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R10 Rapid Response 3
March 24, 2021
Steps in the design process typically done in person at the new construction site now moved to virtual environments.
Since 1964, the Auburn campus, a former Army depot, has been home to the General Services Administration's regional headquarters. The Social Security Administration and a few additional federal offices scattered throughout the 130-plus acres of warehouses and buildings, followed later. GSA slated the campus for auction, meaning the federal agencies on the site needed to find new homes.
In February 2020, GSA announced its new home for the regional office building (ROB) would be Tacoma, Washington, roughly 30 miles to the south of the existing campus. Construction and design teams began working on the layout for the new space and dozens of other staff worked on what they wanted the new space to look like.
But within days of the announcement, things would change dramatically.
The COVID-19 pandemic struck and soon mandatory telework left most of the federal buildings empty or nearly empty. Not knowing how long the work-at-home order would last, R10 teams continued on with the task of designing the soon-to-be new headquarters. Steps in the design process typically done in person at the new construction site now moved to virtual environments.
"Soon we realized we have this new disruption in our work - doing it from home," said Heather Edwards, Project Manager for the move. "We had to learn to be virtual now with a process that used to demand being onsite."
Edwards is a Workplace Strategist for the Office of Administrative Services and helps agencies with moves just like this. But this one move was different and she and her teams made adjustments and continued to develop the new space for the new ROB.
But the pandemic continued and so did the work-at-home order, creating unique challenges for everyone. For instance, the team had to employ some ingenuity with normal activities associated with designing new space to fit the virtual environment, including viewing the new space remotely while someone walked through it with their camera phone on during meetings.
It also became clear there was a new "normal" developing in regards to workspace and how it would be designed for the future because of the pandemic.
"We were not really thinking about what occupancy would look like post pandemic at first," said Lisa Pearson, Deputy Regional Commissioner and Planning Division Director for Region 10. "No one could have foreseen how much of a shift we'd need to make in planning our new space."
The team soon started unfolding new space designs as the pandemic drug on. But what did that look like and what did it mean for federal workers?
Risking a delay in getting into the new space, Northwest/Arctic Region leadership paused the design process in June 2020. The pause brought decision makers together to discuss what work spaces should look like and put Region 10 at the forefront of post-pandemic office space design.
"We didn't make this decision lightly," Pearson added. "We had some breathing room in the schedule and realized the best thing to do for our staff was to take a moment to be thoughtful about how we could make the best space possible given the new information."
GSA brought in a new design team that developed several new proposals showing what the regional office building interior space could look like given some new parameters - those being less dense office areas and more collaborative spaces for teams. Additionally, the team reviewed how foot traffic flows through the space, the location of common areas and the ability to flex if conditions changed. Adaptability became the new word for the design process.
"We needed to be forward thinking in terms of future use," said Marcy Pallota, lease project management Branch Chief for Region 10. "The space now needed to be flexible enough to change down the road."
The pause meant Region 10 employees would not only have a space designed to meet the new needs of the workplace, but it also meant they would not move until early 2022.
"It was one-hundred percent the right decision for us," Pearson said. "We struck a good balance between a slight delay with creating a workplace that was more agile."
The process Region 10 went through developed a new design template that could be used by other GSA offices across the country as they design new federal space.
"We learned to make workspaces responsive to the unknowns," said Pearson. "This research could possibly result in a better design of federal space for other regions, too."
Story by: Chad Hutson, Public Affairs Officer
Layout by: Cynthia Henry, Graphic Designer
Read more of the GSA "R10 Rapid Response" series: