Duration | 4 Weeks
The San Francisco Unified School District is the second largest employer in the City and County of San Francisco. It serves the families of 56,000 children each year. Many employees and families conduct business at the district headquarters, most often interfacing with Human Resources, the Educational Placement Center and the Office of the Superintendent. While teams worked hard to improve their customer service and align staffing, policy and practice with emerging needs, they didn’t consider how the physical space within which they worked might aid or detract their efforts. This effort sought to build a user/ client-first case for remaking the district's first impression.
From my first time in the district, I believed that our physical space was a detractor from the impression we wanted to set. Duct tape holding together carpeting. Mismatched cubicles in public view. Exposed testing spaces for young people with disabilities or language needs.
Individuals did what they could to make the best of the situation, painting accent walls or covering stained carpet with furniture, but there was no collective vision or approach to making it a nice place to work and a welcoming one for prospective staff or families.
My role cut across divisions and teams, and I heard time and again from department leaders how much the space impacted their employees’ satisfaction and perceived value. They assumed there was no funding, no facilities staff capacity, and no interest so rarely brought it up with the executive team. I’d been assigned to a number of facilities-related projects during my tenure, and as I began transitioning from my role and had some flexible time, I really wanted to make progress on solving this problem.
I knew that in order to do so, I had to make the case so I put the tools of design thinking to work, and began to conduct research. I knew that simply showing images of duct tape and falling ceiling tiles wouldn’t incite action - I needed to tell the executive team the story of impact on our bottom line: enrollment and employee retention.
In addition to noticeable cosmetic issues, dilemmas that even department heads didn't know about emerged. And things some thought were just "lenient" presented threats and issues that really affected others.
Security: The district long had a security officer at the entrance, a friendly one at that, However, many users experienced the building as unsafe because even basic sign-in procedures weren't implemented. They didn't want scanners, but they did want to know there was some level of "checking in" and vetting involved.
Navigation: Signage was confusing, missing or incorrect, often relying on humans to intervene. Many felt that they were "interrupting" the humans, though, and wasted time looking for what or who they needed. This turned off many users.
Basic Needs: From refrigerator space for pumped milk to open seating for itinerant staff, there were many basic needs that weren't met with the current set up.
Mission Unrepresented: If the district was there to serve kids, it wasn't obvious. From few photos of children to no instructional or play spaces in the EPC (where kids often wait), it wasn't evident that the district was a place kids were thought of. The impact of this, some felt, meant that "the system" was most important.
As importantly, across the board users believed that the lack of concern about the space and the "face" the district put forward to the world made it feel unprofessional, unclean, and like it didn't value those it served (enough to do something about it).
I shared the research findings with the Superintendent, Chief Facilities Officer, Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Operations, and Deputy Superintendent of Instruction. They knew the issues existed, but didn’t know how much it negatively impacted people. While we had to stage and priorities departments, they dedicated the staff time and financial resources to do more than “touch up the paint” - department leaders got the chance to redesign their offices to meet the needs outlined in the research.
I had the chance to oversee the design and implementation of the Superintendent’s floor, but left when the other work began. The biggest transformation was the Educational Placement Center. You can see selected before and after images below.