The shift to open-space floor plans in federal offices of recent years has complicated agency policies for increasing the amount of work done onsite, according to a report by the inspector general’s office at the GSA.
That approach has been a trend inside the government, as well as among other employers, in recent years, cited as providing for a more cooperative environment than private offices and cubicle farms. In some cases it also has facilitated reductions in space, as desks and other work stations are shared rather than designated only for one individual. Reaction from federal employees, as elsewhere, has been mixed.
However, as agencies carry out “reentry” plans that bring more employees back from pandemic-triggered telework and for more often, “The open-space floor plans in many of GSA’s facilities may increase the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak among tenants,” the report said.
“GSA has relied on office space designs based on open workspace and hoteling concepts to reduce overall space requirements. In many cases, these open-space designs may prevent GSA employees and tenants from observing social distancing requirements necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses,” it said.
One result, it said, is that “GSA and tenant agencies must monitor the number of staff reporting in person each day” and “will need to assess facilities with open-space floor plans and make the necessary adjustments to ensure compliance with all protocols necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, GSA will need to assess the effect of COVID-19 and future pandemics on the viability of open-space design concepts.”
The IG also pointed to a recent report in which it found that due to the age of several buildings it visited—and by extension, many others in the aging federal inventory—the HVAC systems cannot use the types of filter needed to meet CDC standards for capturing airborne viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19. In addition, that report found that even the filters that can be used were not changed as frequently as required.