Just as one can trace changes in the federal workforce since 1965, as Federal Times is doing with its anniversary campaign, it is equally interesting to consider changes in the federal workplace.
I have spent the major part of a 37-year federal career as a licensed interior designer, space management specialist, and facilities project manager. I have worked in – and designed for others – open offices, modular furniture, systems furniture, and drywall offices. Depending upon your age and when you joined the federal government, an "open office" needs no explanation, but for those who are unfamiliar with the concept, it is simply row upon row of desks arrayed in a large, open room. Think of the office in the classic film "The Apartment."
The federal workplace (and I) progressed to standard desks, partitioned off by stand-alone panels (often orange or grey and supported by protruding metal feet). I have been a cubicle dweller, and concluded my federal career in a private office furnished with high end Paoli case goods. I retired this year – some would say just in the nick of time – as the federal work place transitions to various "smart sizing" and "right sizing" options. One can come up with all kinds of definitions for this particular concept but a good one might be "shrinkage."
Federal agencies are now commanded, via various presidential and departmental directives, to reduce the federal office footprint so that in aggregate we average 170 useable square feet per person. GSA is now starting to enforce 150 square feet per person. This is often misunderstood to mean each employee is entitled to 170 square feet. Not quite. It is an average. An office of ten employees merits 1,700 square feet. How that is divided – small cubes for some, large offices for others, is up to the component in question. There are exceptions, opportunities for waivers, but this is by and large the rule.
This is causing rumbling and grumbling, depending upon your age, seniority, and how you are situated now. Supposedly, millennials are attached to their mobile devices, can work anywhere, often do, and are not greatly concerned. Those more senior employees who have slaved and toiled for the ultimate goal of the corner office – or, at least, a spacious work station – are the most put out. They see, and with some justification, work space as a signifier of seniority and status.
The federal workforce tends to be five to seven years behind the times in workplace and design innovation. While we are transitioning to smaller cubes and smaller spaces overall, you would be hard put to see any cubes in private sector. "Benching" is the order of the day – literally, back to the "open office" with long work surfaces minimally divided. And you rarely get your own desk, or should I say, bench. "Hoteling" is now the rage, considering employees telecommute several days a week, making the concept of one desk for one employee neither practical nor cost effective.
One can pose very legitimate questions as to the scope of the savings realized by "smart sizing," which often involves vast relocations, construction expenses, and costly furniture purchases. How it will affect morale, and consideration of other areas where savings could be realized, are perhaps discussions for another day. But as is so often the case with those of us in the federal workforce, the train has left the station and we are left, once again, to adapt to change.
In this respect at least, I am confident that we will do very well. We always have.
Alexander Goldstein is a former space management specialist at the Department of Health and Human Services.