5 Tips for Switching Office Space

a man looking up at several tall office buildings October 24, 2016 By: David Keen

An association office isn't just an office anymore: It's an extension of your brand and mission. That's why decisions about a change of space are so important. Here are factors to consider carefully before you move.

For most associations, office rent is one of the largest expenses in the budget, and yet many association executives view the office as a utility—a place to house operations rather than an extension of the organization's brand. But what if, instead of thinking about the office as just space, you thought about it as an asset—as a part of your overall organizational strategy?

That's what we did at the American Psychiatric Association when we recently changed offices. Here are five important steps to take if your organization is considering a similar move.

Start thinking about new office space early. If possible, you'll want to start thinking about new space 18 to 36 months before your lease expires. You'll need considerable time for planning the project, evaluating the office marketplace, and negotiating the terms of a purchase or lease. Fortunately, now is a great time to be a tenant. In the Washington Metropolitan area the current market favors the tenant, with lease buyouts and the availability of prolonged periods of free rent. Plus, many landlords are allowing tenants to restructure leases years before they expire.

Define success at the outset. Start by defining the parameters of the project, such as staff size, financial capacity, office functionality, and location requirements. You should also set some goals that you want the space to help you achieve. These might range from increasing staff collaboration to creating a showcase for the industry to enhancing your lobbying presence. These steps will help you create a vision for your office and allow you to define what success looks like. Of course, you'll also probably need to adjust for fiscal reality.

Consider whether real estate ownership fits with your organizational mission or whether it's a distraction. Once you purchase a building—whether you have tenants or not—you're in the real estate business.

Choose to buy or lease. If you have the financial capacity, it's usually more favorable to buy your office space because when you own you have control of the cost structure. For instance, instead of a lease expense that increases 2 to 3 percent annually, you'll have a mortgage payment that fixes your costs and an asset that should appreciate and begin earning equity. This is especially true now with the low interest-rate environment and bond financing available. However, any investment entails risk, and real estate is no different. While a good real estate deal can boost an association, a bad deal can cripple it.

Growth projections are extremely important. If you're unsure whether your association's staff will grow over the next five to 10 years, you'll be at risk of under- or over-buying—purchasing a property that is either too small or too large in the long term.

Also consider whether real estate ownership fits with your organizational mission or whether it's a distraction. Once you purchase a building—whether you have tenants or not—you're in the real estate business. That means you'll need staff or contractors who are charged with maintaining and operating the building. If you prefer not to buy, there are many elements to a lease decision, including location, square footage, and space design, to name a few.

Find a prime location. This is one of the most challenging and subjective aspects of the office space decision, especially in a region like Greater Washington, DC, or Chicago. Should you locate your offices in the expensive city or find a spot in the more affordable suburbs?

Scrutinize how the locations you're considering could affect your brand or whether they reflect your members' values. For example, APA recently signed a lease to move from Arlington, VA back into Washington DC. A big component of that decision was the perceived value a DC address brings to our lobbying efforts. Recruiting and retaining top talent is another critical consideration for selecting a location: Think about proximity to public transportation, the safety of the neighborhood, and access to amenities.

Design a purposeful space. Design can have a huge impact on your organizational culture and the perception of visitors. It also drives the size of financial investment in your office. To get it right, this part of the puzzle takes a lot of planning, as well as engagement with leadership and staff. You want your design to support your organizational culture, which might include branding that serves as a reminder of the mission. Having the right design firm will be critical to achieving your goals: Choose one that you feel comfortable with and whose previous work reflects your vision.

You'll also require a keen understanding of how your office works. Open, collaborative space is popular right now, but it isn't right for everyone. Understanding how each area within your organization functions and then designing the space to facilitate effective operations is paramount.

Finally, be mindful that members are the owners of the office, and it should reflect their values. In general, members want to feel proud of their association headquarters, but they also want you to be good stewards of the organization's resources. Space perceived as too upscale or lavish may be seen as financially wasteful.

David Keen

David Keen is chief financial officer at the American Psychiatric Association in Arlington, Virginia.