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Expressions of Interest – Time to share

Saturday August 22nd, 2009

By Paul Statham, Managing Director, RNM Systems/Condeco

Following the Operational Efficiency Programme (OEP) interim findings which were published earlier in 2009, office space is becoming a contentious issue for the public sector, argues Paul Statham.

The 2008 Budget Report announced that the Government would take action, through the OEP, to ensure that future efforts to drive efficiency in the public services kept pace with developments in the private sector.

These five senior external advisors have identified a total of £15 billion annual savings from these areas in their interim report and advocated that government departments should consider desk sharing as a viable solution to help save money on wasted office space.

The report suggested that by divesting 30 per cent of its underutilised real estate, government could save approximately £1 billion a year in running costs. The target set by the Treasury is to reduce space occupancy from 14.5 to 10 square metres per full-time equivalent and use desk booking systems to help manage space more effectively.

These recommendations will not come as a surprise to many. For a long time now, most local government buildings have been operating with a desk occupancy rate of just 45 per cent, meaning that on any given day there can be as many as 297,000 empty desks in local authorities across England alone. These are astonishing statistics, especially when considering that an individual desk can cost up to £13,000 a year to run.

Flexible working is becoming increasingly common in the public sector and offices are becoming more open to a culture of remote working. Employees have become more mobile thanks to evolving technology, which has provided them with the luxury of remote access to emails and servers whether they are working from home or even abroad. But while this modern way of working has been embraced by many public sector departments, most employees still expect to have their own permanent workspaces at the office – desks which will possibly be unoccupied for two or three days a week, and which take up a lot of space in prime real estate and are expensive to run.

If public sector employees are prepared to adopt flexible working, they should also be ready to accept a more modern approach to desking at work. Working in a modern office is no longer about owning a particular desk but about having guaranteed access to the right kind of facility for getting the work done. It is no longer acceptable for offices to have such low levels of occupancy, especially if the taxpayer is paying for it.

While it might be relatively easy to implement flexible working, by contrast desk booking is something that will require more attention, time and investment to roll out. Many staff may respond negatively when told that they will have to share their desk or book a desk in advance of coming in to the office. When dealing with such a radical change in working culture, senior management need to handle staff concerns with care.

Employees need to be consulted at every step when the changes are being made, and informed about how the changes will positively affect the day-to-day running of the department. Desk booking schemes can prove to be extremely beneficial to any office environment, especially considering the potential cost savings, but staff buy-in and support is crucial to any such scheme succeeding.

Although the public sector has a reputation for being notoriously slow when it comes to moving with the times and keeping up with the latest trends, there are quite a few examples of county, city and borough councils that are actually leading the way with their advanced working practices.

Hampshire County Council is a perfect example of an authority embracing the latest developments in working to become more efficient – and making substantial savings in the process. The council reduced the number of office buildings it occupied from 64 to just 12, increasing its utilisation rates and introducing a flexible working environment facilitated by desk booking. This migration to a smarter working culture has meant that the council has been able to dispose of surplus land and property worth £300 million, which has been reinvested in other capital projects.

Evidently, many local authorities have already started to implement the OEP’s desk sharing recommendations, and some have indeed been practising this way of working for a while now. But the public sector still has, on the whole, a long way to go when it comes to addressing the issues of underutilised real estate and low office occupancy levels. HM Treasury has taken a major step in the right direction by highlighting flexi-working and desk booking as the most effective way to tackle the issues surrounding the public sector property portfolio. Surely it is only a matter of time before we see these practices being rolled out across the board, and flexi-working and desk booking embraced across local government.

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