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Connecting culture change at 18F and PBS

In 2019, the Colorado state office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will move into a new office on the Denver Federal Center campus. The state office has about 150 employees, some of whom have been working in the same place, in Lakewood, Colorado, for more than 33 years — the entire life of the state BLM office. Moving an agency’s entire office is a process that requires working with the General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Administration (PBS) on many levels. There’s the details of the lease, identifying a new building suitable enough for all the employees to move into, and design and construction, either of an entirely new building or renovating an existing space.

Designing the workplace is one of those steps, and an increasingly important one since GSA published the first Workspace Utilization Benchmarks in 2012. Those benchmarks require agencies to reduce the amount of physical space required for all employees in their agency, and followed a decade of moving federal offices “away from…standards based on pay grade or associate position…[to] planning based on organizational needs.”Reducing space has the advantage of being cheaper, but also allows employees more flexibility in their work lives. Federal spaces are becoming increasingly open and mobile, and as a result, employees can work from home. GSA’s workplace team was created three years ago to address these challenges.

Every agency will approach these changes differently, and redesigning work space to accommodate those differences is a key service provided to agencies by PBS. Here in Denver, the workplace team sees a large part of their work as change management.

If you hang out around an 18F team for long enough, you’re likely to hear the same term. When we talk about change management, we’re usually talking about it in relation to some technological or process change. Adapting users to new interfaces or thinking about problems in smaller chunks driven by user needs. When the workplace team talks about it, they’re talking about physical changes to the space federal employees occupy every day. It’s an educational and cultural mission and according to Sarah Neujahr, a Workplace Strategist in the Office of Customer Engagement, “Some people, their whole careers have been with the same agency in the same space and maybe even had the same work furniture for the last 30 years.” In situations like that, the employees often know their space isn’t performing well but are afraid of the uncertainty of change. “We’re focused on how people feel about their space and setting expectations.”

“We like to…inspire change,” Alex Secor, another Workplace Strategist, said of their approach with agencies. They help get to the right solution for the employees and their space. “We want to open people’s eyes to the possibility of what their workplace can be,” Neujahr pointed out, “a lot of it is cultural too.” They work to get leadership and employees on board because changing the physical workplace without changing the culture of the workplace will likely fail. When touring GSA’s local headquarters as an example of what’s possible, visitors are encouraged to ask questions and remember what they like, and what makes them uncomfortable. Every engagement they do they’re trying to make people feel ownership and excitement over the project. “A lot of times, people will come into a workshop we’re doing and assume that decisions have been made,” Secor said, but by the end they have “at least one person per group thanking us…[saying] now they’re excited about the project.”

If you’re familiar with the digital services playbook, this should seem familiar. Play one, understanding what people need, is just as important when you’re disrupting the work environment as it is changing a tried and true spreadsheet driven process into a web application. Play two, addressing the whole experience, from start to finish is something the workplace team does with every engagement. Their iterations may be a bit longer than what’s possible for a software project, but being agile and iterating on the solution is very much what they’re doing. Even in GSA’s own offices there was plenty they didn’t get right the first time. Not all the plays apply in every situation or to every problem, but the workplace team demonstrates how the principles embedded in the digital service playbook apply in many different contexts.

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