reach out and let us know.

Delivering for our ultimate customers, the American people, is the work of government. People’s expectations about how they want services delivered is changing quickly and at GSA it’s our job to help your agencies do just that and save money while doing it.

So as you listen to today’s panels and speakers, I’d like to leave you with a challenge… Take note of those good ideas you hear and take them back to your agencies and put them to work in ways that deliver even more value for our customers and American taxpayers.

Harry Truman, who created GSA, once said, “America was built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

Today, the job we have at hand is to meet this crucial moment in history and make government work better for both our workforce and the people we serve.

Our democracy has to deliver. Our government has to deliver. And you are the leaders entrusted to make that happen.

Thanks again for your time and enjoy the conference.

Last Reviewed: 2021-10-20