Feds’ Workplace 2.0 office modernization ‘a disaster’

The federal government’s office space modernization program is a “disaster,” according to its top real estate executive, who also suggested he was cool towards continuing to own, rather than lease, some properties.

Kevin Radford, an assistant deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement Canada, made his remarks Wednesday during a wide-ranging presentation at the Ottawa Real Estate Forum.

In 2011, the department – then known as Public Works and Government Services Canada – began implementing a program called “Workplace 2.0,” rethinking how and where public servants work.

Mr. Radford said too much emphasis was placed on reducing the real estate footprint of civil servants without sufficient attention to integrating workplace technology into the revamped offices.

“Workplace 2.0 is a disaster,” he said. “We (are) measuring ourselves on how well we are doing at consolidating and shrinking space.”

According to the government, the average federal employee used 18.4 square metres in 2012-13, which is the most recent fiscal year for which records are published. That’s down from 21.6 square metres per employee in 2006, according to an auditor general report.

The goal of Workplace 2.0 is to create “Workplaces of the Future” that encourage more collaboration between employees, offer greater flexibility and allow bureaucrats to make better use of technology such as videoconferencing.

It directly affects the private sector, specifically those firms that supply the federal government with office furniture, architectural services and leased office space.

Old cubicles were to be replaced with shared and collaborative spaces, as well as work stations with lower panels aimed at encouraging interaction, increasing natural light and improving air circulation.

However, Mr. Radford said steps were missed during the rollout, such as ensuring bureaucrats could wirelessly access the Internet in shared work areas.

“How can we be going to various buildings and changing the furniture around and not ensuring that modern technology (such as) basic, secure access to Wi-Fi is available?” he asked. “There has been no integration of the workplace strategy with technology,” added Mr. Radford, who worked for the federal IT agency Shared Services Canada before moving to the real property branch.

Darren Fleming, a vice-president at brokerage firm Cresa Ottawa, said the blunt assessment by Mr. Radford was “jaw-dropping” but consistent with the anecdotes he’s heard from consultants working with the federal government.

“If I’m a mobile worker and am supposed to collaborate, I still need my e-mail and the ability to work off my computer. There wasn’t that hand-in-hand investment in technology,” he said.

Mr. Fleming told OBJ that there have been other issues related to denser offices, such as the loss of privacy and strain on common areas such as washrooms.

During his speech, Mr. Radford also outlined a vision for dramatically rethinking where in the National Capital Region civil servants work.

In recent years, the federal government has been reducing its presence in Ottawa’s central business district and looking for opportunities to relocate to other areas close to mass transit, such as the Ottawa Train Yards.

However, Mr. Radford said he’d like to go further and allow bureaucrats to work closer to home.

He described his experience driving from his Gatineau office to Wednesday morning’s forum in Ottawa.

“We sat on a bridge for half an hour (surrounded by cars) with Quebec licence plates … Most of them were public servants,” Mr. Radford said. “It’s nonsensical to me how much productivity was lost on that bridge.”

His vision includes federal office hubs scattered throughout the National Capital Region. Employees could choose where they wanted to work and use an electronic registration system to reserve a workstation.

In the meantime, Mr. Radford said he’s received the green light from the federal privacy commissioner to collect the first half of bureaucrats’ postal codes to better understand where employees working in certain buildings live.

He also questioned the wisdom of the federal government owning its own office buildings, especially given the challenges in accurately predicting future demand.

Government figures show that slightly more than half of government space in the National Capital Region is owned by the Crown, rather than leased. Much of that government-owned inventory is old and in poor condition.

Any shift towards leasing more space would create significantly more business for private-sector landlords.

“I was thrilled to hear (Mr. Radford) say that they they really shouldn’t own buildings, that they should be leasing buildings,” said Bernie Myers, vice-president for eastern Canada at Morguard, during a later panel discussion. Morguard is one of the federal government’s largest local landlords.

“They have a tremendous inventory of (older) buildings that if (the private sector) owned, they probably wouldn’t lease.”