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.