GSA declares end to cube farms, unveils new approach to office space

Friday - 9/20/2013, 5:44am EDT

Jason Miller reports.

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The General Services Administration has enlisted four other agencies to jump on their workplace transformation bandwagon.

As part of the renovation of its headquarters building in Washington, D.C., GSA did away with office cube farms and private offices. Instead, employees now work in open spaces, use software to reserve desks and conference rooms in advance and are strongly encouraged to telework often.

This is the new workplace many GSA employees call home. It's bright, modern and focused on bringing people together. The carpet is a mix of greens and browns, and every employee work area includes a laptop docking station, a 22-inch monitor and a connection to the network where Internet and phone services are provided.

In the common areas, GSA gives employees tables and chairs similar to those found at a local coffee shop — low to the ground, round seats with no backs. The goal is to promote impromptu, short collaboration sessions.

Very few employees have a permanent desk. They reserve a desk the day or two before they need it by using a reservation website called Book-It, which runs on software developed by AgilQuest.

Employees just have to drop their laptop in the docking station and they are ready to work.

Multiple ways to work

Bob Stafford, the Internal Workplace Management Division Director in GSA's office of administrative services, led a tour Thursday of the new workspace.

"What we are walking through right now is a couple of different working conditions we created in the building. Both some open collaborative space where someone could come in, touch down, set up their laptop, work off the wireless network and be here for a couple of hours or have a very small meeting out it the open," Stafford said. "Or, a number of reservable conference rooms that all have white boards in them so you can reserve up to 8 or 10 people to be able to have these types of meetings. We've tried to replicate these types of work spaces throughout the building so no matter where you are, you are not very far away from being access any space you might need."

GSA also created a larger conference center that can accommodate up to 250 people. The room has movable walls to reduce the size of the room as needed, and the officials can rearrange the furniture in any number of designs to meet the conference needs.

Many of the new conference rooms have a little screen attached to the wall and if the room is available, a green light is lit. If it's been reserved, it's red. Stafford said employees looking for a conference room can easily look down a hallway and find a green light and reserve the room right on the touch screen.

The renovated work areas also have large windows providing natural light.

"That's one of the benefits of the renovation," he said. "As you will see as we walk this space, we were able to eliminate interior corridors, flood the space with light, leverage some of the daylight so we don't have to utilize electrical light and saving energy, and make the space a lot more pleasant to be in."

Changing the layout adds more space

During phase one of the renovation of the headquarters building, GSA created 50,000 more usable square feet of office space. It increased the number of employees who work out of the headquarters building to 3,300 from 2,200.

Stafford said now there are two employees for every one workstation, meaning telework is highly encouraged.

Stafford said as part of the consolidation of workspace, there are new centrally located copying and printing service centers on the floors.

"We've reduced the number of personal printers, and now we are sharing printers on a ratio of 25-to-1. ... Everyone is networked into them so they can print to these devices. Things like common supplies like pens, paper and all that stuff we have more than we know what to do with it — we consolidated from six different locations into these services. We will see a lot of efficiency associated with that type of consolidation, as opposed to every single organization buying their own paper clips, their own staplers and that type of thing."

Even with the new open space set up, GSA gives employees personal space in the form of lockers located throughout each of the floors.

Stafford said each locker is about 18"x18"x12" and has electronic combination locks to keep professional and personal belongings secure.

Stafford added he expects GSA to complete the consolidation under phase one by October.

Ran out of money

GSA has held off on phase 2 of the building's renovation because of budget reductions. Instead, GSA spent about $8 million to refresh the current old office space.

Stafford said in the refreshed, but not renovated area, GSA painted the hallways, installed new carpet in the offices and ensured employees had the same furniture and workstations as those in the new office space.

"We went from having typically about two people per bay [workstation], given that configuration, to as many as six per bay," he said. "Typical right now in the building is four people per bay, so basically doubling the efficiency of the space."

GSA also created a glass paneled atrium where the light streams in on a sunny day, and a new entrance on C Street, which is expected to open in the coming weeks.

The new office space, GSA hopes, is what every federal agency will look like in the next five years.

Dan Tangherlini, the administrator of GSA, said over the next two years, 25 percent of all federal leases will expire.

"Agencies, frankly, need us now more than at any other time in our history. With the financial constraint that agencies are feeling every day, and the fact that that constraint isn't going away anytime soon, agencies need to be able to look how they are spending their money, look at their fixed costs, look at things that are in their baseline and ask themselves, 'How can they make that variable? How can they push that back into program? How can they push that back into the services that they provide the American people?" Tangherlini said. "So that's part of what we are doing. Work with our agency partners to recognize this constraint also represents an opportunity for us to rethink the way we lay out our office, the way we work, the way we interact, and that's what the Total Workplace effort on the part of GSA is trying to do."

Money and efficiencies

He said the reasons for transforming the workplace are two-fold. The first is all about money. GSA already saved $24 million in rent by consolidating six locations into its headquarters building. It also saved another $7 million in related operational and administrative costs.

"Now that's money, the way the GSA program is developed, that will go back into other federal buildings. It will go back into investments in windows, in roofs, in energy efficiency that actually will have long-term savings to the federal government overall," Tangherlini said. "Look if we are not spending money on things we don't need, call it savings, call it cost avoidance, what I call it is a reduction in waste, and that's the kind of thing we are really focused on doing with our agency partners."

The second reason for transforming the workplace is to improve efficiency and effectiveness. GSA officials say by bringing people closer together and encouraging collaboration through the open space plan, they are creating an environment that works better.

Several agencies are taking GSA up on the help and advice to transform their office space.

The Homeland Security Department spends more than $1 billion a year on rent.

By working with GSA, DHS is reducing the amount of square feet per employee to less than 150 from an average 200.

Jeffery Orner, the chief readiness support officer at DHS, said the transformation of the workplace will start with the offices at the St. Elizabeths complex in Washington.

"We were planning to put 14,000 people there. Well we are still planning to build out 14,000 seats, but we will now put well over 20,000 people there, enabling us to cancel leases elsewhere in the country," Orner said. "We are expecting to save a projected $55 million annually in office real estate costs and achieve a 25 percent reduction by roughly 2018 to 2020."

He said the savings are real. For example, up until 2 years ago, Orner's office was spending an extra $1 million a year on rent. He said without those savings in light of the budget cuts, he would have had to find money from the staff in terms of not hiring new workers or holding off on filling open positions.

Others on the bandwagon

The departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Interior also are following suit in changing their office space.

HHS has a pilot in Seattle where it is reducing office space to 70,000 square feet from 95,000square feet and expects to save about $15 million.

USDA's National Agriculture Statistical Service consolidated to 12 regional offices from 43 locations and cut its office space square footage by more than 200,000.

Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service moved into a new building, reduced its total square footage by 72,000 and improved how employees work together.

Tangherlini said he wants agencies to know GSA understands it's not a one-size fits all approach to the workplace. He said the cubicle farms of the 1980s and 1990s were forced on to everybody no matter how they worked.

Tangherlini said the goal is to find what's right for each agency that will save money and improve overall efficiency of how they meet their mission.

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