Optimising workplace density – what governments can learn from the private sector

The public sector is a major occupier of office space in Australia. State and federal government inhabit up to 30% of all office premises nationally. In our capital cities, the respective state government is typically the single biggest tenant.

In Canberra, the federal government represent up to 80% of the total market.

While the public sector certainly takes up a sizeable amount of office space in the country, the management of public sector office accommodation still has some catching up to do to achieve the same level of efficiency as the private sector.

Grosvenor Management Consulting recently published a report that analysed the workplace density points (square meters per workpoint) in offices across Australia. It turned out that government uses up to 30% more office space per workpoint than large private sector companies.

In this article I’ll explore some of the complexities of managing office space in the public sector, highlight the challenges that need to be overcome to improve performance, and offer some best-practice solutions to help governments manage the transitions to more flexible working environments.

Managing workplace change in a public sector environment

Managing workplace in the public sector is very challenging, thanks to the constant change as a result of machinery of government (MoG), as well as portfolio and political changes. It is similar to having your board of management change every three to four years! Setting and executing long term strategies in this type of environment is extremely difficult.

More problematic though are the cultural issues. Long standing attitudes and beliefs associated with entitlement thinking around ‘my workstation’ or ‘my office’ makes even having a discussion around change a problem. Many senior executives believe that the benefits of changing the workplace are just not worth the conflict and potential business disruption.

What’s more, the implementation of new workplace strategies requires the alignment of property, HR and ICT in a nexus often referred to as Corporate Resource Infrastructure (CRI). Getting these three functions to operate in a cohesive and coordinated way to implement a major change is usually more than any department can achieve.

Why change in public sector property management is inevitable

Changing the way in which public servants engage with their workplace won’t be easy. Some industry experts even believe that flexible working or activity-based working strategies are simply not applicable to the public sector environment.

I don’t agree with this assessment: not only can it be implemented; it inevitably will be implemented, albeit in ways that suit the environment of the public sector.

I believe the change will become inevitable due to:

  • The constant pressure to cut costs: if the private sector companies can house the same number of people in 20% or 30% less space, why can’t we?
  • The growing evidence from early adopters that flexible working not only reduces overheads, but improves workplace culture and productivity.
  • The advances in technology that will enable managers to better measure and manage workplace utilisation.

The PRODAC measure instigated by the Federal Department of Finance is an excellent start in the drive to improve workplace efficiency. However, I’d argue that this is not enough. Improving the utilisation of office space will require the public sector to move to more contemporary workplace designs including flexible working or activity based working (ABW).

How to manage common challenges in the change process

To improve workplace density working public sector executives will need to address a number of changes. Here is my list of the four key challenges and suggestions on how to address them, based on private sector best practice.

Challenge 1. Overcoming the prevailing attitude of ‘it just doesn’t suit the public sector’.

Possible Solutions:

There’s no one size fits all solution for workplace management. Flexible working won’t suit those employees who are always at their workstation.

However, there will be many that will find flexible work a suitable solution. Identify who they are and focus the change on these functions rather than everyone in the department.

Challenge 2. A view that changing to flexible workspaces is just not worth the hassle or, we can’t get senior executive sponsorship.

Possible Solutions:

Imagine a business case that identified a cost reduction for property of between 10% and 30%.

Starting with a compelling business case is the way to engage decision makers. The trade-off for them is they have to be sponsors for the improvements to be achieved.

Challenge 3. Concern that the staff will never accept it.

Possible Solutions:

Get people engaged and start having a conversation about their expectations and objections. Good change management starts with stakeholder engagement.

Better still, establish a working committee and include the ICT team.

Challenge 4. We don’t have the ICT to support it.

Possible Solutions:

This is a major impediment. You can’t implement without an ICT environment that will support it. Make sure that any new plans for ICT upgrades have flexible working as a priority.

Gain long term saving

I believe that there are considerable (up to 30%) savings achievable over the long term by adopting leading-practice workplace strategies. This should be compelling reason to change for any business that has a substantial office-based workforce.

Implementing contemporary workplace strategies is more than just a property plan. It requires an integrated approach involving ICT, people and culture as well as senior level sponsorship. By taking the lead in this discussion, you will be positioning the department, and yourself, as a strategic and value-adding member of the team