Both the government and commercial sectors have gone through significant transitions during the pandemic as employees have been required to work from home on short notice. However, the government has perhaps gone through the greatest amount of transition in space, technology, and management.
Public vs. Private Sector Challenges During the Pandemic
Prior to the pandemic, over 70% of commercial office space had transitioned to open office plans. For all its ills, the open office trend was successful in tearing down walls and promoting flexibility. Hence, many commercial spaces were able to accommodate social distancing more easily in the workplace due to their flexible design. After all, creating distance between workstations in a large open office area is easier than knocking down walls and reconfiguring traditional offices. Many government offices have this more traditional set-up, composed of private offices for management and cubicles for office staff. The private offices are typically not shared and the cubicles are harder to reconfigure than workstations in the open office space.
Though telework has been increasing for several years in both business and government offices, many private sector businesses were able to invest in technologies that enable mobile work (though not at the level demanded during the pandemic) as they transitioned to an open office. This is another area where many government agencies must play catch-up, as there have been restrictions to mobile work for many government agencies. Laptops, videoconferencing, and computer security are three technologies that have received considerable government investment since the COVID pandemic necessitated more widespread telework.
A final shift that is perhaps on the horizon for government agencies is decentralized management. While many organizations in the commercial sector have been pursuing decentralized management practices for years, most government agencies are still organized in a more hierarchical manner. Such bureaucracies are designed for accountability and span of control. As employees work from home, they suddenly gain a level of autonomy that is typically earned in a bureaucracy only after years of service. Government managers are learning how to manage a remote workforce, establish and track goals, and keep employees engaged, all while developing ways to best serve their public missions remotely.
The promise of a vaccine will hopefully enable us to move beyond the pandemic as 2021 progresses. However, now that employees have learned to work from home, agencies have found a way to promote their missions remotely, and new technologies have been implemented, will the office ever be the same again? I think not.
Many government employees have more autonomy when working at home, a better work-life balance, time savings with no commute, and cost savings in clothes, food, and transportation. Considering these benefits, employees may not want to come back to work in the office full-time. The situation is giving rise to the notion that employees are seeking flexibility in how they split their time between the office and working from home. The term for this new way of work is called the “hybrid office.”
Hybrid Office Impact on Space
With the potential of employees spending more time in the home office post-pandemic, what happens to the current space and facilities? The easy answer is that if employees telework over the long-term, the amount of space occupied before the pandemic can be reduced. This notion leads to questions: How much space can be reduced? How should the space be configured? How will this impact the way agencies do their work? These are all great questions, but well beyond the scope of this article.
However, we can gain some insights from surveys that have been administered on this topic. Results indicate that most people would prefer to work from home two to three days a week and in the office the remainder of the time. Essentially, employees would be splitting their time half and half.
In very rough terms, agencies who allow their employees to work a 50-50 split can likely reduce their space by 20 to 40% or more.
Elements of the Hybrid Office
As telework continues, many employees will not need dedicated workstations in the office. Instead, they will be able to share workstations through the concept of hoteling, or reserving a workstation, conference room, or other space as needed.
With all the social distancing we’ve been doing, it would be difficult to return to an office where people are packed in like sardines. Offices post-pandemic will have more distancing between workstations and more private offices. Such offices can still be reserved and shared, but there will be fewer rows of open workstations that have people working side by side, divided by low partitions.
To make workstation separation possible, fewer “hard walls” will be constructed. The goal is to have an office that is flexible and adaptable as circumstances change. So, the office furniture and arrangements should focus on flexibility and customization. Even private offices can be constructed with demountable walls, or furniture pods that function as private offices can be installed, then moved as needed.
With people working part of the time from home, employees should be able to do the work that requires deep concentration while they are in their home office. Of course, this requires the right home office set-up with a dedicated space that can be shut off from the rest of the home, the right technology to perform work and stay connected, and the ability to be available during the core hours of operation. If work requiring concentration can be performed at home, space in the office can be maximized for collaboration. Reservable meeting rooms of different sizes and informal meeting areas should be available so that employees can effectively interact with each other when they go in to the office.
Daily interaction between in-office and home office workers requires state-of-the-art technology. Videoconferencing, instant messaging, virtual project management, scanning and imaging of documents, ability to share files, lightweight laptops, and conference room equipment are examples of technologies needed in the hybrid office. The backbone of an effective hybrid office is technology.
While it requires an investment to set up an efficient hybrid office, the benefits of the hybrid office are worth the cost. Hallmarks of the hybrid office include space and cost savings, space that is adaptable to the circumstances, and the impetus to remain up to date on technology to help keep employees productive from home and in the workplace.
So, with a smaller hybrid office on the horizon, what types of things might an agency do with existing space as they transition to a hybrid office?
Many government agencies have been working in facilities that are 30+ years old. Such facilities were built for a past era of operations, and many are bursting at the seams with personnel, programs, and paper. Moving to a hybrid office can reduce the congestion in the current space by reducing the number of people working in the building and moving to a more paperless environment. This is great news for government-owned buildings that are landmarks in the community. Assuming the building can be adapted for flexibility and technology, the hybrid office could help preserve these buildings for use as office space by extending their utility well into the future.
Vacating Leased Space
Often, agencies have outgrown government buildings and have fragmented their operations into private leased space. In these cases, the government pays rent for the space occupied. The smaller hybrid office approach could enable the government to consolidate its leased space into existing government-owned buildings. This would provide the benefit of reduced rental payments while maximizing owned assets.
Sell Government Properties
When the government owns more than one building, transitioning to a hybrid office can enable the government to consolidate space into fewer buildings. For example, if there are two major buildings housing government agencies, the hybrid office could potentially enable the agencies to consolidate from two buildings into one building. The vacated building could potentially be sold or used for another purpose.
It is my recommendation that governments that wish to pursue a hybrid office have a needs assessment conducted and a master plan developed to define their space requirements. Such work can be accomplished by a planning and programming consultant or qualified architectural firm.
It’s important that the resulting plan be customized to each agency’s needs – as opposed to a “one size fits all” approach. Every agency is unique, and culture and work practices should be reflected in the design of office space. A good planning process considers your goals, needs, and budget when planning your office layout. Avoid being attracted to the latest trends in commercial space. What works well for big tech companies often does not fit the culture of government agencies.
In the end, governments want offices that support their operations and missions, even in a smaller hybrid office. By offering the flexibility of working from home and working from an office that is effectively set up to promote productive work, government agencies may find that employee satisfaction improves while space and associated costs are reduced. This could be a win-win for many government agencies and employees.