Why agencies shouldn’t be so quick to give up their office space

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So many people have been teleworking for so long, many leaders of industry and government are starting to presume this is – pardon the cliché – the new normal. They’re rethinking how office space and how much of it they’ll need permanently. Walter Barnes cautions “not so fast.” There are good reasons to retain office space with people in it. He’s the president of PM Consulting Group, and he spoke to  Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Barnes, good to have you on.

Walter Barnes: Good morning, good morning. Glad to be on.

Tom Temin: Before we start, tell us a little bit about PM Consulting Group, you’re in the federal market, correct?

Walter Barnes: That’s correct. Yeah, PM Consulting Group based in Towson, Maryland, and operations in D.C. as well. We’re a professional services company that primarily focuses on the international development, health care, and IT spaces in the federal government space.

Tom Temin: All right, and you’ve got some pretty definitive ideas about why office space is still something agencies and companies ought to consider. Let’s start with the first one on the list that we received here. And that is the idea of company culture. Tell us what you mean there.

Walter Barnes: Absolutely. And I think it’s especially important for young and growing companies like ours to establish and maintain a company culture that promotes collaboration, hard work, focus, good client experiences, and being able to come together as a company and give our employees and clients a good experience if they’re here. I know a lot of folks are teleworking remotely, both our clients and our staff. But again, you know, we’ve done the Zoom sessions and things like – that there’s nothing like getting together in person, I think most people will agree with that. Nowadays, it’s all about doing that with caution, and making sure we’re following the appropriate rules and making sure it’s a safe space for our employees. But from a culture standpoint, you know, instilling that culture in each and every employee, and then that circulating to our client experience is super important. I think the physical space definitely helps with that.

Tom Temin: Yes, I was speaking with one federal executive the other day, who said that he joined a few months back, and had never been inside the agency walls, nor seen anyone from the agency in person. And he kept up a good face about it, but I felt maybe there’s a little bit of wishful thinking there that might be nice to see those people?

Walter Barnes: Yeah, I think connection to the mission is extremely important. And we find that too, with new employees is trying to make sure that they’re connected to the mission, not only of the client, but also the company. The company is not just in existence, just to make money, we also have a lot of community type activities that we try to do as well to make a difference in the world around us. So connecting employees, staff, to that mission is very important.

Tom Temin: And then the issue of employee growth, I mean, many, especially young employees that don’t have the chance to develop the kinds of networks, both peer-to-peer and mentor to new employee. That is, I guess, hampered by the situation of not being able to be in the office with people.

Walter Barnes: It is a bit hampered one of the conversations that we recently had was about how some employees, you know, their social domain basically revolves around work. Some have the social domain outside of work, and some it’s a hybrid. So trying to find opportunities to bring people together from that standpoint, to help with those that kind of yearn for that in-person dynamic is one of the things that you know, that physical office space will promote. But on the growth standpoint, that interaction with employees and managers is extremely important. Whether the employee is a new employee, whether they’ve been here five years or maybe even longer, no matter what site, they’re working on what client whether they’re client facing or their internal back office, corporate support type staff, we definitely want to promote an environment where, and advocate for an environment where managers feel comfortable talking to their employees, developing those relationships. And again, the physical office space definitely helps with that. When we look at employee satisfaction, we look at employee retention, people want somewhere to go in a lot of cases. I know a lot of employees that have been working from home for months, and then we’re going on almost a year now. And a lot of the conversation is man, I’m ready to kind of go back at least a couple days a week just to get that interaction, coordinate with my manager a bit more. And, you know, figure out how I can grow as an employee. What are my options and that type of thing.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Walter Barnes. He’s president of PM Consulting Group. And by the way, how many people do you have? And are they in the office or what’s your, your own company situation?

Walter Barnes: So we just hit 140 full-time employees. We do have a host of 1099 consultants that work on special projects for us and for our clients. Some folks are coming in a couple of days a week, but by and large on our end, most folks are still remote.

Tom Temin: Got it, so you haven’t gotten yards and yards and cubic feet of Lucite glued up and so forth yet.

Walter Barnes: Not yet but I think it’s coming pretty soon.

Tom Temin: But you have office space for when people can return. You’re prepared to have everybody come back to work, and not so much telework?

Walter Barnes: Oh yeah, we’ve kind of made it a point to leave it up to the employee. We don’t want to be in a position where we’re forcing people to come back a number of days. Fortunately, we’re in a business where we don’t necessarily have to come back sooner than we should. But you know, each and every employee has their own kind of tolerance and their own need from that perspective. And we’ve kind of left it up to the employee, and definitely maintaining continual communication with each employee to see, what their desires are. If they want to come back, we have space for them. They want to work from home, obviously, we have assets to help them do that.

Tom Temin: And of course, people at my end of town sometimes forget that at your end of town, there’s something called the Baltimore beltway. And that’s no picnic, either.

Walter Barnes: It isn’t. I actually got used to the traffic not being too heavy. I’m actually in D.C. today, and I got here in just under an hour. Like, this is nice. But again, as things pick up, you know, we will get back to the normal sitting in traffic on both of the beltways.

Tom Temin: Well, maybe someday there will be a Maglev between Baltimore and Washington, and you can get here in four minutes or something. And talk about the idea of customer satisfaction. I know that in calling some places, companies and agencies, people forgot to route their office phones over to their cell phones. And you wonder, is anyone ever going to get this call?

Walter Barnes: The physical office, depending on where you’re located – and I’ll give you an example: Our D.C. office is in the Ronald Reagan building, our largest client is the United States Agency for International Development. And being in the Reagan building, it allows for that very direct interaction with those clients. Prior to COVID, we had meetings and that type of thing. The clients wanted to get out of their day-to-day, 9-to-5 spaces and come and see a new space, right. And so we would offer up, the conference room for our meetings that we’d have for various projects. And it made for a good time to coordinate, to get to know the client in a bit of a less formal environment. You know, when you have an office space, you’re promoting your company’s mission, your values, the things that you really want people to know about your company, and why they will want to do business and continue to do business with your company. The office allows you to kind of promote that without having to use the words, you can see it on the wall, or you see it in how we have materials around the actual office and that type of thing. And you’ll also see it with, as customers come in, you also see it that they interact with employees that may not be on their direct project, you know, we want them to understand that, hey, you’re in business with a company that has a great culture, great people, people that want to be here. And the best way to show them that is to actually show them that. You can write a nice proposal and try to convey that in words and graphics. But you know, it’s nothing like bringing them into the physical office and actually showing them that culture.

Tom Temin: And as a practical matter, I guess if you are an owner, and you want to get space set up for when people return, great time to get some real good bargains?

Walter Barnes: Really good bargains, and I think the bargains are gonna get even better. I think as company leases start to wind up, what I’m hearing from my colleagues and fellow business owners is, “I still want a space, I still want to have a space but I don’t need as much square footage and that type of thing.” And as you can imagine, space in D.C. is extremely expensive, especially being downtown. So I know a lot of companies that are looking forward to either downsizing or even renegotiating their lease for you know, lower payments and that type of thing. And I think a lot of the commercial real estate entities will be very open to that.

Tom Temin: All right, now’s the time to get that marble executive bathroom you’ve always dreamed of. Walter Barnes is president of PM Consulting Group. Thanks so much for joining me.

Walter Barnes: Thank you so much for having me and definitely enjoyed the conversation.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your shows.

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