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Everyday Changes, Extraordinary Savings

Federal agencies don't need to undergo sweeping transformations to reduce their budgets. Making micro changes to work spaces can pay macro dividends in the long run.

I have previously written about the challenges facing federal real estate managers, and it continues to be tough sledding for those tasked with planning for agencies’ current and future space requirements and finding ways to lower utilization rates, all while complying with numerous directives to cut costs and reduce overall footprint.

A May 11, 2012 memo from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) entitled, Promoting Efficient Spending to Support Agency Operations, only adds to the mounting pressure agencies face to do more with less. The directive forbids the acquisition of new federal building space without a corresponding offset elsewhere in their portfolios, except under “limited circumstances.” The OMB memorandum builds on earlier Executive Branch directives, including President Obama’s June 10, 2010 Executive Order (EO) which instructed federal agencies to save $3 billion in real estate costs by the end of the fiscal year.

Amid all the doom and gloom brought on by long-term fiscal uncertainty and the pressure of ever-shrinking budgets, federal agency real estate managers should be careful not to miss a bright spot of opportunity. The fact is that tough times force us to critically evaluate how we will use our existing resources in ways we probably wouldn’t do during more prosperous days. And thinking outside the box for ways to evolve and improve, in order to fulfill the mission, is key to the long-term success of any organization.

Downsizing: an opportunity to use the design process as a diagnostic tool

For agencies forced into consolidations and relocations to smaller workspaces that are the result of the real property directives outlined in the OMB memorandum, seizing the opportunity to use the design process as a diagnostic tool to assess not only space utilization but also organizational efficiency can produce substantial cost savings.

I recently spoke with a principal from Gensler’s Washington office, who is working with a federal agency that has responded to the Executive Orders. They are looking to use the renovation of their headquarters as an opportunity to reexamine the way they work and utilize space. The ambitious workplace transformation plan that is the result of this decision, once fully executed, will drastically reduce the number of square feet per person and invalidate the long-held belief that there is a direct correlation between the size of a private office and an individual’s status within the organization.

Instead of the standard data collection process that occurs during the planning and programming phase of a workplace renovation, we are working with the federal agency to complete an extensive assessment of staff needs through a series of interactive work sessions. These will produce the required data in real-time and expedited delivery of the final documentation from the typical three week time frame down to two days.

This research effort identified numerous opportunities to eliminate redundancies and leverage existing resources more efficiently, and led to insights on individual work styles, group work patterns, and the level of mobility needed to achieve the agency’s mission.

Paired with a kit-of-parts furniture solution, the new workplace will be flexible and adaptable to allow the agency to modify their space as needs and functions change over time. When the headquarters renovation is complete in 2014, the building will be home to 4,500 workers –2,000 more than today – reducing the amount of real estate by 50 percent and providing a work environment which is far more collaborative, transparent, and effective.

But agencies don’t need to undertake such sweeping transformations in order to produce something positive from the misery brought by shrinking budgets. Cost savings and increased efficiency can be found by using the planning and design process as a diagnostic tool on a micro scale as well. Approaching any size consolidation or relocation as an opportunity to spur other needed change within the agency, and incorporating a participatory process into the planning stages that requires decision makers to inventory the work they do and why, can yield savings from surprising places.

For example, assessing whether or not file cabinets are needed for a particular department, or surveying staff to determine the need for personal printers, might not seem like much, but when you multiply the effects on an agency-wide scale, the savings can start to pile up. In a Federal Times article by Bob Brewin entitled “Say Goodbye to that Personal Printer,” he wrote about the $150 million the Veterans Affairs Department could potentially save over the next five years by reducing the number of desktop printers from 50,000 to 5,000. This shift will not only produce savings from hardware and toner costs but will also reduce energy output as well.

With news of additional budget cuts in the headlines each day, and the threat of sequestration looming like a dark cloud, feeling the pressure to do more with less is unavoidable. But a silver lining can be found by agency decision makers who use this as an opportunity for critical evaluation.

Diana Apalategui is a Federal Government Marketing Manager in Gensler’s Washington, DC office. Her passion for solving puzzles and reading all of the fine print is put to good use as one of the leaders guiding the firm’s work with the federal government. She loves the challenge of adapting private sector best practices to help improve public sector performance and believes that innovative planning and design solutions have the power to transform lives (and save taxpayers money!) Contact her at Diana_Apalategui@gensler.com.

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