Fully Embracing the Modern Workplace
One year out of college, in late 2007, I began my career as a Federal intern with a decidedly unusual circumstance for downtown Washington, D.C.—a private office, complete with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking a famous Washington hotel.
Alas, this vestige of a previous era would be short-lived. During an office shuffle, my space was seized, and I was placed in a condensed, semi-open cubicle farm with a floor space of approximately one square foot. Far from a positive, flexible workspace, the result was an environment of continuous interruptions by more senior colleagues, noise from adjacent offices and meeting rooms, and reinforced hierarchy. In this environment, there were few enablers for the type of focused work that yields excellence and achievement.
The open, flexible office concept is rightly associated with the younger generation of workers who grew up connected to one another through the Internet. Here, bespectacled 20 and 30-somethings collaborate on projects over a game of foosball or ping-pong amidst bursts of creative productivity. These workers are mobile and untethered, toiling in a manner reflective of their own personality and work style, while managers are invisible to the casual observer, focused on high performance and results.
The Federal government has essentially adopted such a framework (without the ping-pong and foosball), citing lower costs, improved employee productivity and satisfaction. According to the General Services Administration (GSA):
The next generation workforce has very different norms and expectations about the workplace than do prior generations. In the past, most federal agencies viewed the workplace as little more than a static physical container for work, that reinforced status through rank-based standards. This view is completely out of step with our modern world of mobile devices and fluid team-based organizational processes.
While GSA is correct in its assessment and vision, the way in which this concept is implemented by managers ultimately determines whether it succeeds or fails. Indeed, an entire work culture can be made worse, not better, if only certain elements of this vision are embraced.
For example, if workers are assigned to low-wall cubicles, where noise and visual interruptions can disrupt concentration, but are not allowed to work from home or other locations, or have flexible work schedules, worker productivity and morale will suffer tremendously. This is because the workspace may be seen by management as a method of control versus a strategic enabler used to maximize innovation and productivity. Even as one element of the broader vision is being implemented—perhaps seen as a step in the right direction—denying the other elements is essentially a bait-and-switch: the appearance of acceptance by management of a new working environment but not actual acceptance.
To realize the true value of what GSA’s refers to as the “Total Workplace”, managers must embrace two key ingredients in the workplace of the future: trust and flexibility.
For workers to thrive and for organizations to succeed, trust must be actively cultivated between employee and supervisor. In the office of the future, where work is conducted from virtually anywhere and at any time of day, trust is even more paramount, since management often cannot physically see employees working. In this environment, supervisors must set performance and accessibility expectations clearly to each staff member, so that the emphasis is on performance and results instead of more dubious measures, such as time and attendance.
If employees perform as expected and are accessible as agreed, the organization, the supervisor and the employee will succeed. If an employee is not meeting deadlines or producing the expected results (suspected of goofing off on his or her telework days), the performance of that one individual—rather than a whole team or department—should be addressed.
At the same time, the Total Workplace cannot succeed without acceptance by managers of flexibility, a defining feature of the 21st century and its cohort of workers. In an environment focused on primarily on worker performance, a manager who embraces flexibility looks for ways to reduce or remove barriers that inhibit productivity and innovation within his or her team, while introducing parameters only when necessary to correct a problem. In this way, a supervisor serves as a trusted enabler of employees to reach their full potential.
As a Millennial worker, I am pleased to observe the Federal government slowly moving towards fully embracing the elements of a more flexible workspace and culture. But when it does so partially or only half-heartedly, there can be dramatically negative results, where the best and brightest workers leave, knowledge, experience and skills are lost, and productivity lags far behind what is possible and what should be expected.
Ultimately, organizations succeed when employees are reaching their full potential, something the next generation of workers is especially focused on. As demand and expectations for public services mount, managers and employees alike will need to fully embrace a modern, flexible work culture that maximizes performance and results. As stewards of taxpayer dollars and citizens ourselves, we should expect nothing less.
Written by Jonathan Ludwig, Director of Marketing, Young Government Leaders
To learn more about Young Government Leaders’ work to increase employees’ commitment to and passion for public service, and to join for free, visit younggov.org.
Posted in Young Gov