The folks at SRA International Inc. are proud of their problem-solving skills. That's why the chairman of the board is working in a cubicle -- and why, in a few months, most of the company's 1,850 other employees won't be.

About three years ago, the growing Fairfax-based high-tech company began taking a close look at its office space needs. In doing so, it faced major decisions -- Offices or cubicles? Headquarters campus or multisite office? -- being debated at dozens of the region's fast-growing technology companies.

But at SRA, the process was unusually thorough and turned into a years-long experiment, providing a window to the current office market and the choices companies are making that will affect how thousands will spend their days.

"We're analytic people," said Edward E. Legasey, SRA's chief operating officer.

Plenty of growing Washington area companies face the same questions as they seek desk space for their burgeoning work forces. In Northern Virginia alone, there is about 10 million square feet of new private office space under construction. If it's all filled, that's enough space for 40,000 workers. And there's more construction proposed to deal with the region's job growth.

For SRA, the result of the office-space search was unexpected. In a world where far-suburban office campuses are the thing among trendy tech companies, SRA executives decided to remain in closer-in buildings scattered around the region. And at a time when cubicles have become a symbol of the new-era economy, the company decided that private offices made financial and cultural sense.

The official description of SRA sounds like the generic Beltway Bandit: It's "an information technology firm that offers consulting and systems integration services, as well as products and business solutions, tailored to clients' needs," according to its World Wide Web page and other marketing materials.

Despite that stiff depiction, SRA sees itself as a relaxed workplace. "We also laugh a lot, display an offbeat sense of humor and always encourage individual thinking," reads one recruitment ad. The company mascot is a stuffed toy penguin (long story).

But it's not some wacky Internet start-up. SRA's biggest client is the federal government -- mostly, the Defense Department. That means that there are posters in the lobby reminding employees how important security is, and that locks on file cabinets actually get used. The company is privately held but reports its financial results. Since its founding in 1978, it has been growing and profitable. Last year, it earned $6.4 million on revenue of $222.7 million, 82 percent of it from federal contracts.

The company has 1,850 employees, most of them local, spread among Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties. That's 20 percent more than the number who worked for SRA a year ago and more than double the number who worked there five years ago. The company expects continuing growth.

"Basically what you're looking at is an information technology worker who works heavily with computers," Legasey said of SRA employees, who operate in project teams that shift and re-form depending on client needs.

EMPLOYEE-DRIVEN DESIGN

SRA has dealt with its growth piecemeal over the years even though real estate is a major operating expense: Rent this year will be $9 million.

"We would previously go out, find office space, design it as efficiently as we could and then say to people, `Now work with it,' " said Kevin Graves, vice president and director of asset management.

"The desks and chairs we were using we picked out in 1979, before the PC was even in the workplace," said Legasey.

But a few years ago, Graves said, with most of its leases due to expire in 2001, SRA had an opportunity to examine its real estate strategy.

"When you go through a process like this, it forces people to look at who they are and what they're doing," said Tom Fulcher, one of the Julien J. Studley Inc. real estate brokers who have been working with SRA for the last two years.

Five or six years ago, Fulcher said, most companies considering relocation focused on getting the least expensive deal. That's not the case now, he said. "The whole thing is really driven by business strategy, and that's driven by employees. A lot of this stuff is driven by how do we get and keep the best possible people."

At first, Graves said, SRA's goal seemed clear. "We set out on an initiative to look at a single campus environment," he said.

That's what a lot of other sizable local high-tech companies are doing, after all. America Online Inc. and MCI WorldCom Inc. are in the midst of building huge corporate campuses in Loudoun County.

"On the real big-scale campuses, you can really control your destiny," said Tam Murray, a broker at Grubb & Ellis Co. who specializes in Northern Virginia real estate but was not involved with the SRA transaction. If a company needs more office space, it just builds it. The buildings are designed to reflect the company's needs, not a landlord's interpretation of what the market needs.

And, Murray said, "if you want a big piece of land, you have to go far out."

SRA considered sites all over the area, concentrating mostly on Northern Virginia. "We looked at over 100 sites and narrowed it to 10," said Graves.

At the same time executives were touring possible sites, they were gathering information about their own work force -- where people live and how they commute.

"The bulk of the people lived pretty close to the facility they worked from," Graves said. "Given the difficulty of commuting in the Washington area, kind of in midstream we said, `Uhhh, we don't know, maybe the single-campus approach was not the right one.' "

Said Legasey, "This is a fairly simple thought. It just seems so obvious today, with the difficulty of recruiting. Why would you, in today's Washington metropolitan area, with the second-worst traffic in the country, pick just one spot? You would limit the people who would work for you."

So instead SRA agreed to renew its leases on two buildings in the Fairview Park office park in Fairfax County and is negotiating to keep space in Arlington and Montgomery counties, too.

THE QUESTION OF CUBICLES

Then there was the decision about how to lay out the space. "We took the opportunity to see how we house people," said Graves. "We've been a private-office company all these years."

Nationally, cubicles are gaining gradually in popularity. Last year "systems furniture" -- that is, cubicles -- accounted for 36.8 percent of U.S. office furniture shipments, according to the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association. That was up from 35.9 percent in 1997 and 33.3 percent in 1988.

Graves thought it might be time for SRA to follow that trend. "I was fairly convinced at the beginning of the process I could deliver much more efficiency with cubes than with private offices," he said.

But cubicles aren't universal, even at high-tech companies. At its new Loudoun County headquarters, America Online has hundreds of cubicles -- but it also has plenty of private offices, said Rusty Meadows, a principal at Ai, the District-based architecture firm that designed both the AOL campus and SRA's interiors.

"A lot had to do with the attraction and retention and productivity of those highly skilled people who develop code," Meadows said.

Legasey was willing to experiment with cubicles, but he wanted data about how well they worked and what they saved. Any changes, he said, were not going to be made "on the backs of employees."

So SRA performed an experiment.

In January 1998, the company set up the fifth floor of one of its buildings as its own workplace lab. There were 8-foot-by-10-foot cubicles and 10-foot-by-12-foot private offices in varying configurations. About 55 people, both worker bees and executives, were assigned to the spaces. Chairman William K. Brehm got one of the cubicles, although Legasey and chief executive Ernst Volgenau ranked offices.

"This was the first time the nefarious cubes made their way into SRA working space, so it made for a great brouhaha," said Legasey.

Among the fans was Brehm, who continues to work in his oversize cubicle, although he doesn't come into the office every day. "He likes it," said Legasey. "He would have us all in cubes."

But others had complaints. No matter how you set up a cube, you end up sitting with your back to the opening. And the noise! Even with a white-noise machine running, there's no way to close the door and think quietly.

But was that enough to counter the savings? Surprisingly, Graves said, cubicles would not save his company money. "There's so much more circulation space required with cubes," he said.

Said Legasey, "We found there wasn't an inherent efficiency improvement," so the smart choice was to pick what was better for actual work activity, that is, thinking versus teamwork.

"Again, this seems like a remarkably obvious conclusion," he said. SRA picked offices.

Meadows said other local companies are coming to the same conclusion SRA did. Both Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc. and Mitre Corp. in recent relocations decided to stick with offices after considering cubicles, he said.

"You can have as much efficiency in a private-office configuration as you do in open plan," he said. The key is that most private offices really aren't private -- they're shared by two or three people.

So now that SRA has made the big decisions -- no campus, no cubicles -- it's time for the smaller ones. It hasn't quite settled on a color scheme yet; nobody liked the grim battleship gray filing cabinets. Beige, though, seems to have plenty of fans.

And that fabric that covers the panels on the lockable shelves -- the company may never find one that people like. "The general consensus is, people stop by and say, `Ooooh, the '70s,' " said employee Chris Bishop, who is testing the latest candidate in his fifth-floor office.

Said Graves, "We're not going to buy a single thing, not a chair, not an in-box, until we kick the tires."