Customs and Border Protection (CBP) hosted the Federal Real Property Association (FRPA) members today at their 90 K Street NE offices to show off their revamped and renewed workplace. Over the last several years, a team led by Trent Frazier has worked on tackling a big problem. CBP had a large and growing workforce delivering a critical mission that was facing a large and growing rent bill if something didn't change.
What they did: Removed assigned desks/offices, removed desktop computers and telephones, and removed the requirement and expectation to be physically in the office for set hours, 5 days/week. Added tablets with computing and phone capabilities, added shared work and collaboration space, and reinforced existing team-building and performance management practices.
What they accomplished: What they've accomplished is both logical and remarkable. Logical in that all of the steps CBP took just make sense. It is remarkable, however, that they've so fundamentally reimagined work and workplaces for a federal program with all of the tradition and history that is both rich and constraining.
CBP started where many agencies are today. They had a federal and contracted workforce very much accustomed to working in conventional space—with a literal and figurative tether to a desk in an office. CBP saw this as a problem and an opportunity. Their workforce and the way people work was changing. That force was happening with or without intentional action on the part of CBP.
Many employee’s responsibilities had evolved over the last decade to essentially require the movement of information from one place to another while interpreting, analyzing, and making recommendations in the process. CBP’s physical environment didn't match where they wanted or needed to go to support that more agile, mobile, responsive mission work.
So to start, they stopped viewing their workplace as a real estate challenge and, instead, viewed it as a people challenge. Makes sense, right? Right. Well that mindset became fundamental to all of the decisions that followed and was the first point Trent and his team needed to sell to senior leadership.
With the executive staff onboard (at least in concept), CBP launched a pilot because, of course, that’s the cool thing to do in DC right after complaining about traffic and the weather. And sometimes things are popular for good reason, they got some great lessons learned at out of the test. Here are a few:
- Don’t cherry pick the space. Take what is available and make it work. The constraints might actually help spark more creative solutions.
- Count on the need to quantify the return on investment. CBP’s goal was to pay back the agency all of the upfront investment in tools, technology, and process changes within 36 months of implementation. How would they realize that savings? By reducing the office space needed for staff—a direct reduction of rent costs per employee. And for CBP, that savings is an estimated 36 percent. Based on their successes, they plan to aim higher for their next project.
- With the people piece top of mind, teach employees how to work in the new environment. Allow ample time for staff to get used to the new way of working. Don’t remove the old systems (desktops and phones) and simply replace them with tablets. Instead, distribute the new technology with ample training and let people have both. Also, allow employees to practice hoteling in their familiar office location. Whatever the new, new thing is, support them in migrating at their own pace and retrain or provide hands-on support when needed.
Listening to Trent talk about CBP and their workplace transformation, you get the sense that he is precisely the right person to be leading this change. He has the experience, the insights, and vision, and the sense of humor to disarm even the most skeptical CBP agents. In his closing remarks, he said, “It’s not hard to come up with the technical solutions. It’s hard to convince people that they’re the right ones. Change management is critical.”