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Public Space

15 July 2008

Morris Office installation at Oxfordshire Count council

The OGC has released new recommendations for workspace efficiency standards that should enable significant efficiency and cost savings in the public sector. Martin Mitchell explains how this will affect the way managers and suppliers tackle the task of workplace planning and design

IN A RECENTLY RELEASED INDEPENDENT STUDY, entitled ‘Efficiency Standards for Office Space’, carried out by property performance measurement company IPD Occupiers, it was asserted that buildings in the public sector currently fall behind of their private sector counterparts in terms of efficient use of available space, particularly in office environments.

According to the report; “Current indicators show that public sector offices have not seen the scale of floorspace efficiencies observed in the private sector. On average government offices are occupied about 25 percent less efficiently with a sixth of them occupied at more than 24 sq m per person. This position needs to change… Departments and ALBs (Arms Length Bodies) should aim to provide a maximum of 12 sq m per person in all their buildings and across their estates.”

It continues later: “Conversely, where there are opportunities to occupy new or substantially-refurbished offices, departments and ALBs should consider space per person below 12 sq m. At present many schemes with design densities of 10 sq m per person or less meet business needs and are popular with staff.”

David Rand, MD of Morris Office and Roc Office, parts of the Morris Furniture Group, comments: “Clearly, the OGC is recommending a major drive towards reduction in area allowed per person, but this doesn’t mean just pushing everyone’s desks closer together so more fit in a room. This is actually an achievable task which is being addressed by designers and manufacturers that aim to show public sector managers how make the best possible use of their available space, in line with what happens in the private sector. The difference being of course, that the savings generated benefit the taxpayer rather than the shareholders of a company.”

In order to achieve such gains, the OGC (Office of Government Commerce) has identified ways to significantly enhance efficiency and minimise poor use of space and energy in public sector workplaces. As a separate office of the Treasury, it’s no surprise that the OGC places as high an emphasis on achieving best and added value as it does on ensuring improvement of service. Such tight control over spending is required considering that the OGC’s responsibility covers a property estate worth an estimated £30bn. With a significant percentage of this property given over to office accommodation, the new efficiency guidelines mean an extremely large amount of work is to be done, involving an equally significant amount of finance.

As outlined previously, the creation of ‘higher density’ workspaces in order to achieve savings is being addressed by the companies with a commitment to maximising the potential productivity of a space and its occupants. Arthur Lamb, of workplace interior consultant Breathegroup explains: “It’s not about squashing and shoehorning people into uncomfortable environments. High density really only has to mean that in name only. With the right planning and design, most modern offices can feel less cramped and cluttered, even if the physical space allowance per person is reduced. But it’s also important to avoid creating seldomused dead space, especially in relatively smaller premises.The key, as with many aspects of modern offices, is in flexibility.”

In an effort to ensure that no public spending is wasted on substandard products and services for its premises, the OGC even regulates which companies can apply to provide products and services for its public sector premises. Mark Haynes, of one such company, Roc Office, comments: “It’s clear that the OGC is serious about its intentions with these new guidelines. As with other previous new initiatives, such as implementing approved supplier lists or encouraging the introduction of eprocurement tendering, the requirements have been laid out and presented as standards to be met.

It’s a simple process – they’re almost saying “here’s what is required, who can deliver it?” – I suppose it’s a potential nightmare for some companies, but for others it should represent a real opportunity to properly engage with public sector departments to help them achieve the savings they’re after.’

Cultural overhaul
In order to achieve said savings, many public sector workplaces may require a cultural growth of mobile and remote accessible technology has meant that more and more people can now incorporate flexible or remote working into their schedule, meaning they can spend less time in the main office.

“Basically, many offices now don’t need as many desks as they have employees, or at least not one desk for one person all of the time”, explains Mark Haynes. “Many public sector organisations already offer flexible working policies and flexitime for workers, but their workplace design and specification doesn’t yet reflect this to the same degree. Bringing in measures like hot-desking or clear desk policies - even in organisations that may be reluctant at first to adapt to such changes – can provide clear benefits. These potential benefits and savings generated by updating traditional working practices will, in many cases, outweigh any inconvenience or upheaval, especially seeing as these are only temporary. It’s important to ensure that the correct expertise is sought, as is proper consultation with regards to day-to-day occupancy and furniture requirements.”

However, there may be times when a high number of workers are required to share the office. Flexible working isn’t a replacement to centralised offices – just another option for them to incorporate where appropriate. This means that on occasion, certain workers will be required to function in an environment where they are in closer proximity to colleagues than they may have been previously used to.

Associated with this, further space planning issues are raised with regards to noise, privacy, comfort and the like. As with product specification, this is where the appropriate experience and expertise is important, as Breathegroup’s Arthur Lamb explains. “The more obvious solutions to the challenge of providing the correct balance between building efficiency and worker comfort, like acoustic solutions, modesty panels, flexible rooms and breakout spaces are well known to most managers, but there’s much more to it than that. The main focus should be on creating a working environment that can remain functional regardless of how many people are in the office at a given time, no matter what the nature of their work is. This can be done by creating multi-use flexible spaces, or by simply removing the facility for certain outdated working practices altogether. The important thing is to ensure that public sector spending is approached with more of a private sector mindset, at least in terms of budget management and seeking the correct expertise and help.”

Another benefit of reducing worker footprints and, as a consequence, requiring less office space is the reduced impact on the environment. The OGC is extremely committed to sustainable practices throughout its estate. According to the OGC’s own website: “High Performing Property is the five year strategy for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the management and use of the Government estate, and for achieving a more sustainable estate. Benefits from the programme are estimated to be worth between £1-1.5bn per annum by April 2013 on an estate that costs around £6bn a year to run. Savings will arise from a reduction in overall space required, better space utilisation and better procurementof FM services and property leases.”

So the knock on effect of implementing the new standard recommendations is to create more sustainably conscious workplaces in the public sector. This isn’t a new phenomenon, even though it is much more actively sought nowadays. To highlight an example from a few years ago, the widespread use of flat screen technology meant a dramatic reduction in the footprint of desks, which no longer need to accommodate large CRT monitors.

More recently, the introduction of further space saving solutions such as hot desk booking systems have enabled some companies to deliver public sector schemes operating within a range of 6.85 sq m to 8.5 sq m in certain cases. It is results like that that make the 2013 savings target look like an attainable standard.

Similarly, in order to achieve or even surpass the OGC’s recommended space standards for the public sector, companies working closely with public sector buyers to address the needs of each building and its occupants will reach the best fit for the best value. This is particularly important considering the fact that the OGC’s property estate comprises 9,600 holdings in all parts of the UK.

The drive to maximise cost savings without any detriment to efficiency is a top priority for the OGC, as chief executive Nigel Smith explained. “The new standards underline the government’s commitment to getting the best from the estate, and will give a strong message to the property industry – developers and landlords – about the importance government as a client is attaching to this.’”

With a demonstrable record on initiatives in other areas that have proved a success, such as the savings of over £7bn generated via the implementation of new procurement strategies, the OGC is clearly an organisation focused on realising its goals, both financially and performance-wise. Facilities managers in the public sector need to be aware of what action they are expected to take in order to meet these standards, and the businesses equipped to assist in such areas need to be on hand with the goods, services and expertise required by said managers.

As an OGC spokesperson commented: “It is estimated that applying the Office of Government Commerce’s workspace standards across the civil estate will deliver annual savings of around £1.25bn, which is the equivalent of building around 42 new schools or eight new hospitals every year. The public sector can achieve the best performance from its estate by making the use of buildings more flexible and integrated with technologies that support connectivity and choice. This is also sustainable, not just by reducing and reusing property but in reducing the need to travel dramatically. It will involve a rethink about the locality of government work by managing location strategically.

‘It is important that suppliers and manufacturers engage with and have positive dialogue with the public sector on a regular basis to help achieve the aims set out in the workspace standards.”

● Martin Mitchell is a freelance journalist specialising in property and management

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