Sonia Powell is a director general with Public Services and Procurement Canada with big responsibilities, like helping remake the whole federal workplace.
She doesn’t have an office or a permanent desk, but works with a tablet and a cellphone tucked into a little Guess knapsack, the kind a kid might use for pencils, except she supervises 245 people. One day she works at home, one day she visits one of four main department sites in the Ottawa area.
“What does ‘modern’ mean to public servants?” she asks, more or less answering her own question. So, dear mandarin, the future has arrived.
We’re deep inside Place du Portage, Phase III, Tower A, the kind of government ‘complex’ that, if there is a God, will never, ever be built again in the capital, a concrete coal mine into which thousands of workers disappear daily and visitors play private versions of Lost in Space.
Powell, 49, a public servant since 1993, is conducting a tour of an “activity-based workplace,” the kind of office design the federal government is piloting at 19 sites across Canada, including 11 in Ottawa. It has several virtues: It better suits a paperless, wired world, creates great common spaces, is cheaper to build and encourages people to work at home.
On the ninth floor, we first look at a “traditional” layout. It is a tidy prison of cubicles, walls about eye-level, row upon row of neutral coloured boxes where it is unclear if anyone is actually present and, if so, living and breathing. Powell points out — and industry data supports her — that about 40 per cent of such office space is vacant on any given day.
For the federal government, with 99 departments and agencies, that’s an entire planet of space to carpet, heat and light for no one in particular.
“I don’t see that as the future of work,” Powell said. Neither does her department which, on top of making the workplace better, has a loose goal of reducing the footprint of the office portfolio 30 per cent in a generation.
Over we go to the activity-based side.
There are roughly three zones, at which workers don’t park themselves at the same desks every day. (No personalizing the space with plants, photos and goldfish.) There is a quiet zone where workers toil at massive monitors and generally don’t make much noise or take phone calls. There is a collaborative area where staff work close together, talk over low risers and gather at tables actually labelled “chat points.”
There are also fully-wired meeting rooms of various sizes, rooms labelled “phone booth” for those loud or extended calls with clients or plumbers, and quiet or break rooms to decompress for a moment. (It is, truly, labelled ‘Quiet Room.’)
But the real ‘yowzer’ part of the tour is the lunch room. It has magnificent, two-sided views overlooking the Ottawa River, which is sparkling this day, the Library of Parliament and Peace Tower, the Supreme Court and the Château Laurier. In the old days, Powell says, this is where big shots might have had the corner offices.
Not today. In order to attract and retain young talent, the government is attempting to create common workspaces that will compete with the private sector while providing them with that magic ingredient: work flexibility.
Activity-based workplaces, in theory, mean workers are not chained to desks or any particular spot, but can work from home, from a Starbucks or from a stool overlooking the Ottawa River.
Powell, who grew up in a cubicle environment, knows that such “transformational” change is not easy for mid- to late-career public servants who have grown accustomed to their privacy, dedicated landline, cubicle comforts … and maybe dream about those corner castles.
“My personal experience, and what we hear from a lot of people, is that the change to get here is hard,” she said Friday. “But most people would never go back.”
So far, the government is testing the new workplaces with about 4,000 workers out of 260,000 across Canada. It is gathering pre and post surveys to determine whether workers are buying into the new design and what tweaks should be made. This newspaper has already reported there is union pushback, as members report a loss of space and privacy, nuisance with noise and odours and no particular gain in productivity.
And it will be slow. The government typically remakes about three per cent of its office inventory annually. So, even with steady funding, it will be a long haul.
“Look at it,” Powell says of the activity-based site, where everything is shiny and new, sunny and (mostly) without walls. “Who wouldn’t want to work here?”
The Office, Ottawa reboot. It will be a long-running show.
To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email email@example.com