Using the WorkPlace to Facilitate Change

April 11, 2007
The GSA’s WorkPlace Program serves as a model of how to use the physical workplace as a tool to do work and accomplish organizational goals

By Anne K. Goedken

The people in a building typically cost 10- to 12-times more than the building's infrastructure, according to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). Why then, the GSA's Public Buildings Service (PBS) asked, were its buildings and workspaces being designed without more consideration for how people used the space? How can the space - occupied by the unprecedented four generations in today's workforce - be designed to promote information sharing and collaboration while accounting for growth in technology and worker mobility?

Why Does the WorkPlace Matter?
In 2002, the GSA implemented WorkPlace 20·20 (now referred to as the "WorkPlace Program") to discover how the physical workplace could be used as a tool to do work. As the program evolved, the term "WorkPlace 20·20" was repurposed and is now used to refer to the research associated with the program. Headed by Research Director Kevin Powell of the GSA's Office of Applied Science, this research relies heavily on observation of the workplace and worker surveys.

Typically, a federal agency collects its own square-footage information and space needs, and submits the data to the PBS. In turn, the PBS matches the agency's needs to an available federal or lease-market space. (The movement over the last few decades in the GSA has been toward leased space, which presents more challenges in achieving design excellence.) Kevin Kelly, director of WorkPlace Programs at the PBS' Office of Applied Science, points to a quote from futurist author Alvin Toffler as one of the central ideas behind the WorkPlace Program: "One size misfits all." Kelly says, "It really [speaks] to the dilemma of the workplace over the last few decades: There's no thinking about what [workers] do [and] no customization." With the shift in how the GSA acquires space comes a new look at how that space can be customized to satisfy the needs of federal agencies over their service life.

A number of educational partners have worked with the GSA to create tools for the WorkPlace program, including Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh; the Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; and the University of California, Berkeley. The GSA has also partnered with a group of workplace design consultants who helped develop the program and conduct the research for individual projects (Business Place Strategies, DEGW, Gensler, HOK Advance Strategies, IA Interior Architects, and STUDIOS Architecture). "It's really sort of a consortium of private-sector firms," Kelly describes. "They are willing to share insights and tools. As a result, we have developed a whole array of tools that we can deploy, depending on the size and complexity of the organization, so that we can build them a better workplace."

How is the WorkPlace Designed?
GSA has developed two new approaches to the WorkPlace Program after 5 years of research and numerous pilot projects. Regardless of the type of project, a survey is issued to workplace occupants about 6 weeks prior to the on-site arrival of the consultants and GSA experts. For projects with little need for organizational change, the Program of RequirementsPlus (PORPlus) method can be implemented (although this program isn't fully functional yet). Smaller PORPlus projects include limited on-site consultant time, making them a more cost-effective option. Although the GSA is using PORPlus in some projects, it plans to expand its reach by the end of FY07.

"[If] change is a big issue, or if it's a very complex organization, we may opt to do a more in-depth investigation where we actually have a consultant come to the site for between 5 and 10 days," Kelly explains. Referred to as the "Deep Dive," this comprehensive-investigation approach to workplace design also addresses the need for organizational change. The guiding principles and research behind the GSA's WorkPlace Program can be seen in the six steps of the Deep Dive process.

Step 1: Information gathering. Instead of relying on traditional space-planning methods, the GSA's WorkPlace Program uses a quantitative and qualitative discovery toolkit. Workplace strategy consultants work with the GSA to find out more about the organization than just job titles, cubic feet needed for files, organizational rank, and self-reported work habits. Quantitative methods include analysis of space use, turnover rates, absenteeism, and costs. Qualitative methods include distributing a Web-based workplace-satisfaction survey, conducting visioning sessions focused on organizational goals, and assembling focus groups to assess values, perceptions, and behavioral norms. "Essentially, what we try and determine [are] the values and beliefs of the organization, because without understanding motivation and what leads to certain behaviors, the behaviors are meaningless," explains Christopher Budd, managing principal at the Washington, D.C., office of STUDIOS Architecture.

The design consultants observe space utilization and record the ways that employees actually use the workspace (as opposed to how they claim to use it). In general, today's workforce is more mobile, even if they're in the office. "We're finding that, in a lot of organizations, even though people may go to their office every day and [spend] the majority of their time there, they're rarely at their desks because they're in meetings or other places. We consider that 'internal mobility,' " says Jim Rice, vice president at HOK Advance Strategies in Atlanta.

In some cases, information is also captured on a more physical level. A mobile environmental quality cart was developed (with Carnegie Mellon's help) to measure indoor air, lighting, thermal, and acoustical conditions. This "envirobot" can help create or maintain a productive workplace by collecting objective data.

Step 2: Planning. After collecting information, the GSA engages in a discussion with the organization's leaders to determine whether the results accurately reflect current needs. According to Kelly, this process is similar to holding a mirror up to the organization and asking, "Is this true?" In most cases, he says, the reflection is accurate. This discussion also identifies the tools that will be most effective in creating workplace and organizational change.
"When clients go through the process, it causes [them] to think about the environment, their work culture, and the way they do work in a much more integrated way than they've ever thought about it. And, in this way, it's kind of like finally reading the owner's manual to your incredibly complicated home theater system," states Gervais Tompkin, vice president at Gensler's San Francisco office.

Step 3: On-site. During the 1- to 2-week period when the consultant is on-site, a series of exercises is conducted to better understand the issues that the organization is facing, and a workplace strategy is developed. The team also establishes objective ways to evaluate the design solutions against measurable performance criteria using the Balanced Scorecard (see The Balanced Scorecard). "You discover a great deal of business and organizational related information in 2 weeks with these kinds of intense work sessions," claims Rice. "At the end, [we're] able to turn around and say, 'Here's who you are now, who you want to become in the future, how you plan to get there, the inhibitors and enablers for your transformation, and (as a result) here's how the workplace can help you make that transformation.'"

Step 4: One-day charette. Near the end of the Deep Dive, the GSA, workplace consulting team, and tenant all meet to relay the workplace design solution to the designer. "It's an information-rich way of doing it. You can actually work through with the design firm [on] a couple of different ideas in terms of how the solutions might work," says Tompkin.
The construction of the space is also part of this step. Although it may seem that the actual construction is an afterthought, the uniqueness of GSA's WorkPlace Program and its focus on the early stages of workplace design makes the construction process run much smoother (and keeps project costs in check). "As time goes by on a project, flexibility diminishes and the cost of change increases," Kelly explains. "So, it makes a lot of sense to really concentrate on the pre-design."

Step 5: Post-occupancy evaluation (POE). Administering the POE to workplace occupants 6 to 12 months after completion allows the GSA to measure its success based on the project-specific goals defined in Step 3. GSA experts use this data to create a post-occupancy spider diagram, illustrating the differences between the new and old space. According to Budd, this type of quality assurance is what distinguishes the WorkPlace Program from other private-sector building projects.

Step 6: Occupy, maintain, and improve. One of the key elements of the WorkPlace Program is a continuous feedback loop, meaning that the project doesn't end after the last desk is brought in, or even after the results of the POE are shared. The Deep Dive produces a "living document" that allows the tenant to maintain and adapt their customized space to any future needs.

What does this mean for the government's WorkPlaces?
So far, POE results have been overwhelmingly positive (but still incomplete due to the waiting time required for accurate feedback). Buzz from the tenants in the GSA's 8,600 buildings is growing. "It all goes back to the idea that form follows function. We're not reinventing [the form] of that particular wheel. The real innovation of our program is that we have developed quick, accurate ways of understanding the whole 'function' part," says Kelly.

Anne K. Goedken ([email protected]) was new products editor at Buildings magazine.

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