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KELLY EGAN: Public servant retired early to escape 'cow-in-a-barn' office design


At the peak of her public service career, on the ninth floor at L’Esplanade Laurier, Heather Hicks had a three-walled office with four “king-sized” filing cabinets, a desk, a credenza and a wardrobe.

In 2015, her department — the Treasury Board Secretariat — began a move to the new Jim Flaherty building, at 90 Elgin St., and into a sharply-different era of office design.

“When I saw the cubicle where I’d be working, I almost had a panic attack,” she said Wednesday. It was the end of her office. It was the beginning of the end of Heather Hicks, 30-year public servant, now 57.

In the new configuration, dubbed Workplace 2.0, she could stand up and high-five colleagues on four sides, hear their conversations, while trying to vet important cabinet documents in what was now a noisy fishbowl. In the late stages of her career, accustomed to some privacy and adequate space to store gym clothes and fancy meeting duds, she didn’t adapt well.

“I felt like a cow in a barn, chained to a stall all day.” So, after about two years of open concept, she retired some five years early, taking at least a 10-per-cent haircut on the pension.

This is the future. Public Services and Procurement Canada, responsible for housing an estimated 260,000 workers across the country, is pursuing a dramatic drop in the footprint of federal buildings, as much as 30 per cent smaller. (With 1,500 owned or leased buildings and seven million square metres, the consequences for cost and morale are enormous.)

But how to achieve?

Workplace 2.0 and its successors, including “activity based workplaces,” get rid of the traditional layout of cubicle farms and manager offices.

Instead, the space is configured to the task. Gone are individual desks, replaced by shared workstations where employees may sit in a different spot every day. An office may have “zones” — some quiet, some for collaboration, some for group meetings — while employees are encouraged to work at home or any spot with a digital link. The effect? A modern approach, sure, but one that cuts the space per-person almost in half.

The government is trying out the new configurations in 19 sites across the country, including 11 in the Ottawa area. Some employees, frankly, hate it: less privacy, less space, nowhere to hang up photos, a weaker connection with the now-dispersed team.

Public Services, meanwhile, says there are early, encouraging signs that activity-based workplaces are an improvement.

A written reply from media relations officer Michèle LaRose offered the results of a small number of employee surveys, before and after ABWs were put in place.

The reply said 69 per cent preferred their new workplace, 73 per cent said there were enough “workpoints” to do their jobs effectively (10 per cent increase) and that 81 per cent agreed the space enabled them to properly collaborate (seven per cent higher).

Another survey found that 81 per cent of employees found the new space allowed them to work productively.

The government’s two largest unions are suspicious about these results. The Professional Institute of the Public Service Canada is skeptical about ABWs, based on member feedback and a review of research that, according to PIPSC, shows open concept workplaces actually decrease productivity, especially among technical trades and professions.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, meanwhile, says the government has not released its full survey of employees using new-style workplaces but has “cherry-picked” results from places like Place Bonaventure in Montreal, considered the Cadillac of modern office space in the federal portfolio. (It has an “urban forest” on the roof, among other amenities.)

The experience of Hicks, meanwhile, seems instructive.

Older public servants will probably resist the change. (I had several responses to a Wednesday column on this topic from public servants hoping they hit retirement before office-space reform takes their desks and routines away.)

Younger, digitally-bred workers will probably wonder what the fuss is all about. They grew up with phones in their hands, no reliance on actual paper files and seem happy working in a Starbucks with headphones on. So maybe “activity-based” work suits the new millennia.

There is one other important factor in the mix: money. If the government needs to renovate offices anyway — and it hopes to “modernize” two to three per cent every year — it will inevitably be drawn to a cheaper solution.

New cubicles, walls and cabinetry are surprisingly expensive; a long, shared table less so. An analysis done for Public Services said a workstation under Workplace 2.0 costs $4,583 while one in an activity-based design comes in at $2,426.

Money talks, oldsters walk — the part of the plan you hear little about, but the ones maybe driving the whole bus.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email kegan@postmedia.com .

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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