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Breaking Down the 2023 GAO Real Property Report


Kelly Barlow

Date Published

Oct 21, 2023
6 minute read
GAO Real Property Report

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released its Federal Real Property report. The report focuses on utilization rates of 24 federal agency headquarters buildings in the DC area and the accompanying challenges and opportunities. It’s a lot to take in. Thankfully, workplace expert Kelly Barlow is here to share her insight on what leaders need to know from the findings.

Level-Set: High-Level Report Findings

The topline takeaway from the recently issued GAO report is that federal HQ buildings included in the study are not being utilized efficiently. GAO found that generally, occupancy and utilization rates are around 25%.

We all know that pre-pandemic utilization was not 100% thanks to a number of factors: telework, people whose work takes them outside the office, travel, and other typical reasons. But the low number from the GAO findings remains striking.

However, these numbers show us two big positives:

  • There is a lot of opportunity for budget savings. Without digging into the details, imagine the amount of money that could be saved through space consolidation and space reduction.
  • People are truly leaning into the balance and flexibility that the post-pandemic environment allows.

On the flip side, there are two challenges:

  • That opportunity for savings mentioned above comes at the cost of a lot of current waste.
  • The current HQ buildings don’t support preferred new ways of working. For example, they don’t have the right furniture, setup, and types of spaces that support how Feds prefer to work when they are in the office.

The report does a good job of digging into these takeaways, including that last point: When people come into the office today, they are looking to engage, socialize, collaborate and share ideas instead of simply sitting in a workspace and clicking from meeting to meeting. However, when it comes to these older headquarters buildings that often are on the historical register, it’s really hard to get them into a shape that supports these new ways of working.

As a result, we see people still clicking from virtual meeting to virtual meeting, just from a less comfortable environment. And that highlights the bottom line and the report’s ultimate finding: we must recognize the reality of the post-pandemic world and how space is really being used in it, then look at it as a potential opportunity for agencies to think differently about space, about their investment in footprints, how people work, and how to best support them.

Takeaways for Federal Leaders

What the report doesn’t specifically call out, but should be mentioned, is that being a federal leader in today’s government is difficult. While there are many reasons for this, the report uses space and utilization to highlight an issue that illustrates the difficult positions leaders find themselves in when making long-term decisions: the cyclical nature of federal directives. The GAO points out that one of the reasons why utilization is so low is because leaders at these federal agencies have a hard time thinking about letting go of space when they don’t know what this or the next Administration’s policy is going to be on workplace models. We’ve seen it go back and forth from liberal telework to restricted telework to choose your own adventure. Right now, people have declared – implicitly if not explicitly – that they prefer a flexible work environment and schedule and, as HQ utilization numbers show, this has largely been accepted (again, implicitly if not explicitly). If that remains the case, space consolidation and reduction appear to be an easy choice. However, what agencies and leaders are afraid of is the pendulum swinging the opposite way and people needing to be fully in-office and not having the space to support that.

So, what’s a leader to do? Think differently. For example, consider the following tips:

  • Consider the EX: Approach your thinking on the workspace from an employee experience perspective. With that as your mindset, a lot of the following answers will naturally fall into place.
  • Retain a Politically Agnostic Approach: Remove the political element from your decision criteria and think critically about what your agency needs in a workplace to support its people and mission. A great place to start is my colleague Nick Srebrow’s list of questions he recommends leaders ask themselves when preparing for a workplace change.
  • Think about the Future Workforce: What will attract the workforce of the future, as large numbers of aging federal employees will be retiring in the coming years? While nothing is set in stone, it’s likely future generations will favor the flexible models currently in their nascent stages.
  • Return to Your Why: Consider why you want people to come to the office. Is it to collaborate? Is it to promote a desired workplace culture? To build bonds between team members?

Returning to our Workplace Director Nick’s list of questions, consider the points above as you think about the purpose of your organization’s space. For example, in a flexible work model, what space is actually required? What will it be used for (i.e., collaboration)? How will the right space help you build a workplace culture that will support your organization’s mission?

A great way to approach these questions is by creating personas of the groups that make up your workforce and using those personas to help arrive at the right model for your organization. Give my colleague Robyn Klem’s thought leadership piece focus on customer personas a read and then download our easy-to-use persona-building template. Of course, if you’re feeling stuck or need to bounce ideas off a workplace expert, reach out to The Clearing anytime.