Enabling Action

Jeff Zirbes leads a new real estate approach that is changing how a leading humanitarian organization delivers its services

One hundred years ago, a growing aid organization needed to unite and anchor its humanitarian efforts. It commissioned windows from famed designer Louis Comfort Tiffany and relied on the talents of countless others who worked to create a sprawling, columned building in Washington, DC, that would become the institution’s national headquarters. But it’s from the inside that change became increasingly evident, as former US president and chairperson William Howard Taft led the group of social workers who expanded the organization founded by Clara Barton in 1881.

In the decades that followed, the American Red Cross blossomed into one of the world’s leading humanitarian organizations. Today, a robust network of volunteers and employees provide disaster relief, educate community members on health and safety programs, collect and process blood donations, and support military members and their families.

But the world is changing, and the organization recognized the need to change with it. As leaders began the discussion on how to best provide services in an era burdened by frequent crises and intensified by the fast pace of technological advancement, they turned their attention to a varied, scattered, and sometimes inefficient real estate portfolio of roughly 1,500 properties consisting of about 13 million square feet.

Jeff Zirbes, executive director of facilities operations, had a history of successfully managing several departments within real estate when he joined the Red Cross in 2014 to implement critical strategic changes and to help optimize total real estate holdings. The transformation is multifaceted, involving a major renovation to the historic national headquarters in Washington, DC , as well as a revision of its workspaces across the country.

Washington, DC

Beyond its emergency and disaster efforts, the American Red Cross also stays close to its roots through the Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program. The DC branch of the program consists of a team of roughly 1,000 volunteers who serve active military members, veterans, and their families.

The people of these 14 military installations have access to a myriad of services from maintaining connections to home to financial assistance. The SAF works with military personnel and their families through each stage of service, providing counseling, training information, and workshops about reintegration into civilian life to ensure that our nation’s best are at their best.

Zirbes believes that having the right team provides the avenue for success when attempting such a large transition. With this in mind, he engaged some of his key staff in the project. Bruce Hollingsworth provided services as the lead project manager, while Anita Chastain was the lead space and workplace planner. There were also other staff members on the team that provided an abundance of input and help. “We’re looking at our entire real estate portfolio to see how the American Red Cross can better utilize its space and decrease expenses so more funds can go to fulfilling an important mission,” Zirbes says.

While partnering with HR and IT, a full change management process emerged as another key component to the conversion, which Zirbes describes as a shift in overall philosophy, summed up in one simple question: “If you’re in an office, why do you have to be there?”

The question is prompting Zirbes and other leaders at the American Red Cross to reexamine how they conduct activities and how space is used across the nation, where the group has a presence in almost every community. In some locations, the Red Cross may have one building for blood collection and another for disaster response. It may have a warehouse and a chapter building. Some portions of each of those buildings may also be vacant and underutilized. “If we’re not using the buildings like we should, then there may be an opportunity to reduce space and/or colocate service lines,” Zirbes explains.

By optimizing facilities across the nation, his team will decrease donor funds spent on repairs, maintenance, and overall ownership, reallocating dollars back to the Red Cross’ mission.

This new way of thinking impacts everything from building materials to interior design to occupancy rates. Moving forward, Zirbes and the American Red Cross will remove traditional cubicles and isolating offices in favor of open designs and collaboration zones. Furniture layout will change to promote communication. Early iterations include main floors organized around four central (and shared) sit-stand desks pushed together to form a pinwheel shape. More employees are allowed and encouraged to work remotely, at least part time, and share common space on days they need to work from the office. Zirbes, for example, splits his time between Portland, Oregon, and the nation’s capital. He even manages a team of 30 employees who each work from a distant physical location.

The culmination of these efforts is on display at the American Red Cross’ renovated headquarters. Zirbes and his team refreshed the 100-year-old building while maintaining its historic integrity (the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966). Crews demolished one floor at a time to create a brighter, more welcoming atmosphere. Assigned offices and desks are no more, replaced by a collection of strategic collaborative spaces. Need a quick one-on-one or a phone conversation? Step into a small focus room. Have a presentation for a handful of colleagues? Use an escape room, wired and ready for tablets, computers, and other devices. Ready for a larger meeting? Reserve a 10-person conference room.

Zirbes says that employees and volunteers now use the space differently than before. Prior to construction, Zirbes met with each department to discover their occupancy needs. Armed with their usage statistics, he created a series of “neighborhoods” in accordance with expected usage. The group’s finance department, for example, has 25 employees. Since they are never all in the office at the same time, finance’s neighborhood has only 16 seats. Each person brings their own device, and everything connects wirelessly to a robust network and two shared printers.

While better technology helps the Red Cross respond to those who need assistance, the organization also lowered its cost of occupancy in the administrative building by following LEED principles for sustainable design, construction, and operation. The headquarters is illuminated by energy-efficient LED bulbs and heated and cooled with low-consumption components. An advanced energy management system ensures elements are off when not in use. Additionally, workers recycled 74 percent of construction waste and installed long life cycle materials that shouldn’t require frequent maintenance.

The headquarters is just one of several big projects Zirbes tackled in the region. He also helped renovate other buildings and moved the Red Cross’ disaster response operations to Fairfax, Virginia. Employees there monitor crises in real-time and relay necessary information to their colleagues across the nation. Now, Zirbes is focusing on exporting the best practices to the rest of his portfolio in an all-encompassing, multiyear project.

In 2016, the American Red Cross distributed more relief items and provided more emergency shelter stays than in the previous two years combined. Aid workers responded to those affected by Hurricane Matthew, a large Canadian wildfire, the global refugee crisis, and a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Ecuador. Zirbes expects that growth to continue in years to come. One hundred years after opening its national headquarters, the organization is still fulfilling its mission. But now, thanks to an optimized real estate portfolio, the organization is reaching the world faster and better than ever before, continually taking steps to put more revenue toward its mission.