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Should Congress Vote on a New Workplace Strategy?

Imagine if you were forced to work in the same environment someone might have worked in 200 years ago?

If it seems the U.S. Congress can’t get anything accomplished, it’s because they can’t. People of all political affiliations seem to agree on one point: Our elected representatives are no longer delivering the goods.

Here’s how bad it is. According to a USA TODAY analysis of records kept by the U.S. House Clerk's office since 1947, this Congress could “make history with the least productive legislative year since 1947.” As Of August 2012, just 61 bills had become law out of 3,914 bills introduced by lawmakers. That’s less than 2 percent.

The media plays out the drama as a battle between partisan politicians vying for political gain. But what if the problem is not that simple?

I believe in the good of the human spirit and the idea that our elected officials would like to govern effectively. I think the problem with Congress’ inability to be productive lies elsewhere. What if the U.S. Capitol and the Senate Office Buildings, the physical work environments of our elected officials, have become so antiquated in design and layout that they are inhibiting our nation’s ability to govern itself?

Some History

The U.S. Capitol is a majestic and beautiful building. It was used for government and religious purposes until the 1850’s when the U.S. Senate Chamber and House Chamber, the collaborative workplaces for the U.S. Congress, were designed to support the growing number of legislators from newly admitted states.

The Russell(1909) and Dirkson(1956) Buildings and Hart (1982) Senate Office Buildings followed, as did the Cannon (1908), Longworth (1933), and Rayburn (1965) House office buildings.

Congress was established during a critical time in our country, where everyday decisions moved the country in new directions. These buildings and their interiors have enormous historical value. They are the literal building blocks of our great nation. But a lot has changed in 200 years, and our world and our country is in a different place.

Imagine if you were forced to work in the same environment someone might have worked in 200 years ago? Could you do your job effectively? The work patterns of today are far different from 10 years ago, let along two centuries. Workers today need work spaces that support these patterns and enhance their ability to deliver. The U.S. Capitol and House and Senate Office buildings aren’t cutting it. Here’s why.

An Inability to Focus.

Focus work, any task that requires an individual’s attention and mental effort, is critical to success in the modern workplace. Members of Congress need spaces where they can focus. And they need appropriate spaces that allow them and their staffs to move ideas forward in peace. Negotiating in long corridors and behind big wooden doors is not going to cut it.

Collaboration, not grandstanding.

Effective collaboration is also a key driver of workplace success. Congress spends a lot of time in formal hearings, caucuses, and chamber sessions. I would not, however, call these meetings “collaborative” in our current sense of the word. True collaboration involves face-to-face, real-time interaction. It hinges on the immediate exchange of ideas and the shifting of opinions and positions. The Senate and House urgently need a range of collaborative spaces where members of different parties can look each other in the eye in brief, productive sessions, air out their differences, and find common ground.

Learning to learn.

Near the Capitol stands the Library of Congress, an exquisite building containing thousands of books. It’s beautiful to look at, but not very easy to access. It’s also a testament to how learning used to take place. Today, learning occurs largely through digital media, through tacit conversations with informed colleagues, and through formal learning sessions with accredited teachers. Our government buildings need to have more varied spaces to encourage and support these types of learning. Universities and colleges have created spaces to support how students learn today. It’s time that our government did the same.

Socialization, not partisanship.

Socializing, both formal and informal, must take place among current congressional leadership. And I’m not talking about cocktail parties (although those are certainly fun). We must create new and varied spaces so that socializing between representatives can take place during the work day. This is critical to rebuilding trust and, ultimately, promoting change from within.

The physical environment can expedite change or impede it. Our country has evolved over the course of 200+ years, and much of the change can be attributed to what has occurred within the walls of the Capitol and the various congressional office buildings. They were what the United States needed in their time.

Are they the right workplace environment for our current leaders and legislators? Is the workplace of these historic buildings supporting old habits, or encouraging new patterns? Maybe it’s really time for Congress to consider a new workplace strategy? Otherwise, get ready for more gridlock.

Jim brings recognized experience in workplace strategy, project management, design, and implementation. He also has extensive knowledge of alternative office concepts such as hoteling and other high performance workplace solutions. He has provided strategic master planning, resource development and allocation, quality assurance, and standards development and maintenance for a wide range of clients. Contact him at jim_williamson@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (3)

There’s no doubt that quality of workplace has a direct correlation to the productivity of those using it, but I think it a distant stretch to suggest that antiquated workspace is responsible for the current, and increasing, ineffectiveness of our government. Rather, what looms largest in the path of progress is a crippling prevalence of antiquated ideology and a deep-seated cultural resistance to effecting its change. No amount of modern, fun, inspiring, collaborative workspace is ever going to turn the mindset of those who are fundamentally, traditionally and religiously opposed to notions of social equity and fairness, to the notion that it is the responsibility of government to protect its weakest citizens, to the concept of safeguarding the environment for future generations ahead of infinite corporate profit, to the prioritization of quality education for all ahead of the investment of untold billions in military might, and on and on and on. Besides, with a client this philosophically divided, how would one ever get them to agree to a radical new approach to something as immediate and personal as their working environment in the first place?
03.7.2013 | Unregistered CommenterSpeeFreech
With all due respect, as one who worked both in the US Congress, and with various state government agencies, this is just so much "BALONEY"....Most of the work done by our Congress is done in committees, in staff areas, and at the offices of lawyers and lobbyists. Very little real work is done in the large spaces within the museum-like Capitol. Should facilities be updated and increased? 21st, Century accommodations for smart technology? Surely yes. But the real issue here is our severely divided country that had ground to a halt. Want real change, just elect a Congress that can compromise and work out specifics that lead to balanced budgets, future vision, and practical , effective solutions. Then you will see work done even if the architectural infrastructure needs updating and improvement.
03.15.2013 | Unregistered CommenterDale T. Read
I am reminded of H.H. Richardson's design for the New York State Assembly Building. The Senate Chamber has deep fireplaces at the back of the room - once used as a heat source, with the advent of electricity, these large fireplaces became small meeting rooms where senators could quickly gather to discuss details without being removed from the larger discussions taking place.
04.16.2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa Weese

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