Feds launch coworking pilot project

Two-year government plan hopes to encourage collaboration, innovation

Feds launch coworking pilot project
The two-year pilot project will create hubs that will enable collaboration between like-minded departments and individuals. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

The concept of coworking has been around since the early 2000s and the federal government now wants to take a dip into that pool — albeit in a small way.

The GCcoworking initiative will see 385 new office spaces opened for workers in the National Capital Region (NCR) that will provide a “temporary touchdown point for employees travelling between meetings or a temporary workspace for employees who telework and need access to boardrooms or other office amenities,” according to a release.

The two-year pilot project will “create hubs that will enable collaboration between like-minded departments and individuals,” says Marc-André Charbonneau, media relations officer at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) in Ottawa.

“GCcoworking sites are shared office spaces serving multiple departments, offering employees of participating departments increased flexibility while promoting collaboration and a sense of community as part of the federal public service.”

The government wants to demonstrate that employees from multiple departments can successfully work in shared office space.

“PSPC hopes that this pilot will build a sense of community throughout the government of Canada by offering spaces where employees are encouraged to make connections, collaborate and co-create.”

Each site will have Wi-Fi, videoconference and teleconference capabilities, with various types of desks available for the employees who check in, including electric adjustable tables, power doors and tactile signs for workers with visual and physical disabilities.

The federal project is part of the greater Blueprint 2020, according to PSPC.

“The GCworkplace implementation goes beyond space, towards an integrated project delivery model that includes functional area experts in information technology (IT), information management (IM), human resources (HR), security and facilities. Our approach also includes design leadership as well as comprehensive support for employees to be successful in their new workplace through robust change management.”

The GCcoworking strategy has five sites in the National Capital Region and three sites in Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton. As well, Laval, Que. and Dartmouth, N.S. will see two new workplaces open in December.

The other locations outside Ottawa will provide 180 spaces for the government employees. Fourteen federal departments — ranging from the Canada Border Services Agency to Women and Gender Equality Canada and Health Canada — will be participating.

Each of the departments will identify employees who will become involved, says Charbonneau.

Defining the concept

While it’s a “great first step and it’s an absolute benefit,” it’s not a true coworking space, according to Ashley Proctor, founder of Creative Blueprint, a coworking consultancy.

“I’m thrilled to see the government of Canada acknowledging that there are so many benefits of coworking and collaborative workspaces,” she says.

“And I didn’t really expect that this was going to come down any time soon, so it’s really good to see them acknowledging the benefits.”

“But, at the same time, I am a little skeptical of some of the claims that they’re making about it being a collaborative space or community that they’re developing.”

There’s a big difference between a shared workspace, flexible or open-concept workspace and coworking, and a lot of people don’t know the difference, says Proctor, who works in Toronto and Seattle and is also executive producer of GCUC (Global Coworking Unconference Conference) Canada. 

“It’s really about cultivating community, accelerating serendipity and it’s a very intentional nurturing within the space,” she says.

The physical makeup of entrepreneurial coworking spaces is what truly brings on collaboration and innovation, says Proctor.

“It’s a bit tricky when employees are all associated with one organization, because you’re not really getting the diversity that you would in a traditional coworking space, where you might be sitting next to someone from a completely different organization [or] background; [you might have] creative folks and tech folks, independent entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations, for-profit enterprises, remote workers and nomadic workers — it’s really that diversity that is the strength of coworking communities, because everyone brings something so different to the table.”

But even if everyone is a government worker, the opportunity remains, she says.

“If they’re coming from different sectors or sections, with different portfolios, it’s really helpful to cross paths with each other to overhear conversation, and to communicate in a more casual setting as human beings, not necessarily in your office behind your desk, with your title. And that can be really beneficial for the government, for sure.”

It’s not just small entrepreneurs who can benefit from coworking, according to Chris Crowell, vice-president of corporate innovation at innovation hub Volta.

“For larger organizations… having a satellite office in our space, it gets them perceived differently when they’re coming to recruit talent,” he says.

Work is changing

People enjoy the concept, he says.

“We see people have their area where they’re working away in groups. People seem to be excited to come in and work… on a casual or on a day-to-day basis. And we see a lot of the same people back here almost every day. And then we see other people that are in from time to time — it’s a really dynamic mix.”

The sense of community and support means people don’t feel alone, says Proctor.

“What we’re seeing is an expanded professional network, as well as a personal network; their productivity is definitely increased and some of that just comes from proximity.”

And many of the coworking organizations she has seen have a “community animator” at the front, instead of a receptionist.

“Their job is to introduce them to others who may be working on something similar, who may have something to benefit or learn from each other, who might have common interests, or who would never talk to each other otherwise.”

Targeted events and programming are also a big part of what makes a coworking space shine, she says.

“Some of the events are educational or informative. And it could be someone coming in to help manage your taxes or someone coming in to show you how to do marketing better, and so they’re learning as well; when they’re in the space, they aren’t just working.”

For the government’s pilot plan to bear fruit, the results must be measured, says Charbonneau.

“PSPC will evaluate the success of this pilot based on usage rates of the space and user satisfaction with the GCcoworking experience. This information will be gathered through various surveys and results from technologies such as space-reservation system and sensors.”

Afterwards, the “results will be monitored throughout the pilot program, with a review of all collected feedback on an ongoing basis once all five NCR sites are opened,” he says.

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