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.
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
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.
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
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
What's the problem with
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
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%.
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
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.
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.
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
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!