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Government desk-sharing to save £ millions

8 desks per 10 staff - but we question this new 'standard'

The government estate in the UK is huge.  It's valued at about £370 billion, and costs £25 billion per year to run.  Offices make up around half of that total, and many if not most of them are used very inefficiently.

So the UK government is looking at every possible way to cut the costs.  These fall into two main areas:

  • traditional ways of relocating to cheaper property, renegotiating leases, etc
  • introducing smarter ways of working, with a particular focus on desk-sharing.

The old ways are making savings

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude has just announced that the government has already saved $48 million form the lease moratorium introduced last year. According to Mr Maude:

“These savings are an excellent example of how across Whitehall we are driving down back office costs so we can protect important services on the front line.

“The moratorium on leases we introduced last year is working well and that is why just earlier this week I announced even tighter national property controls. Our drive for savings doesn’t stop there, the new advisory panel of property experts will help us identify areas were we can save money and ensure that no longer are millions of pounds squandered on expensive property leases and wasted office space.”

Examples of savings include:

  • the Crown Prosecution Service moved from Ludgate Hill to Rose Court in SE1 in June 2010, taking over 15,000 square metres off the civil estate and delivering cost reductions of over £9 million a year
  • the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) moved from Market Towers in Nine Elms Lane to 151 Buckingham Palace road in SW1, taking over 12,000 square metres off the civil estate and delivering cost reductions of around £6 million a year
  • the Medical Research Council moving from 20 Park Crescent, W1B to CAA House at 1 Kemble Street taking over 6,400 square metres off the civil estate and delivering cost reductions of £1.1 million a year.

There's still a lot to do.  The Sir Philip Green Review identified some horrendous examples of excessive office costs and unwise decision-making, such as the quango that moved to Coventry only to be abolished within a few months. This was after signing a 20 year lease with no break for 15 years, committing to rent of £1.2 million per year.  There's no doubt a few more of those lurking amongst the government property portfolio.

8 desks for 10 staff - a new default standard?

The government has also announced that all major refurbishments and new acquisitions of workspace adhere to the workplace standard of 8m2 or less, calculated in terms of net internal area per employee (full-time equivalent) and a ratio of 8 workstations or fewer per 10 employees.

This default standard has been bubbling up for some time in the government sector, first flagged up by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) in 2008. The new Government Property Unit (GPU) has taken over the property role of the OGC and is clearly taking keen to push desk-sharing on this basis.

Although what is being promoted is '8:10 or less', it is clear from recent implementations of desk-sharing that 8:10 is seen to be a standard guideline, and departments and local councils seem content to achieve this.  This misses the opportunity to deliver greater value, and also to design spaces for more effective flexible working.

What's the problem with this?

Here are the problems with this approach:

1) With actual measured desk occupancy running at under 50% in most offices run on traditional lines, it's clear that an average of 8 desks to 10 people is somewhat unambitious. 

This level of desk-sharing can be easily achieved without any serious attempt to introduce smarter working.  Annual holidays and absence mean that an assigned desk is unoccupied for around 15% of the time, so taking away 20% of the desks relies only a small amount of routine mobility to make it work.  And it won't bring average space occupancy much above 55%.

It leaves a lot of slack in the system, and that wasted space is expensive.

2) I can't help feeling that 8:10 is a compromise.  It's cultural, rather than evidence-based.

There's still a lot of managers whose concept of the office is rooted in territoriality and line-of-sight supervision, rather than in modern approaches to collaborative and flexible working.

3) The result will be an over-provision of desks.  And that means less collaboration space, fewer breakout areas, fewer flexible meeting rooms, project areas, confidential pods - in other words, fewer of the activity-based work settings that distinguish a modern flexible working environment.

4) Different teams and different styles of working need to have their space allocated according to need, not according to a generic formula.  Mobile workers, managers who spend most of their time in meetings, and regular homeworkers don't need this level of desk provision.  If you aim for an average of 8:10, what this means is that 1:1 desking in fact remains the norm for about half the workforce.  What you get is desk-sharing at the margins.

5) As smarter working is rolled out, with more people enabled to work remotely, occupancy levels will retreat to the current low levels.

The way forward

The government needs to ensure that no change to government property proceeds without adopting smarter working practices.  Simply switching to a new property may be cheaper, but the full benefits won't be realised until smarter working practices are introduced.  And they need to be based on a clear vision of what is to be achieved in terms of agility, better working environments and cost reduction.

And often this will mean a little bit of investing to save, to make the new working environments fit for purpose.  It's not about squeezing more people into the same spaces with the same old layouts, equipment and furniture.

At the moment, too many government office-reduction projects are stumbling forward without clear direction against a background of moving goalposts and uncertain headcount and funding.  Time for some clear vision and strategy, rather than the improvisation and fire-fighting we see at the moment!

March 2011

Flexibility comment

Back in the election of 2010, there was a lot of debate about whether efficiency savings in government were achievable.  One area where they are being achieved to some extent is in property reduction.

So we welcome initiatives from the Government Property Unit to reduce government property costs by initiating some smarter working practices.

And yet - we fear that what is happening at the moment is nowhere near smart enough.  A focus on a simple 8:10 desk ratio and moving to desk-sharing in 'non-territorial working environments' will not achieve the benefits or the savings that a more ambitious and integrated approach to smart working would achieve.

Here we outline five things wrong with this approach, and how the government could do better.




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