Your Next Office Could Have Six Desks for Every 10 Workers

By Brittany Ballenstedt

November 4, 2013

The General Services Administration in September unveiled a new approach to office space that kicked down cubicles and private offices in favor of open space, conference rooms and an increased emphasis on telework. GSA wants other agencies to follow suit through its Total Workforce Initiative, and some departments – namely Agriculture, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security – already are signing up in hopes of reducing their real estate footprints, cutting costs and enabling a more flexible workforce.

Is this what the future looks like for your federal agency – where mobile technology, teleworking and desk sharing become the new way to work?

Tom Simmons, area vice president of public sector at Citrix, says yes. A study released by the company in September projected that by 2020, organizations will reduce office space by almost one-fifth and will provide just six desks for every ten office workers. That study – a result of a survey of 1,900 senior IT decision makers – also predicts that workers will access the corporate information technology network from an average of six different computing devices.

Citrix is one company leading this change in the private sector. The concept – which the company calls “workshifting” – has led to flexible workspaces in four of its U.S. office locations, reducing the desk space ratios to one for every four or five employees.

“Most recently, we’ve pushed the envelope a bit and gone to a real forward-thinking work environment where instead of a traditional cube setup, we have different kinds of workspaces that look more like a waiting room or lobby with couches and chairs and work surface attached,” he said. “The technology behind that is enabling you to access a virtual workspace and move around where you need to.”

Last fall, I had the opportunity to visit Silicon Valley to tour some top companies like Facebook and IDEO for an article on open workspace and innovation. These open, collaborative environments are ingrained in the cultures of these companies, so much that the employees I interviewed said they could not imagine transitioning back to the traditional mode of cube farms and personal desk space.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for federal agencies will be addressing the cultural issues for employees, many of whom want flexible work options like telework but do not necessarily want to give up their personal space at the office. The key for agencies, Simmons said, is striking the right balance for employees and ensuring they are involved in the office redesign. 

“The beauty of doing flex workspace is it provides options,” he said. “For those who feel like they personally are more productive with assigned workspace, create those areas where folks can have that same place every day. GSA has done that, and it’s an important aspect of satisfying the entire employee population.”

Federal agencies have a lot to gain when it comes to reducing the real estate footprint, cutting costs, increasing work flexibility for employees and improving retention and productivity, Simmons said. While the private sector is still ahead on this workplace transformation, agencies are making slow progress toward providing this flexible environment, including implementing WiFi in government buildings and allowing more employees to use personal devices for work, he said.

“This is the workspace of the future in government,” he said. “Some of the agencies that are traditionally conservative are going to look to others like GSA to regroup and establish standards and best practices. When we look back five years from now, every agency will offer some of this workspace if they have not migrated to it completely.”   

By Brittany Ballenstedt

November 4, 2013