From its very first days, the federal government has been no stranger to picking up stakes and moving; between 1785 and 1800, the capital itself was located in three different cities.
Today’s moves happen both between states and between floors of an office building, and they happen with regularity. In fact, relocation is so much a part of the lifecycle of a federal enterprise that the General Services Administration offers relocation services to its fellow agencies.
The Defense Department’s Base Realignment and Closure process (BRAC) has closed or relocated hundreds of Cold War–era facilities since 1988, and civilian agencies have also been on the move. The Patent and Trademark Office moved to new headquarters in 2003 and added regional offices outside Washington, D.C., between 2012 and 2015; the National Science Foundation moved into a new building in 2017.
Agencies planning or recently completing moves include the Federal Communications Commission, the Bureau of Land Management and parts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA agencies recently scheduled a virtual job fair to fill vacancies in their new Kansas City location.
But what does it mean to move in the information age? “I’ve been doing this for the past 20-plus years, and I think that technology has honestly gotten simpler from a relocation perspective,” says Eric Stang, senior managing director of CBRE’s Business Transition and Move Management team.
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Agencies Need to Plan in Advance for Major Office Moves
“Most of our clients are in a plug-and-play environment or have the ability to access wireless in the space even if we have a connectivity issue at the desktop,” explains Stang, who has planned and executed large-scale, complex moves for public and private sector clients.
“VoIP phones or a cellphone-only environment eliminates a lot of that upfront planning and telecom work that we used to have to do with our clients’ technology partners.”
Major moves, however, do require major planning. “We still start projects, depending on the size, anywhere from 12 months to 18 months before a large headquarters-type relocation,” says Stang.
One of the biggest challenges during that long ramp-up cycle is understanding every aspect of an agency’s current technology as well as any changes that will be made in conjunction with the move. And, when it comes to government, the procurement process is another consideration that can’t be overlooked, says Stang. Ultimately, the goal is to make the move as seamless as possible and avoid disrupting the services people rely on.
That goal was top of mind when the National Science Foundation moved 8 miles from its original Arlington, Va., headquarters to a new building in Alexandria, Va., in stages between 2016 and 2017. The move involved 1,700 personnel, NSF’s network, a small data center, every piece of IT equipment and the agency’s IT help desk.
“Continuity of service was probably our biggest concern,” says Dorothy Aronson, NSF CIO. “Basically, every piece of headquarters technology needed to move.”
And that had to happen while continuing to serve customers, save money and shrink the agency’s on-premises data center. While NSF’s move was a major challenge, it also became a source of opportunity.
“The move allowed us to accelerate a digital transformation that we had been working on for years,” says Aronson.
An Office Upgrade Leads to Better Tech
NSF migrated applications and data storage to the cloud, thereby shrinking its data center into a space about half the size of the old one. “As time goes on, we’ll likely keep going in that direction until there’s almost nothing in our onsite data center,” explains Aronson.
The move also allowed NSF to invest in technology that supports its core grant-funding activities.
“NSF receives about 40,000 proposals for grant funding each year, and we use panels of independent experts to review them. For a long time, that meant having researchers from across the country travel to our old headquarters, where they would work on NSF desktop computers,” says Aronson.
“Now, we can bring panelists here and let them either borrow laptops or use their own devices, connected to one of our secure networks. Or, they can stay home and be a virtual panelist through videoconferencing.”
One of the major keys to NSF’s successful move was thorough planning. GSA, which leases office space for the NSF, announced the agency’s move in 2013, four years before it had to be accomplished. NSF put that time to work.
“We spent the next few years designing and planning how to make all the IT upgrades and transitions we needed — VoIP, network transition, data migration, critical infrastructure installation,” explains Aronson. “By 2016, we began having equipment delivered and installed at the new building.”
The staged approach paid off. “We made our final physical move of the remaining equipment to the new headquarters over a three-day weekend to minimize customer disruption,” says Aronson. “In fact, that weekend was the only time our networks were offline.”
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DOD Provides Users with Customized IT Setups
If an agency’s move will be to a purpose-built space, collaborating with the builders offers another way to maximize the opportunities presented by a move.
That was the case with the Mark Center Building, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and completed in August of 2011 to support BRAC goals.
With 1.5 million square feet of administrative and support spaces and parking for 3,720 cars, the Alexandria, Va., building hosts thousands of Department of Defense employees transferred from other local offices.Tenants, who came from more than 24 DOD agencies, were given a voice in the planning process. “We had weekly meetings where we sat with selected representatives from each tenant, the designer and USACE to design the layout for their prospective office spaces,” explains Merissa Zuzulock, project manager for the design team.
The building was also specifically designed to accommodate the technology needs of tenants, both at the time of move-in and afterward. “The tenant areas included infrastructure that would accommodate internal requirements for future planning situations,” says Zuzulock.
That includes a consolidated server room, five IT closets for each level of the building, overhead raceways allowing for power and IT to be flexibly distributed to reconfigurable “smart walls,” and the use of modular furniture.
The building itself was outfitted with a virtual hosting platform made up of IBM Blade infrastructure with over 200 blades, multiple Dell EMC storage systems, and VMware vSphere; the platform allows agencies to work with information in three security classifications.
“While nothing is future-proof, the building is well suited to handle advancements in technology,” adds Zuzulock.
Communication Is Critical for Any Office Move
Ultimately, no matter how complex the move or the technology that needs to be relocated, the most important element is communication.
Given sufficient lead time, planners can speak to everyone involved in the move, gather detailed information, share information on changes and keep everyone on the same page.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to eliminate any downtime,” says CBRE’s Stang. “When someone reports onsite, typically after a move weekend, it’s really business as usual. They know what to do, where to go, where their new location is, how they settle into the space when they arrive.”
And don’t forget to communicate the need to stay flexible. “Plan ahead and plan thoroughly, but remain agile when the time comes to implement. In fact, your planning should include the ways that you can be agile when the unexpected occurs,” counsels NSF’s Aronson. “Many things will change.”