The federal office space of the future? GSA’s new floor plan eschews desk-jockey culture.

July 15, 2013

The agency that manages 375 million square feet of federal office space is moving back to its newly renovated headquarters in downtown Washington, where its employees are finding that their personal real estate footprint has been radically altered.

They now have to work in less than half the space they once had.

The long corridors, closed-door offices and high cubicles that have always defined the culture of the federal workplace have given way to open spaces filled with industrial white desks that most employees must now reserve like hotel rooms.

Employees badge in at the lobby turnstile so their bosses know where they are. They touch down at desks they must leave without a trace of clutter if they want to avoid a scolding. “Teaming Rooms” are “leveraged” for meetings, and attendees are electronically logged in by a “room wizard” on the wall outside.

The inspiration behind the General Services Administration’s new floor plan and office decor is Administrator Daniel M. Tangherlini, who is urging his employees to work away from their desks while dismantling the bureaucratic approach back at the office. The push could help usher in a new federal culture in which working no longer means that your boss can see you.

It is part of a long debate over how employers can best deploy their workers in the digital era. This year, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer banned her employees from working at home because she said they were goofing off.

But Tangherlini is betting that his employees will get more done if they are at home — or anywhere outside the office, for that matter — more often. He wants them
to instant-message, Google-chat,
e-mail and Internet-call their way through the workday on laptops and smartphones. He is betting that when they do venture into the office, they will work together better and more creatively if closed doors and high cubicles don’t get in the way.

“Let’s say you don’t buy any of that,” Tangherlini said. “We can show $24 million we saved in rent on six leases we don’t have anymore.”

As part of the restructuring, Tangherlini — tapped to lead the GSA last year after revelations of lavish spending by the agency at conferences — has renounced his own executive digs: a 1,600-square-foot spread with wood-paneled walls, silver-plated chandeliers, a working fireplace and a White House view any ambitious federal leader would covet.

He now camps out in an open area with his executive and support staff at a utilitarian, Ikea-style desk with no drawers and a blue recycling bin underneath. Photos of his daughters sit on top.

The GSA has been able to get rid of rented office space in the District and Northern Virginia it no longer needed after cutting the average amount of room required for each employee by more than half.

With 3,300 headquarters employees, the GSA represents just a small fraction of the federal workforce. Even so, it took a full year to train everyone to electronically reserve desks and meeting rooms and give up the paper that still dominates most government work.

Not every agency is willing to make the investment in new technology and training to make this kind of change, federal workplace experts say. There is also the question of whether this way of working will make federal employees more productive. How do you measure the efficiency of an acquisitions officer or budget analyst?

Other corners of the government, meanwhile, worry about the security risks of having employees work remotely. A Justice Department spokeswoman said the agency’s law enforcement mission and use of sensitive documents require a “secure work site.”

Federal telework has had mixed success at best. After the Office of Personnel Management allowed 400 employees to work whenever and wherever they wanted in 2010, the initiative was deemed a failure and canceled, in part because of poor communication between managers and their staffs, which were unsure what was expected of them, a consultant’s report concluded.

See no evil?

A forthcoming study by Global Workplace Analytics examines why working at home has been slow to take off in the federal world, where just 6 percent of employees work remotely at least once a week.

“By far the biggest issue is that managers do not trust their employees,” said Kate Lister, president of the California-based firm, which is helping the Food and Drug Administration transform one department along the lines of the GSA model — the unit is hiring hundreds of new drug evaluators without adding space. “If I can’t see my employees, how do I know they’re working? It comes back to setting goals.”

Tangherlini, who worked as D.C. city administrator under then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), acknowledged that “there is still resistance.” His evangelizing keeps bumping into concerns over the sensitivity of much government work. “Anytime you have a lot of lawyers in an agency, there’s resistance,” he said.

He peered out the leaded windows of his now-vacated sixth-floor office, which Interior Department secretaries and GSA chiefs had occupied since 1917. “It’s an absolutely beautiful room,” he said. “But who would ever come in here?”

It will now be used for meetings and award ceremonies.

As part of a larger $161 million renovation, the GSA took a page from Hewlett-Packard, Deloitte and other tech and consulting firms. Most of the walls at 1800 F St. NW have been pulled down, the premises filled with rolling file cabinets that double as seats; giant whiteboards; and lockers for stashing purses and lunch boxes. The once ubiquitous printers and paper shredders are rare.

The communal office has protocols. Employees must be mindful of noise (watch your voice) and smells (no eating lunch at your desk, and, if you must wear perfume, keep it minimal).

Going paperless

Inside Room 6-213B one recent morning, three 20-somethings on the chief financial officer’s staff had their laptops plugged into a docking station and were setting up the schedule for interns arriving in August.

“In the past, we would have sat around the table with notepads and someone would have written it all down,” said Jayana Garvey, a program manager in charge of internships. “And then they would have to go transfer it to the computer.”

Quipped Rachel Litwak, a program analyst: “It’s kind of funny to think we worked like that only a few years ago. 2010 — Stone Age!”

Garvey, Litwak and colleague Amber York work from home about two days a week. Most of the time, Garvey ends up on her couch. York, who shares an apartment in Arlington with Lauren Kotwicki, a ­co-worker, opens her laptop on her bed when she gets up and pretty much stays there.

They all say they tend to work more hours from home, in part because the computer is always on.

Much of the training was run by Julisa Mandeville and Charles Hardy, the GSA’s chief workplace coordinators. They said managers were nervous about keeping track of their staffs. “We told them they need to communicate their expectations ahead of schedule,” Mandeville said.

Hardy added, “This is a learning process, and we don’t know all the answers.”

Joy Heuer, a supervisor for budget, finance and administration who has been with the GSA for 27 years, said her biggest fear was how to assess the productivity of her team without seeing her staff every day. So she shifted her expectations.

“I’m looking more to, ‘Is the product being delivered in a timely manner?’ ” Heuer said, using the new buzzwords that help her think of her employees’ work as a measurable quantity. “So I’m reaching out to people more, to make sure their product is being taken care of.”

Herman Goodyear, a 25-year civil servant, is in charge of the office that oversees the GSA’s customers, which are other federal agencies. He said that, as a supervisor, he was panicked about losing paper. “You have personnel files, year-end reviews, original documents,” he said. “I was really worried about being separated from them.”

Goodyear supervises 18 people and was terrified his files would be lost. He was assigned a filing cabinet and given the key. But he still had to purge many files and other paperwork.

“That’s been so shocking to everybody,” Goodyear said. “It’s all electronic, versus the binders and the notebooks. The hardest thing is, if it’s not written down on a piece of paper, I feel exposed.”

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