How Exactly GSA Plans to Provide 1 Desk for Every 2 Employees

“Federal office space has not kept up with recent transformation in technology that has put mobile devices in our pockets,” GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini told reporters. “Federal office space has not kept up with recent transformation in technology that has put mobile devices in our pockets,” GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini told reporters. Caitlin Fairchild/GovExec.com file photo

The General Services Administration on Thursday showcased its newly refurbished Washington headquarters as it rolled out an initiative to reduce federal office square footage and use mobile communications to foster an open and collaborative office environment.

Mulitiple agencies joined GSA in touting savings from workspace transformation and consolidation.

“Federal office space has not kept up with recent transformation in technology that has put mobile devices in our pockets,” GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini told reporters touring the freshened, high-tech building. “We need our office space to reflect that recent transformation and to create possibilities for other agencies to leverage their investment in information technology to become more efficient, effective and collaborative. Bringing GSA resources to bear to help other agencies is the reason we exist.”

The Total Workplace initiative also addresses Obama administration goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions and energy costs while “freezing the federal footprint,” GSA said.

GSA’s F Street Northwest Washington headquarters, where phase one of a two-phase transformation is set for completion by Oct. 1, reflects a strategy of collapsing the agency’s number of leases in the Washington region and assigning 3,300 employees to the headquarters, well over the previous 2,200. The savings of $24 million annually (plus $7 million in reduced building-related contracting) results from use of mobile technology, teleworking and desk sharing at a 2-1 ratio (the number of employees per “bay” doubled from two to four).

The renovated building also cuts energy costs by 50 percent and includes high-performance green technology such as photovoltaic rooftop arrays; an underground cistern to recapture and reuse rainwater; a green roof; solar hot water panels; high-efficiency mechanical systems; and “daylight harvesting.”

Tangherlini has brought the leaders of GSA’s two main subdivisions, the Public Buildings Service and the Federal Acquisition Service, to work with him elbow-to-elbow in a “bullpen” of cubicles surrounded by glassed-off “quiet rooms” readily used for private meetings or phone conversations.

The reconfiguration of the E-shaped 96-year-old building built for the Interior Department and last renovated in 1933 includes in-fill corridors and open space that allows employees of all levels to enjoy a spectacular view of the Washington Monument, the Potomac and National Airport. It includes a new entrance on E Street Northwest opening Oct. 1, as well as consolidated supply centers with easy access to digitally networked printers, copiers and office supplies. GSA spent $8 million to refresh the older rooms and corridors with new carpeting and paint.

Any employee can reserve a conference room from their laptop or desktop computer, or by punching in a code in the “room wizard” display panel by each room’s door that displays a green light if the room is free and a red one if it has been reserved. Employees are assigned lockers with electronic combination locks where they can store personal effects, laptops or files overnight.

“We went through a lot of change management preparations, and it takes people about two weeks to get used to the space and rhythm of the building,” said Bob Stafford, GSA’s director of internal workspace management. “We created protocols on how to operate, such as don’t wear strong scents,” or don’t eat an aromatic sandwich at a shared desk. “If you bring pictures of your children to your desk, clean things up at the end of the day and put them in personal storage.”

The overall effect, added Chuck Hardy, GSA’s chief Total Workplace officer, “is about providing value to the employee.” The shared desks and large conference rooms “increase your ability to get work done through interaction and collaboration. Your piece of the world is this building. It’s about making people want to come to work,” he said. “It’s an investment in repositioning for the 21st century.”

Tangherlini, asked about objections to such an office layout from employees or office space experts on grounds of privacy, said the approach “is not one-size-fits-all. When we talk to agencies, we agree to look at their cost structure and the way they do work, [and] what they should invest in. We don’t want to eclipse privacy—we want a thoughtful approach.”

If the Homeland Security Department can figure out a way to “break down bureaucratic barriers and save money,” then others should be able to as well, Tangherlini said. “Whether you call it long-term savings or cost avoidance, I call it reduction in waste.”

Beside Tangherlini to lend their endorsement on Thursday were officials from DHS and the Agriculture and Health and Human Services departments, as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Homeland Security has saved $55 million in office real estate by cutting rental space, boosting telework and desk sharing, according to Chief Readiness Support Officer Jeffery Orner. “We currently use 200 square feet per person, and have committed to Congress and the Office of Management and Budget to get it down to 150,” he said. He praised GSA for serving as a model for the department’s ongoing move of its components to new headquarters on the St. Elizabeths campus in Southwest Washington.

HHS has projected $15 million in savings over 10 years by reducing its regional office in Seattle from a footrpint of 95,000 square feet to 79,000 square feet, said Paul Bartley, deputy assistant secretary for program support. “This saves money and allows collaboration,” he said. “I know we’re in tight budget times, but we’re talking about effective government.”

Agriculture is saving a projected $700,000 annually in real estate costs by consolidating 43 state offices of its National Agricultural Statistics Service into 12 regional offices, said Deputy Assistant Agriculture Secretary for Administration Malcom Shorter. The GSA approach “dovetails with Secretary [Tom] Vilsack’s Blueprint for Stronger Service both programmatically and administratively,” he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which GSA is moving from its three buildings in Arlington, Va., to a single modern new structure in nearby Falls Church, will use Total Workplace to eliminate 72,200 square feet of office space and save $3 million or more in annual real estate costs, said Paul Rauch, assistant director and chief financial officer for business management and Operations. The old buildings, from the 1990s, “were inefficient and separated by walls,” he said. “GSA has removed our excuses for not making the transformation.”

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Correction: An earlier verison of this story mistated the size of the Health and Human Services Department's Seattle offices. HHS projects savings as a result of reducing its Seattle footprint from 95,000 square feet to 79,000 square feet. 

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