Rethinking Workplace Design

It's not about cubicles. It's about how work gets done.

March 01, 2006 |

Six years ago, Kevin Kampschroer, director of research and expert services in the General Services Administration's Office of Applied Research, came up with one of those ideas that people in his profession get paid to dream up.

His employer, the GSA Public Buildings Service, is responsible for leasing or building space for more than a million federal employees, tens of thousands of whom move from one office or cubicle or building to another every year. So Kampschroer turned this question over in his head: What if the GSA conducted before-and-after studies of federal employees who moved, to help determine the best ways to design new and rehabilitated GSA-controlled office space?

What, he wondered, would prove to be best practices for traditional design issues like office layouts, adjacencies, and space allocations? What could be learned about the effect of improved lighting, daylighting, individual temperature control, indoor air quality, and other "sustainability" issues that were gaining currency with the launch of the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating program?

Finally, he asked, could these best practices lead to design improvements that would make a GS-5 clerk at, say, the Social Security Administration feel as though she were working at Bank of America? Would improving their working conditions make federal employees happier on the job and, in theory at least, more "productive"?

Kampschroer called his idea "The Integrated Workplace" and hired social scientist Judith Heerwagen to implement the research. She signed on experts from Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Tech, and the University of California, Berkeley, to develop research tools and methodologies. Starting in September 2001, four design firms were brought on board to carry out the pilot program.

In the years since, the Integrated Workplace has undergone not only a change in identity—Kampschroer renamed it Workplace 2020—but also a substantive change in direction and purpose. What started out as a straightforward exercise in "POE" (post-occupancy evaluation) turned into a much richer and more rewarding experiment.

More important, Workplace 2020 is having a profound impact on the AEC firms that are facilitating the pilot projects—DEGW, Gensler, HOK Advance Strategies, and Studios Architecture—such that they have refined their methods and expect to transfer these best practices to their firms' work in the private sector. All four have also agreed to share their newfound knowledge on a noncompetitive basis with the GSA, which will pass it on to the entire AEC industry.

Over the last five years, Workplace 2020 has yielded two profoundly useful results that can be applied to any office design project, public or private.

First, the project teams have learned that you don't have to take months and months to gather the information you need to start programming. Their early proof-of-concept projects would usually result in a 150-page tome that neither the client nor the design firm hired to implement it could translate into action. In time, they discovered that it's better to do the research quickly, in a week or two, depending on the size and complexity of the project.

Using online surveys and proprietary research tools, experts from these four firms have learned how to sweep into a client's workplace like a SWAT team in bow ties and low heels and gather about 80% of the data they would have accrued in months of effort—more than enough to hand off to a design team for programming and implementation. They call it the "Rapid Engagement Process." Clients love it, because their day-to-day operations are only interrupted for a week or two, and they get a work product that they can readily understand and implement.

The Workplace 2020 Rapid Engagement process leads to a charette where the research team's findings are handed over to the designer for fitout. In early projects, the effort too often produced a wordy, impractical report, compared to later documents that DEGW's Andrew Laing calls "more visual, more condensed, more graphic." Source: GSA

The second lesson—and this cuts right to the core of the Workplace 2020 experience—is that office design is not about cubicle height or lumens or underfloor air. Yes, those technical components must eventually come into play. But before anyone starts wielding colored pencils, the client must be guided to a clear understanding of the true nature of his or her business. Before workplace design can happen, a fundamental rethinking of the business is necessary, or the design will be doomed to failure.

As Kampschroer puts it, "The workplace is a tool to get things done." It's a strategic tool to support business goals and maintain a competitive edge. In terms of employee productivity, design solutions can only be successful if the organization itself knows where it's going; otherwise you're designing in a black box. "It's about organizational effectiveness, not worker productivity," says Kevin M. Powell, research director under Kampschroer in the GSA Office of Applied Research.

Let's take a swing through three of these pilot projects and see what can be learned from them.

Bridging the cultural divide

U.S. Coast Guard Maintenance & Logistics Command Pacific, Oakland, Calif.

Following 9/11, the Coast Guard made a decision to move certain operations from Alameda, the island in San Francisco Bay near the Oakland airport, into the Federal Building in Oakland. One of these was the Vessels Division, which has responsibility for both long-term maintenance of Coast Guard vessels in the Pacific and emergency response when a vessel gets in trouble.

Gervais Tompkin, AIA, a VP in Gensler's San Francisco office, who led the Workplace 2020 team, said the "V" Division was under tremendous pressure in the aftermath of 9/11. "The Coast Guard was being stretched," he said. "They were putting more ships in the water over a greater geographic region, at the same time that budgets were being tightened. So they were seeing an increase in emergency response and a degrading of routine maintenance." Not good.

Tompkin said this situation created a cultural divide between the two groups: Emergency Response blamed Maintenance for poor workmanship, and Maintenance pointed the finger at Emergency Response for pushing the vessels too hard. The 2020 team held a meeting with the two groups and described the conflict inherent in their respective roles. "They realized that they were all trying to do their best under adverse conditions," he said.

Once the air was cleared, the 2020 team conducted a "workstyles analysis" of how the two groups interacted at Alameda. "It was clear to us that they operated independently," says Tompkin. Maintenance had its space, Emergency Response its own. "The design did nothing to help them to work together effectively," he says.

Tompkin praised the fitout by project manager Elizabeth Pyle, IIDA, of the San Francisco office of CRA Architecture, who created a floor plan where Maintenance and Emergency Response personnel were seated adjacent to each other. "It was all consciously designed to build greater cooperation between the groups," says Tompkin. "You wouldn't see anything unique in the component design, but it's the way the components related to each other that made the difference."

The result: "The Vessels Division is turning the corner," he says. "Casualty response is going down, and the track record on maintenance is going up."

Rear Adm. Jody A. Breckenridge, head of the USCG Pacific Maintenance & Logistics Command, has stated that Workplace 2020 "forces you to think of the workplace as a strategic organization tool. The bottom line is that we designed spaces that facilitate work processes and efficiencies. We also learned a lot about how we do work, which is driving other organizational changes."

Paper chase horror story

Veterans Administration, Reno, Nev.

It is not well known to most Americans, but in every state of the Union, there is at least one Veterans Administration building whose sole purpose is to serve as a repository of the records—paper records—of every veteran from that state. Some files go back to the Civil War, and even Iraq War veterans have paper files.

During a 2020 Rapid Engagement at the Reno, Nev., VA facility in early 2004, Christopher Budd witnessed a lot of paper being chased. "We mapped who gets information from where, and almost 33% of their labor activities had to be finding and delivering paper," says Budd, an environmental analyst with Studios Architecture, Washington, D.C.

Budd learned that the same Reno office also supplied counseling services to veterans, which raised a red flag. "Because the facility was so disjointed, you had all these vets going in and out of all these different offices—finance, counseling, etc.—and there was no security," says Budd. The solution: redesign the counseling rooms with a public front door for the veterans, and a secure back door for staff use only. Simple, but not obvious to the VA staff until they went through the 2020 process.

Budd has recommended that the Reno VA go paperless, although he doubts they will. "These facilities are put in locations where rents are cheap" for obvious reasons, he said. But he saluted the staff and management for being open to the Workplace 2020 process. "They defied everything about what people in government are like," he said. "That was a pleasant surprise."

Breaking out of their silos

U.S. Department of Energy, Richland, Wash.

The nine reactors at the Hanford site, near the Columbia River in Richland, Wash., produced nuclear materials for the Manhattan Project and went on pumping out plutonium well into the 1970s. They've been closed for years, but 56 million gallons of radioactive waste are sitting there in 177 underground tanks (68 of which leak), along with 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel and 25 tons of plutonium that has to be disposed of.

Charged with cleaning up this mess are 270 DOE employees who are scattered over seven floors of the Federal Courthouse in Richland. Their job is to supervise the contractors who do the actual cleanup.

Recently, the GSA assigned a Workplace 2020 team from HOK Advance Strategies (led by VPs Jim Rice and Leigh Stringer) to look into consolidating the DOE employees on three floors of the courthouse.

Rice says it was hard to get information from the DOE employees at first. Originally, the cleanup was to be completed by 2070, but now they're under mandate to finish it by 2035. That's put pressure on everyone involved, and has added to their suspicion of "outsiders."

Luckily, DOE management had just set new goals for the Richland office to encourage project teams to be more efficient, to be more innovative, and to solve problems more quickly.

Rice and Stringer met with a committee consisting of two people from management, two from nonunion employees, and two from the unions. To get people out of their shells, he and Stringer used "cultural metaphors"—pictures of cars, animals, athletic games—and asked them to describe the attributes of the current organization and what they'd like it to be.

"There was no argument about where they were and where they needed to be," says Rice. All three groups agreed that they needed to break out of their "silos" and form integrated project teams; that, due to budget constraints, they had to share resources more effectively; that they had to form a more networked community; that they had to be more willing to adapt and change; and that, while they had tons of technical expertise, they needed to be more cross-functional.

"They were getting hammered by the press all the time," says Rice."They were under so much scrutiny that they felt they couldn't be innovative. They were afraid to take risks."

The 2020 team then developed a set of considerations based on these findings that will help shape the Richland office reorganization: Could the current closed-office configuration be made more open, perhaps just by putting glass walls in private offices? How could design contribute to better staff communication and face-to-face collaboration? What could be done to eliminate wasted storage room, condense the staff onto fewer floors, and at the same time create more of a "neighborhood" effect? What about security?

"We got them thinking about the possibilities, in the context of the workplace," says Rice. The 2020 team has turned its report over to Peter Pfau, principal of Pfau Architecture, San Francisco, who is developing the master plan for the Richmond courthouse.

Rice says DOE leadership was pleased with the overall process: "They said we had listened, and that we had understood them as an organization.

Other Workplace 2020 pilot projects also have begun to yield positive results for client agencies. At the Public Buildings Services' Region 3 office in Philadelphia, the process led to the management of vast amounts stored paper files being turned over to an outside contractor. This enabled the Region 3 office to reduce its rental footprint, and the savings paid for the service.

At Grand Teton National Park in Moose, Wyo., facility director Chris Finlay, RA, is using Workplace 2020 to get his 160 full-time employees to rethink how existing facilities can best be used once a new $18 million, 21,700-sf visitors' center designed by Peter Bohlin (of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's Seattle office) is completed in 2007.

Earlier this year, DEGW's Melissa Marsh led a Rapid Engagement at Grand Teton; next month, the results of that effort will flow into a charette and then into a master plan for the park facilities. "The 2020 process has enabled the staff to understand how they work, and how design can solve problems," says Finlay. "It's turned them from skepticism to excitement. They've seen images of what this place could be, and how their work could be more efficient, pleasurable, and beautiful."

All the foregoing is great for government facilities, but how does Workplace 2020 figure in the "real world" of the private sector?

Gensler's Jervais Tompkin says his firm will incorporate 2020-like processes into its work. "We are modifying our product expectations to do this process on every job, in order to offer a more valuable service to our clients," he says.

"You have to understand process, environment, and technology, and how they connect to behavior and organization," says Tompkin. "Our job as designers is to align everything in a positive way." The 2020 process, he says, is "a great tool to connect those things."

DEGW has used the 2020 experience to refine its proprietary research tools. "The GSA serves clients that are really quite similar to private clients, so the tools can be used in many of the same ways," says DEGW's Marsh, who has led four pilot projects and is currently using the Workplace 2020 process to assess the organizational/space needs of a private-sector technology and product design company.

A Rapid Engagement-like process might be attractive to corporate clients who worry about tight deadlines, notes Andrew Laing, PhD, DEGW's managing principal in New York. "This is a way of quickly getting some serious research done at the front end, to create briefs that really inform the project," he says.

The other key lesson from Workplace 2020, says Laing, is the importance of integrating the design team as quickly as possible into the project and providing them with a working document that is "more visual, more condensed, more graphic."

"The key thing that this is giving design teams is showing them how the organization impacts the requirements of the workplace," he says. "Otherwise they'll be designing workplaces that don't connect with what the organization needs."

Rapid Engagement is effective, says DEGW's Marsh, because of its "change management" effect. "You're on site, roaming the halls, and you have a lot more visibility to the staff," she says. "It's not just the boys in the corner office or the real estate team. You're really engaged with the staff for a week or two straight."

Speed is the other big factor. "It creates enthusiasm," says Marsh. "It brings up so much data so quickly, and how the data intersects straight into design ideas. It's using social research to understand people's physical needs" in the workplace.

What next for Workplace 2020? The GSA's Kevin Kelly, who oversees the program, says the next step—known as "POR Plus," for "Program of Requirements Plus"—is to create a standardized way for GSA clients to use 2020 even without help from consultants. That's what the four consulting firms will be working on as they codify the best practices gained from the pilot program. Kelly says there will also be a second round of pilot projects, using new consulting firms.

He, too, sees Workplace 2020 having an impact on the private sector. "Like the GSA's Design Excellence program, this sets the bar at a higher level," he says. "When you have a cost-effective, rational process, it begins to sell itself, especially because of the research we do to measure whether we have been successful."

So, unlike Alaska's "bridge to nowhere," here's a case of government spending that may actually pay off for the business community and taxpayers.

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