A Decade of People-Centric Innovation at the GSA – Guest Blog by Melissa Marsh with Mike Sayre, PLASTARC

The work of the General Services Administration (GSA) touches every corner of government operations. As the agency that manages the property, facilities, and equipment of federal offices, it has an impact on the experience of the entire federal workforce.

The US Federal Government is made up of hundreds of agencies, each with its own evolving workplace needs. On top of managing the same technological changes that have swept through the private sector, GSA must contend with mandates that have required agencies to move, consolidate, or otherwise adjust. The leadership of GSA has responded with a sustained commitment to the human experience of the government workplace.

Nearly two decades ago, GSA introduced what would become known as “Workplace 2020”. This initiative sought to provide agency managers throughout the government with tools to measure the effects of the workplace on human performance. The 2006 publication of Workplace Matters cemented GSA’s transformation from an organization that focused primarily on the management of physical assets to one that views workplace experience and performance as core concerns.

In 2010, GSA introduced the Requirements Development Process (RDP). This interview-based methodology helped design teams gather requirements more quickly, reducing costs. Gerald Mullarkey, who now manages capital investments for GSA’s Pacific Rim Region, pointed out that developing the process was as helpful internally as it was to clients: “Formalizing RDP helped GSA promote and execute more innovative projects across the country, with a wider variety of agencies and occupants. The process became more collaborative and democratized, and a larger audience became familiar with how good workplace design benefits their employees’ well-being and supports their mission.”

GSA continues to advocate for an improved workplace experience. They have published industry-leading research on topics such as workplace acoustics and the wellness benefits of circadian lighting. Where possible, GSA uses government facilities as test beds for smart building innovations. Kevin Powell, GSA’s Director of Emerging Building Technologies, believes the size of the government is an asset: “A smaller real estate organization doesn’t have the scale to be able to try this stuff out. We have 355 million square feet of space; we can use a small amount of that for R&D and develop these programs successfully.”

This year, GSA unveiled a new change management toolkit. Developed with the team at PLASTARC and architecture firm Marble Fairbanks, it aims to help workplaces adapt to changing expectations in real estate, technology, and culture. It identifies nine common obstacles to successful change management, providing strategies for surmounting each. Perhaps most importantly, this information is ready to be deployed by people who are not change management professionals, including project managers. Some of the principles that influenced the development of the toolkit can be found in PLASTARC’s “Degrees of Change”.

A theme running throughout GSA’s work is transparency in everything. Change efforts should involve staff from across an organization—not just design and management professionals. A wide range of stakeholders can help lead the communication and feedback process, alleviating some of the anxiety associated with any major change and helping to create internal buy-in. Kevin Kelly, Senior Architect with GSA’s Public Building Service, emphasized the need to start the process early: “A proper change management effort must be integral and should start at pre-design. Tacking change management on at the end of a project, after all substantive decisions have been made, may be worse than omitting it altogether—staff may see it as an effort to ‘sell’ them on principles they never agreed to.”

GSA has often led the way in developing more people-centric workplaces. Chuck Hardy, GSA’s Chief Workplace Officer, states, “As an industry with a strong focus on the end user and how our actions integrate and influence people, place, and technology, we must ensure appropriate design, solving problems and not selling predetermined solutions.” Companies that hope to create environments that lure top talent, enable performance, and fully support their mission would do well to look at GSA’s long history of workplace innovation.