The Incredible Shrinking Office: Feds Moving to Shared Workspaces

Ann All
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Telecommuting's Powerful Benefits

More than 34 million Americans telecommute on an occasional basis at the least. While it may not be for everyone, the future of telework appears bright.

To cope with shrinking budgets, several federal agencies are shrinking their physical office spaces. A Federal Times article mentions several examples, including the Treasury, the Federal Facilities Council, the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration.


This downsizing of real estate can yield some significant savings. At Treasury, for example, reducing the average space per person from 191 square feet to 167 feet at headquarters to accommodate additional staff will save the department an estimated $1.9 million annually in new leased space costs. Treasury estimates it will avoid $383,000 in added rent at another site where it will use a similar plan, cutting the average space per employee from 201 square feet to 127 feet when it adds 34 employees to that location.


Dan Tangherlini, assistant secretary of the Treasury, calls it "tightsizing." The agencies are encouraging their employees to telework. Chance are, they may have already been doing this thanks to the Telework Enhancement Act, which became a law in late 2010 and requires agencies to step up their telework efforts.


Somewhat surprising is that, while studies often cite management resistance as a barrier to telework, some employees also may object to the practice. Earlier this month in a post about a Washington, D.C., power outage that had some federal employees working from home, IT Business Edge's Susan Hall noted that 23 percent of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission employees who are eligible to telework prefer not to do so.


The Federal Times article mentions there was some "gnashing of teeth" from Treasury employees asked to consider arrangements such as working in cubicles assigned on a daily basis, instead of in permanently assigned workstations. Agencies use "hoteling" reservation systems to create these assignments, presumably for employees who spend at least part of their time teleworking. They also may use what the article calls "touch down" spaces, smaller areas with desks and seating for employees who don't spend much time in the office.


(As a regular telecommuter who typically spends three days of every week in my home office, I'd be happy to use touch down spaces and/or hoteling - even though it would require me to clear out all of the photos, cartoons, candy dispensers, toys and other stuff in my cubicle. I laughed - then winced - at the article's mention of "dog altars," a phrase used by GSA Chief Asset Officer Gavin Bloch to describe cubicles where employees filled the walls with pictures of pets. I thought about including a photo of my cubicle but was too embarrassed.)


Bloch's office is undergoing a renovation that will place 87 people into the same space previously occupied by 47 employees. There will be no assigned workstations. Instead, employees will sign up for a space whenever they come to the office, choosing from a mixture of smaller, more open workspaces, collaborative spaces such as conference-style meeting rooms and "hoteling" areas.


Some companies in the private sector are introducing similar shared workspace arrangements (and encountering similar cultural resistance), as I wrote earlier this year. I cited several articles that stressed enhanced collaboration, rather than lower costs, as a primary driver for shared spaces. If handled properly, shared spaces can help boost collaboration among employees.


The Federal Times article stresses the importance of seeking employee input early and often when introducing shared workspaces, a good idea for any industry sector, public or private. Don't just ask for ideas; make sure you incorporate the good ones. At the GSA, employee suggestions led to the creation of "neighborhoods" of desks and workspaces for different divisions.


Employers may find they encounter less resistance to shared workspaces as younger employees enter the work force. Many experts on millennials say they crave workplace flexibility. The Federal Times article quotes Naomi Leventhal, a director in Deloitte's Federal Human Capital Practice, who said:

We are definitely moving to the end of that permanent personal space.

A few months ago, Susan wrote a post that included links to some great telework resources and a list of six key success factors for telework, drawn from a report by Scott Overmyer, a professor and director of the MSIS Program at Baker College's Center for Graduate Studies:

  • Support from top management
  • Clear written policies and agreements
  • Training for employees and managers
  • Effective performance measures
  • Evaluations based on performance, not presence
  • An inclusive work model that makes an effort to include remote workers in team communications

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