The seventh floor of the General Services Administration’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., doesn’t look like the other office spaces in the 1917 building. For that matter, it doesn’t look like any existing federal government office: There are no high cubicle walls subdividing the space, no expansive desks cluttered with binders and paperwork, and no private offices on the building’s perimeter that block sunlight from the interior.
That’s because the seventh floor may well represent the government office of the future. Designed by the New York office of Studios Architecture, this bright airy wing of the building is a model office, a kind of living lab: Employees with the Public Building Service have occupied the space, called the Prototype Alternative Workplace, since August 2011, supplying the agency with feedback about how well the innovative layout is working.
On a recent morning, amid the open worktables and colorful, retro-style furniture—no stereotypical, government-issue brown and beige cubicle dividers here—workers sat side by side in an open work area, a swivel of the chair away from a conversation with a colleague. Three employees chatted over sandwiches in the café and lounge. A small group sat at a table in a glass-enclosed meeting room. In a word, the office felt active.
The GSA decided to create the model workspace in January 2011, when it began a long-overdue renovation to modernize its headquarters building. Driven by the Telework Enhancement Act, which requires federal agencies to establish telework policies, and a presidential memo asking federal agencies to cut $3 billion from federal real estate costs, the GSA wanted to explore how technology could support a mobile workforce and reduce the need for office space.
The agency also wanted to explore how office design could complement the increasing collaborative efforts of government employees. The environment needed to be professional, not some trendy video-game-company space, and would hopefully help improve worker productivity. “The number one goal was to create an environment people want to come to,” says Gavin Bloch, chief asset officer for the GSA Public Building Service and head of the workplace prototype project.
The workplace was designed to meet those goals by bucking conventional wisdom, says Bart Bush, the GSA’s assistant commissioner for client solutions. “Common wisdom would tell you if two people next to you are making noise, that you want them to be quiet,” he says. “We don’t do that. We say, ‘Go find quiet space so that those two people can come up with ideas.’
“Common wisdom would tell you that the supervisor would say, ‘You need to prove to me you can work from home.’ We say, ‘You should tell us why you need to come to work. Tell us what it is about this space that is so compelling that you want to make the hour-and-a-half commute to work, so that we can provide it.’ We make it a forceful decision on the employee’s part that they want to make the commute to be here, and we ensure that the reason for coming to work is here. We’d like to believe it’s the people and the collaboration that is the reason to come to work, not the IT infrastructure.”
To design the office, Studios Architecture held charrettes and focus groups and gave GSA several different scenarios to consider. The architects were limited only by the shape of the space. The long, rectangular wing of the building comprises a series of 16-foot bays with raised floors and no demountable internal walls, making the transition to an open plan easy.
GSA decided to subdivide the office into a system of six neighborhoods. Teams are assigned to each neighborhood, which include neighborhood files and a group table with an LCD screen and a writable white wall to provide a sense of team identity and to aid collaborative efforts. Other than individual lockers, those neighborhood areas are the only parts of the office that are “owned,” freeing up much of the space for other collaborative uses. “It’s the difference between ‘me’ space and ‘we’ space,” says Dan Miller, who heads the GSA’s Workplace Strategies group.
To foster additional collaboration, the office also provides an open café and lounge, furniture in informal meeting areas, and large and small conference rooms, both reserved and unreserved. A copier and printer room consolidates office support functions, reducing the previous 45 individual printers to three copy machines and one large printer that are accessible with a personal code. Easily the most drool-worthy space is a brick patio with a million-dollar view of the National Mall—perfect for an impromptu meeting on a warm day. The entire office is equipped with Wi-Fi, enabling employees to easily unhook their laptops and move around the office.
In fact, employees don’t have assigned desks: The GSA used a “hoteling” strategy in which workers reserve workstations as needed or set up their laptops in temporary workspaces such as a touchdown station, a smaller and more tightly grouped version of the full-sized workstation; or what’s called a telephone booth, a small, enclosed space with two chairs, a monitor, and a phone where employees can be on a conference call (or return a message from the school nurse). There’s also a quiet room with workstations where an employee can set up to concentrate without distraction.
In a space-utilization study conducted prior to building the prototype, the GSA found that workstations in the old suite were occupied less than half the time: 45 percent on average, a figure that Bloch says is similar in both government and private-sector offices. So the hoteling strategy maximizes the use of space in part by reducing workstation size, but also by reducing the number of workstations, providing fewer workstations than full-time employees.
The prototype office has doubled in capacity since the redesign: The office previously supported 43 workers but now houses 87 full-time employees in the Public Building Service's Office of Real Property Asset Management, providing annual rent savings of about $630,000. For the GSA’s federal clients that come to visit the space—agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service or the Departments of Homeland Security or Justice—the potential cost savings of the hoteling approach have attracted considerable attention.
Planning for the Future
The agency will likely wait at least six months before conducting a full-scale survey and information gathering about the effectiveness of the prototype, but an initial nine-question survey conducted after three months showed promising results. Asked whether the workspace choices adequately support personal productivity, 79 percent of respondents rated their satisfaction at three or higher on a one-to-five scale, and 56 percent responded with a four or five. Questions about workplace furnishings and the adequacy of meeting space also showed great satisfaction, Bloch says.
It’s difficult to measure the productivity of a knowledge worker, Bloch notes; most government offices can’t measure performance by the number of widgets that they churn out. Instead, the agency will use measures such as an ethnographic study of how workers are using the space, utilization studies, and focus groups to gather feedback, best practices, and lessons learned. The GSA already offers a Workplace Solutions Library (workplacesolutionslibrary.com) with a collection of resources on work patterns, change management, sustainable design, and other related topics . To showcase its new workplace prototype, the agency is offering in-person tours, as well as a virtual tour (1440n.com/GSA-tour) and video tour (gsa.gov/portal/content/114515).
The GSA is now considering using the second floor of its headquarters as an opportunity to showcase a way of reconfiguring space in an existing building for clients with smaller budgets, Bloch says. Because clients also have wide range of workspace needs, the agency will likely need to explore a number of different concepts in future pilot projects. “This is a continuum,” he says. “There’s no right or wrong. So long as our clients are moving along the right track, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”