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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Workplace Strategy

Office planning analysis and new workplace strategy for the USACE Nashville District offices

Mapping psychology to workspace is fascinating... Great to add sociology as a design element.

GS&P was hired to develop a Workplace Strategy Guide for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Nashville District offices. Over the past 30+ years, the USACE has occupied space in the Estes Kefauver Federal Courthouse building in downtown Nashville. Various renovations have taken place through the years without an overriding office plan or strategy, ultimately creating a very disjointed, inefficient space. The scope consisted of the development of a workplace strategy that would establish a unified inpirational workplace and provide a guide for all future renovations.

 

 

Who comprises the USACE in Nashville and were their issues clearly evident?

Jack Weber: The USACE in Nashville has more of a civil mission than a military mission, managing much of the region’s river-based commerce, providing water resource engineering solutions as well as infrastructure management. Their mission covers seven states and is represented by senators and congressmen who, along with many other dignitaries, visit the Nashville offices. Image, therefore, plays an important role within their office environment.

The problem in this case was obvious when we walked through the space. A haphazard approach had been taken to the USACEs workplace over the past 20 or 30 years, with renovations occurring in small pockets, creating a real separation of people from place as well as the organization, thus prompting the need for a comprehensive workplace strategy that addressed both function and image. The issues to us were obvious. The question was, what did they see as the issue and how were we going to solve it?

Describe the existing environment.

Jack: The USACE has leased space in an old federal building for 30 years. Not surprisingly, it is a bland institutional space that lacks many of the features and functionality that most modern office spaces offer. Because of numerous renovations and band-aid fixes over the years, the space also lacks organization.

Understandably, many people have staked their claim to certain areas and are hesitant to embrace change. The problem with this is a lack of collaboration and the disconnect that occurs from the physical walls and disorganization of the space.

What were your first steps in developing a strategy and office plan for the organization?

Jack: We started with visioning sessions, which involved group conversations with key leaders within the organization. By asking the right questions, we were able to extract information that helped us educate them on their issues and needs. Based on past experience, we have learned that people do not know what they do not know—you have to continually educate clients throughout the process on what opportunities exist, so they can make informed decisions and create a foundation for change. Since the USACE was not familiar with current office planning and workplace solutions, we were able to lead them in the right direction as they began to talk about their goals and share what was important.

Give an example of how the process begins.

Jack: We start by using two basic graphic diagrams from our report to explain the “how” and “why” of what we will lead them through. The first graphic describes the key phases in the development of a strategy and explains goals, process and involvement. The second graphic explains the main elements of focus for designing interior workplaces: efficiency, effectiveness and expression. Efficiency examines how well an employee is using his or her space. Effectiveness ensures the right space is being used for the right activities to support the organization, i.e.: Does the space respond to change easily? Does it provide a healthy, energetic, innovative, creative atmosphere for employees? Expression is both internal and external and looks at the organization’s core values.

When an environment is in such need of reorganization, is this educational process overwhelming to the client? How do you offset their apprehension?

Jack: Yes, it can be overwhelming, and we are now in the process of helping them decide how to actually implement the strategy. The leadership understands it. They see the bigger picture and know it is important, but some of the workers are now dealing with the implications of losing the comfortable silos they have worked in for the past 30 years. A change management program in even the simplest form is vital to educating the staff on the vision, goals, process and long-term benefits of the improvements to their workplace.

Were there any sustainable considerations in your strategy?

Jack: One of the USACEs primary roles is to be good stewards of the environment, but their emphasis is more on the natural environment and not so much in the workplace. We worked to educate the USACE on sustainable issues within the context of the office in terms of energy and water conservation, indoor environmental quality, and the use of sustainable building and finish materials. They have never intentionally chosen environmentally friendly materials or addressed energy saving measures for their workspace. Sustainable design approaches are a foundation of what we do at GS&P, and any recommendations for interior renovation are going to include ways to save energy and protect the environment. The USACE understands and believes in its importance, but it was up to us to show them how.

What is a “kit-of-parts” and explain its significance in strategy development.

Jack: A kit-of-parts is about creating office plans and standards that work together both from a dimensional and functional crossover standpoint. It is all about flexibility. We focus on the needs of the client as well as the geometries of the building, such as the column base, structure, window spacing and the grid of the building from the core to the perimeter.

Understanding the geometry helps us see the flexibility of a space. By starting with small five-foot by five-foot or four-foot by four-foot building blocks, we see how a workstation could be divided into two workstations or be built as an office. The single office footprint can serve multiple functions: two offices could be built into a medium conference room, and two medium conference rooms could convert into a large conference room. The kit-of-parts allows us to ensure the elements fit together logically, which means changes can easily be made later, if necessary.

Discuss the importance of understanding place, process, technology and culture when developing a workplace strategy.

Jack: Those are all aspects we must understand before we design a workplace effectively. The concept of understanding who people are and how they interact with each other is fairly straightforward. Place is all about the atmosphere and the image you want to create.

Process is about how people interact with one another. Are they a collaborative group, head/stem group or a transactional group? We look at what the space is telling us about how they interact as an organization. We have to understand the technology they use to affect process. Do they use video conferencing for presentations or wireless services that allow mobility?

Culture is not as tangible; it involves knowing how people work internally, their hierarchy, how they get things done, and how they are motivated and rewarded. The more you understand their culture, the more you can tailor the workplace to support it. If their leadership is all about collaboration, yet their space does not support it, employees will build silos and individual spaces. Over the years, this causes severe disconnect.

How did you collect this information?

Jack: In addition to several observation sessions, we conducted surveys, interviews and focus groups. The cultural assessment process includes a web-based survey that went out to the entire organization. Responses are plotted in a series of charts that help inform us of how to apply physical elements of the workplace to support the various cultural aspects of their organization.

Was there an educational tool that was particularly effective?

Jack: Focus group sessions are particularly effective at drawing out key issues and opportunities. Focus groups were comprised of representatives from each group within the organization, from administrative staff to executives. At USACE, we did a two-part focus group workshop. Part one was an educational session to open up discussions about what was important to them and why. We also shared what other organizations are doing in their work environments. We talked about the effects of opening a space to allow collaboration, discussed the different ways spaces can be used, and showed them our analysis of their workspace based on the survey feedback and observations.

Part two took them a step further to show what we created based on their feedback from the first session. Basically, the workshop facilitated conversation to help them understand what was and was not working for them.

If you had to pick one fundamental element of your strategy you believe is essential for their work environment, what would it be?

Jack: There are actually two key areas that need to be addressed. The first is to break down the boundaries between their internal organizations. The second is to develop office standards that can be applied equally across the organization. At present, they approach each change as a separate renovation. They choose the furniture and finishes for that group without any consideration for how it connects with the rest of the group. As a result, there is no flexibility because they have created their own standards that apply to each little space.

Has it been a big challenge to break them out of the band-aid mindset?

Jack: Yes, but they realize it, which is why they reached out to us. They just needed someone from the outside to help them do it right. Luckily, the military deputy commanders stationed at the Nashville district recognized the opportunity and the long-term need.

One of the judges stated that it was “great to add sociology as a design element.” Do you think sociology as a design element should be incorporated into every project?

Jack: Absolutely. Architecture and interior spaces transform behavior, in both good ways and bad. As designers, in order for us to provide places and spaces that encourage positive influence, we must first comprehend the physical, cognitive and emotional needs of the user. You have to understand human behavior and the sociological aspects of how people feel about change and how they interact with one another in order to plan and implement a design effectively. Office planning and workplace strategy development definitely helps reinforce GS&P as experts in this particular area of design. Strategy in this sense is about leading clients into directions that they would not necessarily go themselves. There is a fine line between pushing someone too hard or too fast and knowing how to push them to a comfortable point beyond their normal boundaries, so they can recognize the benefits of change. That ability makes us leaders and puts us out in front of our competition.

Through all the steps to develop this strategy, what portion of this project has been the most gratifying to you?

Jack: Moving a client out of their normal comfort zone to new places where they are excited and recognize the true benefits of what we can bring to them is a great feeling. Seeing the light bulbs go on for people is tremendously rewarding, and we have had fun along the way.

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Project Info

  • Client: U.S. General Services Administration
  • Location: Nashville, TN, USA
  • Market: Corporate + Urban Design
  • Services: Interior Design, Workplace Strategy
  • Team:
    • Jack E. Weber, IIDA, LEED AP Principal-in-Charge
    • Jennifer Murphy, IIDA, LEED AP Project Manager, Project Professional
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