GSA Leads the Way in Shrinking Office Space

7th Floor Renovated Work Area at GSA Headquarters (Photo: GSA)

As we’ve already reported, GSA’s Public Building Service has a long-term goal of improving the way federal agencies use space and downsizing the federal office space footprint.  GSA is leading the way in its own Washington, D.C., headquarters, where it is reshaping traditional office floorplans and shrinking the workspaces for many employees by about 50%—down to nearly 82 square feet per worker—in what is being promoted as a model for other federal workplaces.  GSA’s prototype new office fits 87 employees in a space originally designed for 43.  Eventually—if the second phase of its headquarters renovation and expansion is ever funded—the agency’s 800,000-square-foot renovated offices will hold about 6,000 employees, up from the 2,400 who worked in the building before the effort began.

In the renovated space, densely packed workstations separated by low or no partitions replace private, “legacy” offices and cubicles separated by tall walls—a move also meant to advance the goal of promoting communication and collaboration among employees. Workers do not have their own permanent desks, but instead reserve a workstation each day they are in the office, a concept known as “hoteling.”  (Each employee retains a permanent phone number—which can be routed to any workstation as well as to a mobile or home phone when he or she is teleworking—and is provided a single file drawer for items.) Workspaces include standard workstations measuring six feet by three-and-a-half feet, which workers reserve in advance for the day; smaller “touchdown” workstations for those planning to spend only a few hours in the office; and “quiet room” workstations for those who need them. Common areas provide more opportunities for collaboration as well as places to relax and eat.

Does it work?  Early studies indicate that workers are largely satisfied with the new layout but noise and distraction are a common complaint.  More significantly, the layout relies heavily on substantial teleworking—GSA encourages most of its employees to telework three days a week.   So, though real estate costs decrease substantially under this space model, some openly question if productivity has suffered as well.  With personnel costs far outweighing real estate costs, this is a concern and one we assume GSA will study.

In the meantime, real estate cost reduction is a Presidential mandate and increased telework is law, so we expect this trend toward shared spaces and greater use of mobile technology (which is also underway in the private sector; see “Corporate Cram Bedevils Office Recovery,” Wall Street Journal, February 29) to continue.  Yet this “tightsizing” is also creating new opportunities, since reconfiguring older, traditional office floorplates may require extensive (and expensive) improvements, making some newer office buildings and those with flexible floorplates more attractive to federal agencies.