I work in a government office complex, and for the most part, our offices tend to look like they were designed and approved by accountants. Actuarial accountants. And auditors. We don’t have 50 shades of gray, we tend to have three. Light gray, dark gray, and something in between that is probably “light gray that got dirty and will never get cleaned”. Don’t get me started on the carpets. But before I talk about Workplace 2.0, let me talk for a moment about my last 20+ years of office accommodations.
From 1993 to 1997, I was with Foreign Affairs. Generally, everyone had a closed office, boring off-white metal-like walls, brown doors, small window next to the door (usually, but not always), desk plus computer table, chair, guest chair, bookshelf and filing cabinet. With enough room that you could often have two people squeeze in front of the desk as guests, and have a quick meeting. Meeting rooms tended to be few and far between, a boardroom generally per floor of about 100+ people, but Directors had slightly larger offices with small tables for 4, DGs had tables for about 6, and ADMs had room for about 8 as part of their actual office, so between your own offices and meetings with executives, you rarely ran out of meeting space. At the time, there were almost NO people with cubicles except for admin staff who tended to be in open areas near the Director’s offices, and they had full L shaped cubicles with a “receiving” shelf in front of their desk.
From 1997 to 2005, I was at CIDA. We mostly had high cubicle walls, shades of beige as I recall, but footprints with room for a desk, a computer table, a guest chair or two, a bookshelf, and a filing cabinet. In about 2003, they experimented with a new design, an early version of what they were calling Workplace 2.0. It promised collaborative spaces (although they didn’t call them that, they said they had more meeting areas), lower walls (yay, extra light), new kitchens, eating areas, etc. They engaged people across the floor to help with the design, very participatory, and then in the middle of the implementation, they cut the kitchens, collaborative spaces and improved layout, and basically just put a bunch of people in “clustered” cubicle areas where four people would occupy what was probably originally about three cubicles before, and would have improved “common” space in between to save a bit of footprint. But there were still high walls between you and the next pod, and as is quite common in government accommodations, they changed part of the floor and then stopped because they had been using end of year money to pay for it and ran out of money.
Departments don’t control their own accommodations
Plus another factor that frequently causes no end of challenge. I’ll digress momentarily to talk about it. Individual departments are not, generally, in charge of their workspace. Public Works is. Or, rather, now called Public Services and Procurement Canada. And it looks like the worst form of bureaucracy, outside of the creation of the NCC. You might have a small team in your branch dealing with accommodation needs, and they will feed their info to a building committee for your department. Neither group has any power. One departmental rep will sit on an interdepartmental committee who will decide who gets money to do stuff each year and when. Bearing in mind that they are the ones paying for it — PSPC. Not the actual department with the employees, PSPC. Even if the department sets aside money to renovate a floor, PSPC will likely take the money and ignore what the department wants to do with it. Sure, they talk about collaboration, but in the end, most of the big decisions are outside the individual department’s hands.
Why? Partly equity. They don’t want a Department with a warm fuzzy Deputy Minister to go out and buy all nice furniture for their employees because immediately you create the same expectations across government, and when you’re talking 250K employees, a desk suite that costs $500 vs. a desk suite that costs $750 starts to add up into real dollars really fast. Which is why we have central procurement for all government assets. Just like every other large government and most large companies. Even small companies I suppose too.
But I digress. What I’m pointing out is that the people who make decisions on office layouts and configurations are NOT the department that actually uses it, it’s decided elsewhere. Okay, back to my experience.
The outside says nothing about the inside
From 2005 to 2006, I worked for SDC in Vanier. A very block-like building, a little worn looking, and you might expect old-style furniture. Not so. The towers were laid out on general hollow square designs with the elevators in the middle. Add to that, most floors of about 75 people tended to have at least one medium-sized boardroom and one small boardroom, plus a kitchen area. The offices themselves were high-walled cubicles with the full modular furniture attached, L-shaped for your desk and computer table merged into one. Very “modern” looking, functional. Insurance company-like. But clean and bright. It was actually quite pleasant, and with limited numbers of people from the centre core out to the windows, you were usually no more than two cubicles or so from natural light. Not very efficient, but not bad. And this was now the point where I was officially a full-fledged manager, so my needs shifted from analyst duties (workspace, cabinets) to managerial duties (guest chairs, whiteboards).
In 2006, I moved back to the mothership, and for 2006-2007, I was in a central part of a very large floor. I could see some light from an atrium a few cubicles away, but real light was quite far away past lots of closed offices. I had the standard footprint, what we tend to think of in government as Workplace 1.0, but that is only among people who don’t remember back to the days when people tended to have a lot of closed offices (like Foreign Affairs). Back when people often smoked IN THEIR OFFICE, the hallways, and even meetings (shudder). Kind of like some of the UN buildings in NYC up until about 2000. The cubicle was standard footprint like at CIDA … you had room for a combination computer/desk (L-shaped and mounted on the cubicle walls), high walls (5′ usually, often more), the bookshelf was optional, at least one guest chair, and a filing cabinet plus a pedestal for office supplies, etc. But I was on a floor with a lot of meeting rooms. Plus you could meet in your cubicles. It worked, and while cubicle land is never “fun”, it wasn’t bad.
In 2007, I moved to a new job in the same building and I had basically the same footprint for the cubicles until 2013. The floor didn’t have as many board rooms though and you could end up frequently squatting in a director’s office or DG’s office who was away, just to avoid dealing with the boardroom booking service (a blight on our experience, I’ll come back to later). In 2013, we were moved to a new floor plan, and I ended up with a window office which is to say a cubicle next to a hallway along the windows, and we removed the walls on that side to give me a semi-open-concept (except for the standard other three walls). It seemed almost like heaven. I had a small table right against the window with two chairs. Plus a guest chair in my office and a large whiteboard. I’m sure we were occasionally noisier than we should have been, but with high walls, you frequently have the illusion of privacy at least.
The game is afoot…or is it?
However, in 2016, they announced “the big redesign”. The powers-that-be had listened somewhat to the constant complaints of dingy carpets, drab walls, horrible layouts, and were going to do something for our floor…complete Workplace 2.0 redesign. I was horrified.
We were mostly analysts, and within that, a strongly introverted bunch. Open concepts? We needed quiet, studious areas to think deep thoughts, conduct focused analysis, lay out our papers on our desk and bury ourselves in our work. We weren’t SOCIAL, why the hell would we want open concept? It seemed like the worst idea on the planet. And like a friend of mine who is facing it now, the immediate thoughts of various strategies go through your head:
A. Resistance — Have the unions agreed? Someone thought department X fought it and they backed off. Someone heard everyone over at department Y got sick, and were now putting things back. Others heard blah blah blah;
B. Coping — Maybe we can move to other departments who haven’t been 2.0-ed yet. Maybe we’ll get noise-cancelling headphones. Maybe we’ll try it for a while and see how it goes. Where will we store stuff? How will we survive? How can we work from home every day instead?
My reaction was a bit more antagonistic a bit earlier, something I didn’t mention. Back in about 2010 or 11, I went to an HR conference put on by the Conference Board, and they had the ADM of buildings from Public Works there to talk about a bunch of things, and one of them was 2.0. Of course, he said the positive things about open concept, collaboration, blah blah blah, but I was curious about the push-back so I asked a question, and he cited some stats in his answer about how much time people spend in their cubicles vs. calculations of how much time they spend in meetings. It seemed a bit off to me. So I did the calculations myself, and they didn’t add up.
Basically what he had were stats on how much time an EC or a PM would spend in their cubicle vs. in “meetings” in their day. And depending on types and levels, they had ranges from 40% in cubicle to 60% in cubicle, or thereabouts. I don’t know if I would buy the “only 60%” but I get that it is an average…there are some ECs who are VERY active for lots of meetings daily, and others that are more researchers who might be in a lot less meetings during the analysis phase (some I know have gone weeks just in their cubicle). But I went with his most generous estimate, only 40% of the time in the cubicle. So 60% of the time in meetings.
That means, say for a group of 100 analysts on a given floor, on average, 4.5 hours per day of a 7.5 hour work day would be in meetings and 3 hours would be in the cubicle. Which means, separately, 450 hours worth of meetings per day. Now, assuming that they are all evenly spread out across the work-day and not clumped at the 10:00 and 2:00 marks, that means at any given hour of the day, 60 analysts would be meeting each hour (same stat as calculating 60% of the overall analysts). Now, how are they meeting? Those ECs might have a meeting with only 1 other person (their boss), or 2 coworkers, or say attend a meeting with ten others. But let’s say on average, they’re meeting in groups of 4 overall. That means 15 meeting rooms for four people would be running on that floor all day. Fully occupied. Just to meet their estimate of how much time they would be in meetings, at the most GENEROUS time out of the cubicle they might come to hate. Plus they’ll need some spaces to go and perhaps work quietly, a couple of small quiet rooms, say perhaps 5 per floor? What about telephone rooms when they’re “meeting” with people virtually? Another 5-10 of those?
At the time, I estimated our current floor with his numbers would need somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40-50 meeting rooms. How many did we have? Eight. The numbers didn’t and couldn’t work. I button-holed him after the panel and said, “Wait, the numbers don’t work.” He referred me to his director at Public Works, I followed up several times with them to get an answer, and was met with a resounding silence. They had to know the numbers didn’t work, maybe they just hoped that no one would bother to check their math.
So when they announced our floor was going to 2.0, I cringed, but I laughed too. Because in my experience, the only thing certain about accommodations plans in the Government of Canada is that they don’t survive engagement with the enemy, namely anyone in charge of actually doing anything. Oh, look, great plan…but we’re running low on money as someone clogged a toilet over at Eddy Street. And somebody tried to microwave a heating pad that wasn’t apparently microwave friendly after all over at that building. Oh, and machinery changes reorganized a whole whack of people over there. Let’s repurpose the budget over here, and we’ll get to that later. Which is what happened at Foreign Affairs. CIDA. SDC. And even in HRSDC, earlier.
About a year after the rumblings, they said, “Okay, we’re going to move you into swing space and then move you back.” Which I also knows almost NEVER happens. Once you’re in swing space, the tradition is to leave you there and move someone else into the space you left. Why? Because it’s cheaper. Thing of it this way…You’re in space A, someone else is in space B, they have swing space C, and they want to renovate both A and B.
They announce that they will move A to C, renovate A, and then move C back to A. Then they’ll move B to C, renovate B, and move C back to B. Four moves.
However, if they move A to C, renovate A, move B to A, renovate B, and then move C to A, it’s only three moves. Much cheaper. Namely 25% cheaper (at least for the “move” part of the costs).
Let’s throw an extra domino in. A1 to C, C to A1; A2 to C, C to A2; B to C, C to B…six moves. Or A1 to C, A2 to A1, B to A2, C to B, four moves, and you are 33% cheaper.
It has happened three times in my career, although never to me. They moved someone out, but instead of moving them back in right after the renovation, they moved someone else in, and then renovated their old space before they moved the originals back. Cheaper. But presented as “Hey, we just realized this is less disruptive” when that was the real plan, not the announced plan, all along. And the people in swing space just hang out where they are with vague promises it will “only be six months”. Two years later, it will only be “another couple of months”.
So when they decided to move us to temporary swing space, I figured when it was all redone, and the “perks” trimmed, it would look like a call centre when finished, no collaborative spaces, crappy setup, lots of unhappy people, bad morale, mass exits, and at least one extra domino in the mix.
I was almost completely right in the short-term
Before I get back to that outcome, I will talk about the temporary swing space. We were moved to a floor that was, I don’t know, 2.0 lite. It had the small footprint and low walls, and no collaborative spaces on the floor. No extra kitchens, nice setups, it was crap. I was “protected” personally by the fact that there was one of the cubicles that had an old 1.0 footprint with room for guest chairs and a whiteboard, so I could keep doing my managerial duties. Noting too that I had no director, I was reporting directly to a DG, so I was doing unit management and had to have HR meetings in my cubicle regularly. Not ideal for confidentiality, but that’s the rub.
In advance of heading to this potential hell-hole, I bought my team all noise-cancelling headphones and anti-glare screens. It helped, but it wasn’t great. As one pointed out, after several years of working and promotions, they were now relegated to a space smaller than they had as co-op students. With no work space on their desk, basic desk setups, and extremely small filing cabinet, storage areas. Plus low walls. Next to a group of people using old-fashioned paper adding machines several times a day. With the appropriate noise. It was a gong show in some ways. Now, to be clear, none of them were whining or complaining about it. There was no sense of “I’m entitled to more”, it was just “well, this isn’t very good work space, kind of noisy”. And yes, as expected, you do see upticks in sick leave and requests to work at home from time to time. More tension in the workplace too.
Another division who ended up on the same floor had a unique solution implemented by the Director. She got rid of the “desk” in her office, reduced herself to a small computer table in the corner, and put a table in the centre. Instant meeting space for her team. With complete and open willingness to have them use it for meetings while she was working on her computer or she would go to their cubicle while they were using it. Seriously. To give them a meeting / collaborative space. My immediate reaction was, “I would NEVER kick my boss out of her office like that”, but it worked for them. Quite impressive adaptation, but not one that should have to be made to compensate for bad office accommodations.
For other reasons, I exited the branch for most of a year and went to work in another branch with the old 1.0 footprint (nice window, small table near me to have meetings, but no space for my whiteboard, sigh). Anyway, someone senior asked me about the setup plans for the new floor, and I was not optimistic. I even broke down and gave my completely blunt assessment. “DMs couldn’t solve the space problem in the building, so it was delegated down to ADMs to cope, who delegated down to DGs to cope, and Directors. And in the end, the solution is that individual workers will end up with pill-box sized offices to solve the space problems the DM couldn’t solve in the first place.”
I was completely wrong in the long-term
When the new floor was “revealed”, I have to say, I was impressed. The floor holds almost 500 people (actually only 469 by fire code, a separate issue). Here are the highlights:
- Two large fully-equipped boardrooms that hold 20+ people easily with options for video conferencing, projections, logins, etc. (previously only one medium-sized boardroom, not very well-equipped), AND which are only close walled on two sides for monitors and white boards while the other two are all windows with some frosted glass and sliding doors;
- Another five smaller boardrooms or so, suitable for up to 10 in most cases, plus another couple of smaller ones for up to 6 comfortably and 8 with some borrowing of extra chairs), also with bright windows and sliding doors;
- Healthy overhead lighting (not the bright glares of older fluorescents), and with lower walls for all, clear and bright natural light from all the windows, visible from every spot on the floor (except perhaps the elevator area);
- Walls near the elevators to muffle the elevator sounds, creating almost a hollow square around the elevator areas with hallways as buffer zones;
- Clean and bright cubicles with every cubicle having fully adjustable stand-up / sit-down desks, which even if you don’t use to stand at, is great for just simply adjusting for your own ergonomic height needs;
- Director offices are about the size of the old cubicle 1.0 footprints, with three solid walls and a glass wall with a sliding door, which might initially make you think like a fish bowl, but the glass is frosted from modesty panel height at the bottom to above head height when sitting, but with small clear horizontal lines so you can “peer” through but not look through just passing by, and enough room in them for a small meeting table or a desk, up to them how they want to set it up (I flag this in particular as it is not just worker-bees taking the space hit);
- DG offices that usually have enough room in them for a small meeting table too but are about the size of old director office footprints;
- ADM offices that are big and spacious if they want the desk space and some guest chairs, but because they have small nearby boardrooms, no room for tables;
- WiFi throughout the floor, and particularly so for all the meeting rooms;
- Multiple telephone rooms (or mini meeting rooms for two people) around the floor; and,
- Special high-tech white noise dampeners in the ceilings to keep the noise levels down on the floor — it is pretty quiet considering you have 100 people working near you in a call-centre-like layout.
The two big “extras” that have been added are two collaborative spaces. A little less formal than you would normally see in an office, it looks a lot like open spaces in more modern libraries or schools.
In the big space, there are five little “commuter” pods. I don’t know what you actually call them, but they look like commuter seats on trains where there is a high-backed two-seater bench facing another high-backed two-seater bench, with a coffee table in between the two benches.
In the centre of the space, there are a random collection of movable arm chairs with swing arms that you used to see on those old-style desks in one-room school houses. Except not at all uncomfortable. I just have to stop playing with the swing arm and the desk top as it totally rotates any direction you want it to and it’s not for the hyperactive mind.
Over farther, along the wall, there is a big-ass kitchen. Microwaves, fridges, toasters, coffee makers, etc. Nothing super luxurious but highly functional. Upgraded water fountains that take your reusable water bottles, or there are the water coolers around. Proper recycling receptacles for just about everything in the office (and we have more options in the lobby for batteries and things). And the kitchen has a bunch of tables. I don’t know, maybe 8 or so, ranging in size for seating space from 4 people to 10 people.
Pardon my language, but it is pretty fucking awesome. It is actually fun to be in that space. It is upbeat. It is positive energy. There’s a buzz. I went by the other day at lunch and it was FULL. People were laughing, eating together, talking. It was dynamic energy. Impressive for a floor full of mostly analysts.
There is a second area on the other side of the floor, as well as a smaller kitchen, but the collaborative space has more of the two-seater high back areas, a couple of large TVs, a bit more open but with walls along the side to contain the noises. Perfect for more collaborative brainstorming in a larger group, or, perhaps, a small festive occasion.
I haven’t used the spaces much, but anytime I have, there have been NO problems finding space to chat. Not once.
It can’t be perfect, though, right?
I have only heard four complaints, only two of which apply to accommodations directly.
First, everyone notices immediately that there is NO PLACE to put anything in your cubicle. You have a small locker, with room for a short-length coat (the whole locker is only 4-5′ tall, do the math), two small letter-sized width drawers for files, and a half-height area on top for a few personal storage things on shelves. Desk space is at a premium too, particularly if you have dual monitors or like to display photos. There is no easy option for a whiteboard (the cubicle walls are actually thicker than average so even getting an over-the-edge bracket is challenging to find, even on Amazon), and they aren’t “2.0 compliant” anyway. Neither are pedestal drawers under the desks although that is more about the up/down desks functioning properly anyway as well as how rigid your branch accommodations person is when someone in the official “workplace 2.0 goon squad” rats you out to them to say you have an authorized whiteboard or something. There is still an 1984-element to it.
Second, more of a concern than a complaint, nobody knows what happens in this environment when flu season hits. The air has much better circulation than in old, but it is still a very open office. Officially, the stats say it is better than traditional office environments, but I’ll be curious to see the stats of sick leave usage come January / February / March.
Third, my wife summed it up better than I could, having less space is initially frustrating but it is mostly about adjusting your mindset to be able to work in a more paperless format. Which is great, but ONLY if you are also given the tools that go with decreased paper. Such as strong central filing and records management of whatever paper and e-records that people need to access. There are lots of filing cabinets on the floor for secret stuff, but there weren’t any new tools delivered for better tracking and management of it all. Our department has IM practices that resemble toddlers in the 1950s, but that’s a separate challenge. The mindset can change, but you still need the tools to support you. An additional tool that hasn’t been rolled out yet though to everyone is the portable tablet or laptop to replace the desktop so everyone can take advantage of the wi-fi around the floor. The building will get there over the next five years, a one-device model they hope, including potentially elimination of both desk phones and blackberries (i.e. go to mobiles), and they are leading experiments in iPhone trials, Samsung, etc. My wife’s team was an early pilot for having laptops [correction: NOT tablets as I indicated, tablets tend to be only for directors] so their whole team has them, nobody in my team other than the Director has it. And finally, remote access for home should be almost a default with a lot more flex around working remotely, while recognizing it should still be the exception not the norm (you’re being paid to work at the office, not simply to work wherever is convenient for you, and we are far from any such model, particularly until people see that it isn’t being abused).
Fourth, and this is closely linked to the last, you need one very simple effective tool to take advantage of all this extra meeting room space. A way to book the space easily. You would think that was easy. I know you think that because everyone with a brain thinks that. Except for some strange corporate-history-laden-tale-of-woe, our department has the worst tool imaginable. Wait, no I can prove it. Ask yourself, what is the most important feature to have when you are looking to book a boardroom in a list of available boardrooms? Think about it for a second while we all imagine the Jeopardy theme. Yes, you are correct. A search function to show you which rooms are available at a given time. So you can, you know, FIND ONE AND SELECT IT. What has our boardroom booking tool not had for the last five years? A search function. I kid you not. We still have a crappy system in place, so people are using the open spaces more often than not, even if a room would be better, just because you can wander over faster to see if the space is available (you can’t “book” them), rather than using a crappy tool to look for a room. And yes, go ahead, list the obvious things to say about using Outlook, others have had it in their buildings since 1995, yep, we know. Trust us, WE KNOW! And yet, while there is progress in the last six months on the file after five years of inertia, we’re not quite round the bend yet.
Where does that leave me?
Even with the small challenges above, I like it. If I had the choice, if I was asked by the DM what I thought they should do, I would say “Convert the whole building as fast as possible.” To the REAL 2.0, not faux 2.0. Because with the extra collaborative spaces, meeting rooms, noise cancelling, light improvements, and general all around positive energy created by the ambiance, morale is way up, at least informally. I’m curious to see if it plays out in employee satisfaction surveys for our floors vs. others, because I have to believe there will be a large net bump.
Would I like 10% more space to store stuff? Sure.
Would I like more bathrooms? Sure.
Would I like to go back to workplace 1.0 with the larger footprints but give up the collaborative spaces and natural light? Not at all. I could “live” with the old way, but this floor is awesome. The only thing that would make it even better is if the whole building went that way, thus freeing up pressure from others to use our space too or if we had already had the rest of the pending tools.
Because I was absolutely wrong about real 2.0, I like it. I really like it.