Open-office trend worries federal employees with disabilities

“In the old days, when I was a youngster, we wanted to have closed-walls, closed-door offices and work by ourselves. Today, you’ll find most people don’t work that way,” mused Ned Holland, 72, the assistant secretary for administration at the Health and Human Services Department. “It isn’t the way people prefer to work. It’s not the most effective way to work.”

Like many other agencies, HHS is choosing to replace employees’ private offices with open, shared work...


“In the old days, when I was a youngster, we wanted to have closed-walls, closed-door offices and work by ourselves. Today, you’ll find most people don’t work that way,” mused Ned Holland, 72, the assistant secretary for administration at the Health and Human Services Department. “It isn’t the way people prefer to work. It’s not the most effective way to work.”

Like many other agencies, HHS is choosing to replace employees’ private offices with open, shared work spaces.  A White House initiative known as “Reduce the Footprint”  directs agencies to cut their real-estate costs. HHS has done so with gusto, consolidating offices and saving approximately $15 million a year. But Holland said its embrace of shared work spaces has less to do with the cost savings and more to do with smart office design.

“When you have fewer walls and doors and more space in which people can sit, see and talk to each other, they tend to work better together,” he said.

Listen to the story: Open-office trend worries federal employees with disabilities

Not everyone agrees. A Federal News Radio online survey last month showed that many federal employees see open offices as inviting noise and distractions. Those with disabilities tended to see the trend in the starkest terms. Several who spoke with Federal News Radio said they fear the lack of privacy, quiet and control over their environment would make it nearly impossible for them to do their work.

The struggle is playing out now at the Administration for Community Living, an HHS organization that oversees programs for the disabled and elderly. Its mission attracts a high share of employees with disabilities. Currently, most of them work in private or semi-private office spaces.

“Right now, we have accommodations that are working,” said one ACL employee who now has a private office. “It’s fair to say, for myself and a number of other employees, we need to be able to filter out distractions.”

The agency’s offices are scattered throughout the Washington, D.C. region. This fall, HHS will unite them at the refurbished Mary Switzer building, a stone’s throw from the department’s headquarters. The few private offices in the new space will go to managers. Most employees with disabilities will work in the open.

Like other federal employees with disabilities who spoke with Federal News Radio, this ACL employee insisted on anonymity.  They said they feared HHS might retaliate against them for criticizing what many see as part of the Obama administration’s Reduce the Footprint mandate.

“People are hesitant to identify themselves because, clearly by the way the move is being handled, it’s a governmentwide priority to get us into this workspace arrangement,” the person said. “There are still some processes — like the approval of reasonable accommodations — which are outside of our hands. People are nervous that they might not be handled with the same impartiality if they are known to complain about the transition.”

Employers required to provide “reasonable accommodations”

By law, employers must provide technology, furniture and other tools, known collectively as “reasonable accommodations,” so employees with disabilities can do their jobs. But in an open office, one employee’s aid can be another’s distraction. Those who are blind may require dictation software. Those with hearing problems may need interpreters. At the same time, employees who are autistic or suffer from Post Traumatic Stress might be startled by loud noises.

Federal Employees with Disabilities, an advocacy group made up of federal workers with disabilities, sent a letter to President Barack Obama in June. It asserted that the situation at the Administration for Community Living was symptomatic of a broader problem within the government of balancing the mandate to consolidate office space with individuals’ needs for reasonable accommodations.

It requested that the Obama administration conduct a legal review and “move expeditiously to adopt policies, procedures and best practices consistent with ensuring that this open office configuration does not undermine the strides this administration has made on the federal employment of people with disabilities.”

The move to open offices directly conflicts with another of the President’s management priorities: to improve the recruitment and retention of disabled workers, said FEDs President Jason Olsen.

Olsen said he worried about two things in particular: The move to open spaces might “out” employees who had no need to disclose their disabilities as long as they worked in private offices, and agencies would see telework as a viable alternative to those who did not want to come to the office.

“Some people like it but others want social interactions,” he said. “When you remove that, you’re segregating people.”

Government aims for a balance between two priorities

The General Services Administration, as the government’s landlord, is shepherding agencies’ consolidation efforts. It is walking a tightrope between satisfying the legal requirement to accommodate employees with disabilities and the imperative to cut property costs.

The agency treats the two mandates “with similar urgency,” Norman Dong, the commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service, wrote in response to Olsen’s letter. “We pursue physical accessibility and the dignity of all federal employees with the same rigor as we do our commitment to providing value to American taxpayers.”

GSA also is the poster child for the government’s open-office movement. It renovated its Washington, D.C. headquarters two years ago. It tore down walls and stripped employees of their personal desk space and now 80 percent of the work stations are first-come-first-serve. Staff store their belongings in cubbies. Many work from home regularly. Those who require special accommodations can make long-term reservations for certain spaces with their managers’ consent, Chuck Hardy, GSA’s chief workplace officer, told Federal News Radio.

Most employees like the ability to chose their environment from day to day, even though it means they have to leave their desks clean at the end of the day, he said.

“The model at 1800 F that GSA has adopted is right for GSA. It’s not something that you pick up and put someplace else,” he said. “But the process that we went through to get to this model is right for every agency.”

GSA engages both rank-and-file employees and managers from the get-go when launching a government consolidation or renovation project, he said. It surveys employees about their work habits and their attitudes toward change. It holds focus groups and conducts walk-through tours of existing offices.

That process “shows we’re not just meeting the letter of our mandates; We’re actually going beyond that,” said Hardy. “If we can provide for the people work spaces and places that they can do their best at and achieve their mission goals at, at the end of the day, it’s going to be a high return on investment and the right thing for government and the taxpayers.”

The Administration for Community Living employee said GSA had reached out to them and their colleagues. The person recalled receiving several online surveys from GSA. But none asked specifically about disabilities and reasonable accommodations, they said.

“They were asking questions, but not the questions that we’d ask or want to answer, or the ones most relevant to what we were concerned about in terms of the transition,” they said. “They were surveying for what they wanted, not what employees actually need.”

GSA welcomes all feedback, Hardy said. It also consults with accessibility experts when designing office space. But ultimately, employers are responsible for making sure employees have the accommodations they need to do their jobs.

Listen to Ned Holland, assistant secretary for administration at HHS

Agencies haven’t soothed employees’ fears

Most of those accommodations are inexpensive and easy to get. Noise-cancelling headphones are a popular request at the Defense Department’s Computer/Electronics Accommodations Program, which serves DoD and more than 60 partner agencies. Director Stephen M. King said he has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) so he listens to classical music to drown out the office noise.

He said that leads him to believe that communication is the biggest hindrance in the move to open offices.

“The problems that I have seen when agencies start talking about moving to an open-air design, I don’t think they understand the fear and concern that employees with disabilities are going to have,” he said. “They need to communicate. They need to be open. They need to capture what accommodations are currently being provided then figure out how those accommodations, or something equally as effective, will transfer to the new facility.”

Others said people with disabilities need to advocate more loudly for their own needs. One federal worker said they avoided a move to an open office years ago only because they asked their congressman to lobby their agency on their behalf. The person now works in a different part of town from the other employees in their work unit.

Anupa Iyer has both bipolar and attention-deficit disorder, which amplify distractions in an open office. She has rearranged her partially open work space at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to improve her concentration when working on legal briefs. Rather than have a computer that faces the door, she uses a laptop turned to the wall. Techno music on her headphones drowns out noise. Sometimes she uses red, yellow and green cue cards to signal to her colleagues when they should leave her alone and when they can ask her questions.

Iyer said she had multiple conversations with her boss, EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, before settling on arrangements that would work for both of them.

“In an ideal world, you’d have a workplace where you could talk about this stuff, be comfortable having these conversations and you’re respected for what you do. There’s trust in the employee to get the job done,” she said.

Yet her office, with just a handful of inhabitants, is a far cry from GSA’s open-floor plan. She admitted that she would not want to work in an office like that.

Even those who are more adamantly opposed to open office designs said they do not reject them out of hand.

“We’re not saying 100 percent, ‘Don’t do it,'” said Olsen, the president of FEDs. “We’re saying, ‘Make sure you’re planning appropriately and talking to those whom it’s going to affect.”

Because disabilities are unique, each person requires a tailored solution, he said.

HHS’ Holland said he shared that sentiment. He said HHS was studying individual employees’ needs and trying to find ways to accommodate them.

“A reasonable accommodation is a personal issue. If someone is wheelchair bound, they need to get in and out of their office space. We’re seeing to it that it’s easy to do. We have a group that reviews requests for reasonable accommodations, takes them up with medical providers and sees what we can do to accommodate people with disabilities,” he said.

Yet Holland remains convinced that open offices are the right choice for many HHS components. He worked at three Fortune 500 companies, including Sprint, before joining the Obama administration. Open offices are common in the private sector because they make sense, he said.

“It’s not some accident that we’re doing this,” he added. “We found it’s the way to do the public’s work just as it’s the way to do private-sector work.”

Most of HHS’ planned consolidations have yet to come. It already has begun moving employees into open work spaces in Rockville, Maryland, where it is bringing four agencies under one roof. While he has heard from employees skeptical about such moves, Holland said he has yet to hear complaints from those who have actually done it.

“We haven’t had anybody come screaming saying, ‘This is horrible. We’ve got to change it back. It was a huge mistake,'” he said. “That hasn’t happened. Nor did it happen in the private sector when we did exactly the same things.”

He sees the struggle between accommodating employees with disabilities and consolidating office space as “a false choice.”

“We do both. We can do both. We will do both in the future,” he said.

At the Administration for Community Living, employees worry most about not having the accommodations they need by the time they move to the new offices.

“The reasonable accommodation process, as far as we can tell, is either overtaxed or understaffed,” the ACL employee said. “We’re relying on [HHS’ human resources department] to do its job. We intend to monitor that process closely and to document and press when our needs are not being addressed.”

Should that happen, they said, “We’ll work for a change of command and make it clear that we expect the department to honor its commitment to be the model employer that it said it would be in the executive order.”