Nearly a month ago, I saw a post on LinkedIn that totally caught me off guard. GSA announced the ribbon cutting for an Innovation Lab in DC involving furniture and I hadn’t even heard of it!! I reached out and had a wonderful conversation with the man behind the lab, Charles “Chuck” Hardy, Chief Architect at GSA. Chuck has been with GSA for over 30 years and is responsible for overseeing the development of this new project.
Although COVID accelerated the project, the Innovation Lab was in development prior to the pandemic. The purpose is to serve as a location where GSA can work with furniture in a real environment, conduct product research, analyze trends and inform where partner agencies and GSA needs to focus.
“We have been pleasantly surprised by the reaction to what we’ve done, but it also speaks to where we are at,” Chuck said. “In the return to office, even if your office was functioning in the past, there is an inclination that ‘I do not want to come back to the way I left it.’ That means that something has to change, but then what does that change look like?”
In a three-month timespan, GSA organized over 100 tours of the new facility. In addition to its main functions, the space is also utilized for team meetings, individual workspaces, ad hoc meetings, change management preparation and feedback. Customers have the ability to reconfigure the space to meet their needs.
This project started as an independent venture, but GSA engaged in outreach with industry and customer agencies to aid in developing the lab concept. Through these collaborations, GSA eventually completed the project. Furthermore, I did confirm that the Innovation Lab was put out as a Request for Information (RFI) on SAM.gov as a bailment agreement. This means the furniture was provided free of charge for a set period of time in exchange for feedback and research. Chuck told me that the current plan is to issue an RFI every year to refresh the lab annually with new partners and products. Keep an eye out for the next RFI this fall.
Additionally, GSA is exploring the possibility of offering the Innovation Lab concept in other GSA locations across the nation.
“One thing is for certain, it is the agility and flexibility of space that is going to be something that’s just on a continuous basis,” said Chuck. “It’s going to be a change, which means our workspace and our furniture design are going to have to enter into something much more of an ecosystem and not something you just set and leave and come back in 10 years and say, ‘what do you need now?’ It is going to be something that needs to be managed and curated to a certain extent. Even facilities management will start to morph much more into a hospitality management mindset: ‘How do I curate the experience that I am coming to and reconfiguring a space set aside for seven different meetings into one big meeting?’ It’s a very exciting time to be in the business both on the design side and the product line side.”
I am sure you want to know what products are in the Innovation Lab at this time. Per Chuck, they had room to accommodate anyone who was interested in providing furniture. Five furniture manufacturers responded, and they divided the space available between the respondents with a sixth space for GSA where they re-used existing product. MillerKnoll, Haworth, Allsteel, Kimball and Swiftspace are currently in the lab. There are not many rules to use the lab other than you must respond to the RFI. The products did not have to be on GSA, but they did want it to be within a government budget. Each manufacturer was assigned a space by lottery and they were given their area to do what they wanted. The only criteria set was a fixed number of seats and the understanding that whatever they did had to be undone within one year. The goal was to have multiple different answers to the same question. I did notice that small business representation in our industry was missing from this project. In the future I would love to see this corrected, even if it means creating a partnership to develop the space. Chuck affirmed the importance of small businesses in projects such as this.
“Small businesses are where innovation happens. They have the nimbleness and quickness to react and think through things. They do come from the mindset of strong partnerships with others that are doing things that are in tandem or parallel to them. The challenge is integrating these businesses into a solution that everybody needs while being able to change on a dime as necessary. These are fun, but turbulent times,” said Chuck.
What feedback and research is being captured? The feedback received so far has been less about the manufacturers and more about the product (i.e. “I like this in this location”, “I didn’t like it over here”). The responses have been quite granular -- down to the pieces -- so GSA can focus on what problems they are trying to solve. This research will be shared publicly, so we will keep an eye out for the data when it is available.
To close, I believe, as an industry this is a very exciting time. The office landscape will never be the same. Together, we are all trying new things to figure it out. GSA having a lab shows their dedication to the American people and their willingness and urgency to implement smarter strategies. This is a time for innovation, a time for small and nimble business to rise up. It’s a great time to be in furniture and serving the public sector.
For more information on the Innovation Lab: https://workplace.gsa.gov/offerings/innovation-lab
ABOUT MICHELLE WARREN
Founder, President - Catalyst Consulting Group
Michelle is a leading force in the commercial furniture industry with 27 years of experience. Holding executive positions on the manufacturing and dealer side, she is known as a strategist with a passion to distill difficult topics for easy learning and selling. Her talents resulted in unprecedented sales growth throughout her career and ultimately led her to the public sector; demystifying how to position product sales to the government. Her success and easy to understand approach lead her to open Catalyst in 2021.
Michelle has been recognized as an innovator in strategic selling to the Federal Government, State/Local Government, Higher Education and Cooperative Purchasing. She is also known for her willingness to mentor and elevate women in the furniture world.
On a personal note, Michelle has never met a dog she didn’t like. Her beagle, Zoe is her pride and joy. She loves meeting people (and dogs) and making connections happen. She is a serial networker at heart. Michelle resides in Dagsboro, Delaware.
As seen in Delve | June 2023 V.39