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GSA moves to get other agencies to trim real estate costs, improve efficiency

In the next two years, roughly 25 percent of the federal government’s real estate leases are set to expire. And with each of those expirations, Dan M. Tangherlini, the administrator of the General Services Administration, which manages much of that real estate, sees what he called “a huge opportunity” to remake the federal government as a leaner, more efficient, more eco-friendly workplace.

Tangherlini’s agency was the guinea pig for such a transformation: Earlier this summer, more than 3,000 GSA employees who had been spread across six buildings moved into a refurbished headquarters on F Street NW. They now work at desks that are reserved like hotel rooms, stash their belongings in lockers and reserve meeting space via the Web.

On Thursday, Tangherlini formally launched an initiative to get other agencies to move in this direction, enlisting representatives from four other agencies to make the case for change by touting how the strategies had already resulted in cost savings and better communication within their organizations.

Jeffery G. Orner, chief readiness support officer for the Department of Homeland Security, said the path forward for its massive project on the site of the former St. Elizabeths Hospital had been influenced by this model. The planned headquarters was originally designed to accommodate 14,000 workers. Now, DHS envisions the campus will still contain 14,000 work spaces, but that it will be a home base for “well over 20,000” workers.

That shift, Orner said, will allow the agency to cancel leases across the country, a step he expects will save $55 million a year.

Administrator Dan Tangherlini launches the GSA’s Total Workplace Initiative, which aims to get other agencies to become more efficient. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan for the Washington Post)

The GSA has also helped DHS take other steps to reduce its footprint. For example, its offices at 650 Massachusetts Ave. NW used to occupy an entire floor. Now, they take up less than half the floor, which saves the department more than $1 million a year in rent.

Workers with the Fish and Wildlife Service are currently spread across three buildings in the region.

“It’s a very inefficient footprint for our employees,” said Paul Rauch, the agency’s assistant director and chief financial officer. “We’re all separated by walls, we’re all separated by floors, many private offices.”

Now, the agency has plans to move into a single building, trimming its real estate footprint by 72,000 square feet.

“It’s truly going to enhance our collaboration, our ability to work together, and I think it’s going to really improve our operational efficiency,” Rauch said.

The Agriculture Department said it would save $5 million a year when a renovation is completed of the Yates Federal Building at 14th and Independence streets NW because it will no longer have to pay rent for a space in Rosslyn. The agency also estimates it will save $160,000 a year by eliminating cost of transportation between the District and Arlington offices.

No ‘one size fits all’ solution

Many of these plans rely heavily on telecommuting and “hoteling,” meaning workers no longer have their own desks but share them among the staff. The system not only allows organizations to reduce their real estate footprint — after all, it is rare when everyone is in the office at the same time — but the design reflects a growing trend for greater teamwork and flexible work arrangements.

“The technology that we have, the things we’re able to carry around in our pockets, have transformed people’s expectation of the way services will be delivered, the way people will communicate, the way people will collaborate,” Tangherlini said.

Some critics of open office spaces have said that their lack of privacy and designated personal space can be a turnoff for employees. Tangherlini stressed that the set-up seen at his own offices was not a “one size fits all” solution, and that the GSA aimed to work with agencies to find variations of this model that were best suited for each work force.

The shift to smaller office space is not likely to cheer the owners of office buildings, who already face stiffer competition for tenants as law firms and other enterprises scale back their real estate needs. But federal agencies face their own budget challenges, given the slowdown in government spending.

Tangherlini said the federal spending cuts known as the sequester have only enhanced the need to take these cost savings measures.

“I would say if it’s done anything, it’s brought more attention to these kind of factors and put a stronger challenge on GSA to be more creative, more innovative and frankly much more effective,” he said.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.



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