WASHINGTON — The most sumptuous room in the headquarters of the General Services Administration has floor-to-ceiling oak panels, chandeliers and a working fireplace carved of French limestone.
But the suite is no longer the private preserve of the administrator of the agency, Daniel M. Tangherlini, and instead is filled with modern conference desks, a white board and two flat-panel televisions that block the fireplace. Tangherlini has a small desk with a laptop and a phone in a new, wide-open space with dozens of other employees, most of whom have no assigned desks.
“Your role or position in the hierarchy is not determined by square footage,’’ Tangherlini said.
The agency is capitalizing on the reality that on any given day in Washington, large numbers of government employees’ desks sit empty because so many people work from home or travel for their jobs. So now, the vast majority of the 3,300 employees at GSA headquarters must participate in what the agency calls “hoteling,’’ a desk-sharing program requiring employees to reserve their workstations either daily or weekly in advance.
As a result, the agency’s recently renovated downtown Washington headquarters at 18th and F Streets, just two blocks from the White House, looks more like the airy spaces at Google’s Silicon Valley offices and less like the lumbering bureaucracy that manages and supports the federal agencies and still uses floppy-disk technology.
Most workstations in the headquarters are bare of the family photos and children’s drawings of yesteryear, but a six-story art installation can be seen from many desks along one side of the light-filled building.
On the days they are physically there, employees bring in their laptops and plug into desks that they have reserved through an online booking system, which includes maps of the building and email reminders sent out before the reservations begin. On a recent day, the office was mostly empty except for small hives of activity where people had settled in clusters to work in teams.
For Komal Rasheed, 31, a senior adviser on policy and strategy at the agency, the change has been welcome.
“It really changed dramatically how this agency works and collaborates,’’ she said. She finds it “liberating and freeing,’’ she said, to work at different desks throughout the agency and to meet with other workers no longer chained to their same desks. (She locates them through instant messaging.)
Overall, she said, her productivity has increased.
But in a capital where many government workers are used to spacious offices or private cubicles, not everyone is as enthusiastic. Some employees — none of whom wanted to be identified complaining about the changes imposed by their superiors — said they found the new system inconvenient, cumbersome or bad for morale. Without a permanent desk, they said, they feel less connected to the agency and their co-workers.
“This isn’t necessarily going to be easy for any one group, because it’s a complete change from how you work, when you work, where you work,’’ said Mika Cross, a “workplace transformation strategist’’ working as a fellow at the government’s Office of Personnel Management.
In a recent survey of government resource managers by the Mobile Work Exchange, which works to promote telecommuting in the federal government, traditional office culture was seen as the biggest barrier to the new office plans.
Successfully working in the new spaces requires a “huge cultural change,’’ said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, a company that conducts research on telecommuting. Government agencies offer telework training sessions and the GSA website includes numerous pages devoted to how to use the new workstations, including etiquette rules for sharing desks.
“You don’t just send someone out into the open offices and say, ‘Well, have fun!’’’ Lister said.
A variety of studies and surveys have found, however, that employees who work at least partly from home are more likely to show job satisfaction and can be more productive than their colleagues who do not (time they would spend commuting is instead spent working).
So far, only a small portion of the federal bureaucracy is trying out the desk-sharing program, including parts of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Departments of Agriculture and Homeland Security. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Broadcasting Board of Governors have pilot programs, too.
GSA officials, who consider it part of their mission to push other agencies to keep their real estate costs down, are alone in embracing the program nearly 100 percent at their headquarters. The agency’s initiative is more familiar in parts of the private sector, especially at high-tech startups. Shared desks are also in use in offices of the drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline and the consulting firms Deloitte and Accenture.
After a series of snowstorms in 2010 shut down much of Washington, Congress passed a law directing federal agencies to establish policies for working remotely. The added bonus, at least as far as the General Services Administration is concerned, is that with a more mobile workforce, there can be less office space to pay for.
Still, only about 250,000 federal employees work remotely with any regularity, officials said, of an eligible pool of about a million who could. The total executive branch workforce numbers about 2.6 million people.
“When people realize that there might be the ability to mine some of their baseline for resources they can put back into programs, they suddenly become more interested in talking about it,’’ Tangherlini said.
Through desk-sharing and other space-saving measures, Department of Homeland Security officials estimate they can save $55 million a year because they will not need to lease as much office space. The Fish and Wildlife Service will be able to eliminate 72,200 square feet of space and reduce their real estate costs by $3 million a year.
Still, it is hard to say how long it will take before the GSA model finds its way into the darkest corners of impenetrable government bureaucracy, if ever.
“It’s a huge challenge,’’ Tangherlini said. “I’m not going to diminish the complexity and difficulty of getting people to think and act and operate in different ways.’’