Not Your Grandfather’s GSA

This article was written after Dan Chenok, John Kamensky, and I visited GSA’s renovated building at 1800 F Street.

The headquarters of the General Services Administration was built in 1918; shaped like an ‘E’ with its spine on F Street, the one-block building has recently undergone a massive renovation that has pulled the physical space of GSA into alignment with how the leadership wants to run the agency: using 21st century management, technology and operational methods.

The renovations were intended to create a bright, open space that is conducive to collaboration and will enable to a more productive, mobile workforce. To that end, many interior walls demolished, a sound-dampening system installed, and many other environmental and technology upgrades added throughout. In the building’s current configuration, the courtyards have been enclosed and its interior has been modernized in many ways, though many touches from the 20th century remain.

Indeed, the last time the building was renovated, the 20th century was just getting started. The current plans were drafted to add elevators, upgrade HVAC, plumbing and air conditioning (a necessity for working in DC in the summer), and fire and safety systems. But the most interesting part of the project was how the planners approached the question of how GSA’s work force of more than 4,000 employees could work in a space created for far fewer.

The shortest answer is that many would not work from that space. Few agencies have embraced teleworking the way GSA has. Their headquarters currently maintains desk space for about half of the total workforce, the rest, it is assumed, will be working remotely. Most of those who do come in do not have assigned offices. Instead, teams have designated “neighborhoods,” or groups of terminals located close together, so that they can share the same physical space, if necessary.

But from Administrator Tangherlini on down, the more common practice is simply to reserve a desk, dock a laptop, and get to work. Because the renovations were always designed for this type of environment, planners were able to incorporate many elements that make it easier and less expensive to work in the offices. For example, a very low-volume white noise permeates the building, dampening the sound of conversations even a few yards away, but not impeding collaboration across a desk. Landline phones were not included in the plans, but strong WiFi is available throughout the building.

Since the watchword for the new workforce is “mobility,” GSA has established a kind of Genius Bar. The brain-child of the Office of the Chief Information Officer, GSA’s Genius Bar helps employees who have taken advantage of their agency’s bring their own devices (BYOD) policy to install and maintain the necessary security and applications to do their jobs.

Because of the historic nature of some sections of the building, not every space can be upgraded. A prime example is the small room off the old administrator’s office in the General Services Administration HQ in Washington, DC, which witnessed the birth of one of the most infamous political scandals in US history. That wood-paneled room, and the capacious office it attends, are protected from most attempts at updating or modernizing them, and perhaps deservedly so. The office is now used solely for ceremonial purposes, rather than as a workspace.

In the last few years, the General Services Administration has added to its porfolio a host of new responsibilities, establishing the Center for Excellence in Digital Government, launching, and offering courses in social media and other online activities through DigitalGov University. As it helps to meet the needs of a 21st century government, the GSA has a headquarters that can serve as a model for other agencies.

See this slideshow full-screen.

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