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Best of Both Worlds: Quiet and Collaboration at GSA’s Headquarters

Sound masking technology coupled with thoughtful design mitigates noise at GSA headquarters at 1800 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. Image © Gensler

How do you create a work environment that is quiet for individual focus work yet promotes collaboration?

The General Services Administration (GSA) is the agency responsible for real estate for the federal government. In a recent renovation of its headquarters at 1800 F Street in Washington, D.C., GSA saw an opportunity to create a more dynamic work environment. They knew the renovation could also be a powerful pilot project to test new ideas and demonstrate new strategies to the federal agencies they serve.

GSA administrators desired a more open and energetic workspace reflective of GSA’s sense of transparency and shared organizational culture. So they began exploring shifting towards an open-plan office to support their already highly mobile employees and encourage more collaboration between functions. The existing layout employed a series of cubicles within enclosed suites, whose tall partitions separated employees from one another and impeded serendipitous collaboration between coworkers. They weighed the ramifications of a more open and transparent office layout, hoping such a transformation would encourage workers to become even more mobile and to collaborate with colleagues on a more regular basis.

What worried GSA employees was fear of excess noise and distraction. They didn’t want an open office plan that would detract from their ability to think and concentrate when they worked independently. This fear of distracting background noise is a common dread associated with open office plans. There’s no shortage of articles and reports stereotyping open offices as noise-filled environments which inhibit productivity. Some of these reports make working in an open office seem akin to setting up a desk in the middle of a crowded airport terminal! The truth about noise and open offices is not as dramatic. Creating a workplace that is open, fluid, and relatively distraction free is well within the realm of possibility, as GSA employees would soon learn.

After considering various planning options, GSA boldly decided to move forward and break the long established mold of government workplaces. They created an environment that is open, transparent, and flexible, but also efficient. This meant fewer walls, lower workstation panels, glass walls replacing hard walls, and most employees not having a dedicated desk. But from the onset, GSA administrators made clear the priority to mitigate excess noise in the new headquarters. For GSA, it was a matter of enabling employees to effectively perform tasks deemed critical to their everyday work.

Prior to design, Gensler had profiled the GSA headquarters’ functions using the firm’s propriety Workplace Performance Index (WPI.) as well as using GSA’s workstyle survey findings. According to the WPI data we collected, GSA employees spend 52 percent of their time in focus work which requires concentration. GSA employees also rated focus work as the most critical work activity to their individual job performance. Employees performed the vast majority of this focus work (89 percent) at their workstations or in their offices. Complaints of noise distractions in the old layout were common; employees reported it hard to concentrate when others were having conversations around them. Most employees kept their doors open to remain accessible to one another, but noisy hallways lead to even more distractions. GSA employees told us they wanted a workspace which could augment concentration rather than detract from it. They told us fewer everyday distractions might enhance the quality and quantity of their work by as much as 38 percent.

Mitigating noise distraction requires the combination of smart design and planning strategies and the targeted use of sound masking technology. In the GSA headquarters, noisy public functions and the shared conference center were zoned separately from the quieter work areas for each sub-agency. Each floor was acoustically zoned to cluster noisy activities such as coffee and conference rooms together and separate them from zones where people are working in small teams or as individuals. Great care was taken to locate functions dealing with confidential or sensitive information in the enclosed historic zones and away from major traffic patterns. Enclosed focus rooms and small huddle rooms for two to three people were located in close proximity to open plan areas so as to provide alternate places to take a phone call, work without distraction, or meet with others. These enclosed rooms were then located strategically to block and/or absorb sound in the open office areas.

To revamp GSA’s headquarters into a high performing acoustical workplace, Gensler partnered with ADI Workplace Acoustics. According to the company’s founder Steve Johnson, ADI specializes in “speech privacy in the workplace.” In other words, ADI uses sound masking to cover unwanted and distracting noises. This approach creates workplaces where the acoustics enable focus. As Steve explains, sound masking systems fill a workspace with a soft background sound that covers the voices of neighboring conversations. The “creepy quiet” of most offices actually distracts workers and allows conversations to be heard at great distances. The masking sound reduces individual worker’s radius of distraction: the distance at which sounds made by others cause a disturbance. Keeping the radius of distraction to a minimum allows conversations conducted within one collaborative group to have less impact on nearby workstations. This enables workers to focus and collaborate within the same space.

Design performance can be measured. To achieve the perfect level of ambient noise within the GSA headquarters, Steve measured the radius of distraction from various workstations before and after the addition of sound masking technology. Prior to the renovation, federal workers could hear distracting sounds at distances of 50 feet and greater. Post renovation, the intelligibility of other people’s speech fades at a distance of only 15 feet. This dramatic improvement has allowed GSA employees to not only focus better, but feel that they can talk without distracting their neighbors. Striking this balance to enable both focus and collaboration is a crucial and tangible measure of workplace effectiveness.

But the end-users of the space are the most important gauges of design performance. I recently ran into one of the GSA federal workers who told me a terrific story. He said, “Prior to moving back into 1800F, I was absolutely convinced that I wasn’t going to like the renovated space. It seemed too open and promoted too much mobility. But by the end of the first week, I was hooked on a new way of working. I love being able to get up, and move to a zone when I want to focus quietly and not be disturbed, and other times, sit in a more collaborative zone when I want the energy and buzz of my team around me. I was convinced that I wasn’t going to like the new space, but now I wouldn’t want to work any other way!”

GSA now has an open office plan that nudges employees to collaborate and work with one another while simultaneously giving each person the necessary privacy to work on their individual tasks when necessary. In GSA’s quest for more openness, employees actually gained more acoustical privacy in the process. That is the best of both worlds.

Note: This is the second in a series of blogs about GSA’s headquarters at 1800F Street. The first blog can be read here: “GSA Breaks the Mold for Government Workplace”. This project will be presented at the CoreNet Global Summit in DC in October, 2014.

Janet Pogue is a Principal in Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office. She led the firm’s recent 2013 Workplace Survey research and is a frequent writer and speaker on the critical issues affecting the design of high performing work environments. Contact her at janet_pogue@gensler.com.
Steve Johnson is the founder of ADI Workplace Acoustics. He uses his unique background in acoustics, audio and construction to provide high performing acoustical workplaces. Steve regularly presents a CEU accredited educational program to teach design professionals the key steps to building a successful acoustical workplace. Contact him at steve@adiacoustics.com.

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