Employees worry about state-imposed office space standards

The State of Alaska is implementing new work areas in Juneau and Anchorage office buildings. Officials claim new universal space standards will save money and create a better work environment, but some state employees think otherwise.

Dylan Rhea-Fournier works on the Southeast Alaska bat monitoring project. “It’s a network of these passive detectors that turn on at night and record the bats echolocation, their bio-sonar, and from that we can get an idea of their abundance and activity and timing as well as species composition,” he explains.

Rhea-Fournier works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the Douglas office. His work space isn’t your typical office. Shelves are stacked to the ceiling with equipment like bat detectors, battery boxes, solar panels. A metal locker has laptops and climate recorders. Rain gear hangs from various hooks. He’s also in charge of making sure the equipment works in all types of weather, which takes more stuff.

“You got cards, all these download cables, microphones, all these little various parts that we need for the detector and the rain guard that we use in the field – hardware. It’s kind of a little workshop here,” Rhea-Fournier says.

All of this fits into a 9-by-10-foot work space, but the state wants to put Rhea-Fournier and his equipment into a 6-by-8 cubical, reducing his work area by about half.

The state’s Universal Space Standards impose guidelines on who gets an office and who doesn’t. Senior management and administrative positions, like attorneys or physicians, get an office. Those below get 6-by-8-foot cubicles or ‘workstations’ grouped into ‘neighborhoods.’

The standards also dictate the type and color of the workstation furniture. “A cherry wood finish,” says Deputy Administration commissioner Curtis Thayer. Capital Office won the bid to supply the new office furnishings, with the average cost of installing a new cubicle at $6,500.

Thayer says the space standards will save the state $125 million over the next 10 to 20 years, beginning with the Robert Atwood building in Anchorage, and state office buildings in Nome, Juneau, and Douglas.

“They’re actually going to have 97 bodies on the floor where previously there had been 60,” Thayer explains of the Atwood Building.

He says enough space will be freed up to lease to other government agencies which are paying higher rent in the private sector.

Work areas filled with gear are more the norm in the Douglas building – firearms, darting guns, tracking equipment, immobilizing narcotics, coolers.

“We’re not an office where you come in and sit down and look at a computer all day and have a couple of file drawers,” says Fisheries tech Iris Frank, who spends most of her time analyzing sockeye fish scales.

She wonders how space standards will go with the Fish and Game model.

“One size does not fit all. It was kind of a draconian way how it all came about. We were just told. There was no input from the employees and if there had been maybe we could’ve come up with some suggestions that might’ve helped facilitate our needs and the administration’s need,” Frank says.

Frank has been with Fish and Game since 1977 and is planning on retiring in two years. “I can retire tomorrow and it might be my option if this kind of comes about without any input from us.”

Employee retention and recruitment are big issues for the State of Alaska. Health and Human Services program manager Robert Sewell says putting everyone in cubicles is not the right move. “There are huge costs to turnover in terms of recruitment, in terms of loss of institutional memory, in terms of disruptions of customer or client contact.”

Thayer says moving people into cubicles means more conference and break rooms, as well as private telephone booths, better ventilation, and the “right to light.” He cites the Banking and Securities Division in the Atwood Building, “They went from all private offices into an open work environment into what we call pods of four employees. You go up there now, they don’t want to go back into their offices. They’ll say this is better. We have more light, we talk to each other, we collaborate with each other.”

Thayer says the State’s move to an open work environment is behind the times and other agencies have already made the shift. “General Services for the federal government, has gone to an open work environment; the NANA building, one of the Native corporations; BP has gone to an open work environment,” he lists.

With new space standards, Thayer says Nome offices will have more conference rooms and Douglas will be able to house an additional 20 employees.

“We’re trying to save money, and if we can’t do it in space, it comes out of programs, and if we take money out of programs, it could come out of employees.”

New workstations are being installed on the seventh floor in Juneau’s State Office Building, commonly known as the SOB. The official unveiling is July 17.

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