Dust settles on state’s new Douglas offices, but employee concerns haven’t gone quiet

After a class action grievance, a regime change, a year of renovations and buying hundreds of $8,000 workstations, state employees are finally moving into their new offices in Douglas. Although the dust has settled, concerns over the new layout have not gone quiet.

Download Audio

Brian Frenette is the regional supervisor for sport fish. He recently moved back into the renovated building and likes how the new space is flooded with light. Gone are tall cubicle partitions and dark hallways.

“Certainly is a lot brighter, there’s no question,” he said.

The state’s newly renovated offices in Douglas follow the universal space standards. Note the angled ceiling. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
The state’s newly renovated offices in Douglas follow the universal space standards. Note the angled ceiling. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

But there are some design choices Frenette says employees find puzzling, like how the ceiling bows toward the middle.

“Lower in the center, higher on the walls and I don’t know what that is for. Other than to maybe give the impression that more light is being drawn to the center of the building.”

He said people think it’s a mistake but it’s intentional.

“I don’t understand it. Some people look at it awhile and say it’s making me nauseous. After a while you just get used to it.”

Some changes employees may not get used to. As a supervisor, Frenette gets his own office but most won’t.

The building has been redesigned for universal space standards, a cost and space saving plan implemented by then-Gov. Sean Parnell. Some work stations were whittled down to about half the square footage. Each cost the state over $8,000.

“Well there were a number of concerns our members had. Reduced space for them to work, less privacy,” said Jim Duncan, the executive director of the Alaska State Employees Association.

The union filed a class action grievance over the state office layout about two years ago, citing safety and health concerns for its members. But eventually reached an understanding with the Walker administration.

“The arbitration is still in place, we are just not moving it forward,” said Duncan. “We had an agreement, an understanding from the administration that they would complete the projects that were underway under the previous administration.”

The exterior of the state’s newly renovated Douglas Island Office Building. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
The exterior of the state’s newly renovated Douglas Island Office Building. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

The changes have already happened in Anchorage’s Atwood Building and a floor of Juneau’s State Office Building. Douglas now has 32 vacant spaces.

Andy Mills, a spokesperson, says the Walker-Mallott administration is evaluating if new standards are worth it. And he realizes if it continues, it could affect him.

“The space standards would actually entail me not having an office,” Mills said. “I certainly think that when you’re looking at difficult budget times, I think most folks understand you want to look at everything possible when it’s a decision between programs, people or space. But at the same time you need to be fair and respectful to the employees.”

He said some of the sacrifices, he wouldn’t mind. His floor of the state office building has outdated furniture and a tiny break room with no seating.

“If you came and saw it, it’s a fairly small room. It’s the size of a closet.”

The renovated offices, on the other hand, come with roomier break rooms and updated kitchen appliances. It’s designed to increase collaboration. But Mills says “universal space standards” does sound a bit drab.

“It sounds like it’s a gray box that might be uninviting. But the customizability of the systems furniture when folks get a chance to look at it is probably a little more versatile what they would have first thought,” Mills said.

With the push of a button, Brian Frenette demonstrates how he can raise his desk to work in a standing or sitting position.

He said the new layout has bit of learning curve. The front counter is intermingled with Wildlife Conservation and Sport Fish to provide easier access for the public. The Department of Corrections moves in this week.

But for some employees, he said there have been concerns.

I think what most people will probably tell you what they’re having to give up is separation–from their coworkers in order to get work done and not be disturbed,” he said. “Whether or not that comes to light as being a big issue or a small issue we’ll see as time goes.”

Frenette says they’re looking at white noise machines as a possible solution. The state has no immediate plans to roll out more universal space standards offices.