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BBG Remakes Staff Offices

Open layout aims to simultaneously improve morale, cut costs

André Mendes points out a feature of the new furniture to reporters on a tour. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the federally funded organization that manages Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia among other services, is responsible for creating some 4,100 hours of original programming each week, delivered in 61 languages. The BBG’s stated mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.

That takes more than a little office space, and the BBG recently found itself with an urgent need to bring more of its employees into its building on Independence Avenue near the U.S. Capitol.

To make room for staff shifting from the Health and Human Services building next door, management is trying a new office scheme: wings full of low-rise cubicles instead of increasingly crowded offices originally designed for a single person.

Starting Sept. 29, BBG began to move into the first of the completed spaces, which eventually will house the organization’s Technology, Services and Innovation group. TSI provides IT and technology services for the BBG’s broadcast operations.

The first person to make the move into the open-office cube farm was André Mendes, BBG’s director of global operations.

André Mendes sits in his new cubicle. “This space went from 80 staff desks to 153 desks,” Mendes said, indicating the first wing of the project.

The full project will encompass 34,000 square feet and will house hundreds of BBG, VOA, RFE, RFA employees and others in the organization’s international broadcast operations.

Other cost savings will come from seemingly minor changes.

Until recently, Mendes said employees were in a warren of offices, each with one or more printers. These printers, of various makes and models, require a total of $500,000 per year in cartridges. The new office space will have a handful of central printers, which will dramatically cut down on the complexity and cost of printing services.

The previous office organization resulted in fewer staff interactions because the physical offices did not encourage contact. That had serious consequences for BBG.

“Historically, this organization has one of the lowest morale ratings in the federal government,” Mendes noted. Bringing a large number of people into a shared, collaborative space is expected to improve teamwork and facilitate better sharing of ideas and the overall workload.

Bright windows line the perimeter of BBG’s renovated office space. Other employee-friendly features in the new space, such as treadmill workstations, standup desks and personal care rooms, are intended to make staff feel more appreciated.

Much of the staff involved with the initial move is from the organization’s IT group, so they have paid considerable attention to networking and workstation capabilities. For a start, there will be no desktop PCs — only laptops and tablets. Also, phone service will be provided by voice over IP, which means that an employee’s phone will essentially be where ever the employee’s laptop is located. And there will be plenty of networking capability.

“We are going to have a lot of wireless bandwidth in this space,” Mendes said.

The BBG expects the project to save $2.6 million in fiscal 2015, primarily through rent savings in other buildings. Mendes noted that this amount is equivalent to the cost of four or five language services.

Mendes said that staff response to the move has been mostly positive, perhaps in part because employee teams were responsible for choosing features such as chairs.

Bob Kovacs is editor-in-chief of Government Video.

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