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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 18, 2011

Brave New Office

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Posted by Derek

Management fads are truly a bad sign. I don't think that there's anyone out there in the working world who doesn't realize this, on some level, but it's worth keeping in mind. When some higher-up at your company decides "You know, we'd make a huge leap in productivity if we just did everything totally differently than we've ever done them before - I read this great article!", then you really need to hunker down until the fit passes.

Well, some of the folks at GlaxoSmithKline down in Research Triangle are probably looking for somewhere to hide. Because according to this article, the company is (yes!) at the forefront of a movement that's (yes!) sweeping the nation: open office space. No assigned desks, no permanent locations, just everyone floating around in a cloud of happy productivity. Jim Edwards at Bnet is right when he calls this "slightly insane".

Um. . .haven't we been hearing about this wonderful innovation for years now? And haven't several companies tried it and abandoned it, because (strangely enough) their employees didn't like the idea of putting their possessions into lockers every morning, wandering (or scrambling) around for desk space, and being unable to leave the slightest sign of anything personal around their work area? Here are some tempting details:

All employees are assigned a storage unit where they can keep files, a keyboard, a power pack and a mouse. There will also be group storage spaces where files that need to be accessed by more than one person can be kept. Any files that are not accessed regularly will be stored off-site. GSK's document retention policy isn't changing; it just may end up being followed more closely.

Gosh, that does sound like what I've been yearning for all these years. Making the transition to this wonderful environment isn't easy, though:

The larger move will ultimately include an extensive education campaign to prepare employees for their new surroundings.

Employees will work in neighborhoods, each of which includes meeting rooms and quiet areas. They'll attend etiquette workshops, and each neighborhood will adopt a set of policies to deal with hypothetical situations that may come up.

The groups that are moving to the new layout are those whose managers embraced the change. (Admin Shelby) Bryant now sits at a desk directly across from her boss, David Bishop, GSK's director of site operations in RTP.

Bishop said as the move gets closer, more and more departments are expressing interest in unchaining themselves from their desk.

"I don't believe we will ever get to where everybody wants it," he said.

Maybe not! But that'll be their loss, won't it, not having to go through all that education, and attend those etiquette workshops, and then throw out all their stuff. Honestly, I think I'd rather chew on glass than attend a series of workplace etiquette seminars and get re-educated by someone who tells me that I'm not going to have a desk any more. And those meetings to set behavior policies, those will be delightfully excruciating, for sure. What on earth is the company thinking?

Well, they're thinking about how this will allow them to vacate several buildings, because housing the employees this way takes up less room. So once again, this conforms to a rule that has seldom let me down: any question that starts out with "I wonder how come they. . ." can be answered with the word "Money".

Comments (149) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Life in the Drug Labs


1. Chemjobber on March 18, 2011 9:09 AM writes...

This is for the front office folks, right? Not the lab types? (I hope?)

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2. GSK-er on March 18, 2011 9:09 AM writes...

yup, this has been "transitioned" for several years now at GSK sites, not only RTP. It even was applied to senior management in the office suite in the Philly area, where they are all to sit in a common area to promote interaction. The area is visible, and remarkably, there is seldom anyone every seen in the room.

It's a concept dreamt-up by consultants for two reasons 1) save money for the company that is sucker enough to buy into it and 2) make money for the consultant and construction groups that refurbish space.

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3. John Thacker on March 18, 2011 9:12 AM writes...

The only companies where I've known anything like this to work are ones that do this only for their substantial number of work-at-home employees, all of whom must occasionally come in to the location but not often. Needless to say, that doesn't really describe pharmaceuticals.

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4. Ricardo Ros on March 18, 2011 9:16 AM writes...

I can only add one thing:

As I said, sorry to see this practice spreading more and more.

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5. OldLabRat on March 18, 2011 9:20 AM writes...

I've seen this tried before. Those that start the workday early will vie for desks that have good access to necessities, comforts, good mobile phone reception and temperature. In about 2 weeks, the "neighborhood" residents will each be sitting at the same desk every day. A few personal items will appear from a knapsack, etc. in the morning and disappear at day's end. After a month, the storage compartments will be gathering dust as residents start leaving personal effects in place. More etiquette sessions will follow. Add one more non-productive cycle to the workplace.

Too bad employees can't force a recall of bad management practice ala the Miami mayoral recall vote.

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6. Henry's cat on March 18, 2011 9:22 AM writes...

This is not 'slightly insane'. This is drooling out of the corner of the mouth, catching imaginary flies-insane.'

When Pharma companies are staffed with robots (they wish) then this sort of nonsense is going to work, but when you are dealing with human beings, I give it two years before it is abandoned.

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7. Agilist on March 18, 2011 9:23 AM writes...

No surprises here, a typically cynical take on a genuinely innovative approach to encouraging greater staff interactions. On the one hand, GSK is panned for being overly hierarchichal, yet when it tries to deploy some known levellers, it still gets panned. How about some constructive input!

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8. David P on March 18, 2011 9:33 AM writes...

This could work, assuming that:

# desks >> # people

So I can see why GSK might use it.

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9. Jonathan on March 18, 2011 9:37 AM writes...

And people wonder why NIH wants to (needs to?) help out with the actual business of drug discovery... Everyone at GSK is obviously trying to find out where management put their cheese.

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10. wwjd on March 18, 2011 9:44 AM writes...

A lot of managers at GSK could use those etiquette classes.
Maybe GSK is doing this to make it more difficult to talk to recruiters while at work.

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11. Esther on March 18, 2011 9:48 AM writes...

I wonder if there will be an increase in shoulder and back issues, from carrying the laptop and various things into the office every day? Plus, I bet the storage space is too small for the shower supplies for a bicycle commuter.

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12. anchor on March 18, 2011 9:56 AM writes...

Can I empty my bladder? Somewhere please!!

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13. Rick on March 18, 2011 9:57 AM writes...

Time to dust off the Newspeak Dictionary. Those in Outer Party get to attend joycamps to learn to bellyfeel Newspeak!!! Ownlife is ungood oldthink. Crimethinkers will be sent to Room 101 at Miniluv.

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14. Kay on March 18, 2011 10:02 AM writes...

When I was working at GSK a couple of years ago, they were starting to try this out. It was not very popular. For lab people, I think the idea was to get people to do their work at their bench so they didn't need a desk - laptops were being moved into the labs and we were "encouraged" to do our work in the lab rather than at our desks.

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15. quintus on March 18, 2011 10:04 AM writes...

This is the crap that Novartis has introduced in the so-called campus. What a load of bull it is too, and the Campus

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16. johnnyboy on March 18, 2011 10:04 AM writes...

From #7: "...a typically cynical take on a genuinely innovative approach to encouraging greater staff interactions."

I see. So the key to increasing drug discovery productivity is to have people chat with each other more ?

"How about some constructive input!"

Here's some constructive input for ya: LEAVE PEOPLE ALONE SO THAT THEY CAN DO THEIR WORK !!!

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17. Rock on March 18, 2011 10:07 AM writes...

Pfizer did this years ago when they ran out of space in one of the office buildings. They called it 'hoteling'. I hear they are going to try something similar to the GSK model in research. Don't forget the other obvious benefit: Think of all the time saved when they ask you to clean out your office when more layoffs come.

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18. GSKer on March 18, 2011 10:07 AM writes...

I am a fan of not having walls between me and my colleagues. I abhor the idea of not having permanent space! With 8 desks for every 10 employees, it will be terrible. There are two issues here - #1 getting rid of walls and #2 h ot desking. Please do not confuse the two as they do not have to go together.

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19. Anonymous on March 18, 2011 10:13 AM writes...

johnnyboy, don't bother. Agilist is a GSK mouthpiece for the higher ups. See the comments in the following:

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20. Rick on March 18, 2011 10:14 AM writes...

Johnnyboy (#16),
Someone sounds jealous that agilist (#7) is doubleplusgood at doublethink...

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21. Derek Lowe on March 18, 2011 10:14 AM writes...

Agilist, I haven't been complaining that GSK's too heirarchical. But I'm not convinced that using "known levelers" is the key to increasing productivity, either.

To be honest, this looks like a way for the company to save money, while putting a New! Better! Productive! face on it. I think that human beings tend to carve out personal spaces for themselves, and that messing around with that smacks of an unpleasant sort of social engineering.

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22. fmr-GSKer on March 18, 2011 10:15 AM writes...

I've heard they're using it in other depts at other sites as well, for things like Chem-dev and HTS, where there are relatively large, central lab facilities and separate office space. I haven't heard of it hitting (what's left of) discovery yet, where the cubes and offices tend to be arranged in a long line along next to the (smaller) labs. Have yet to hear joy expressed about this, or that anyone has gotten to know the boss better.

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23. Rick on March 18, 2011 10:20 AM writes...

This is NOT just about saving money! It's about increasing productivity! Reducing the denominator of the productivity formula (=output/spending) increases the quotient, ergo productivity goes up. It's called "denominator management" and it's taught at a fine business school near you.

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24. Rick on March 18, 2011 10:23 AM writes...

This is NOT just about saving money! It's about increasing productivity! Reducing the denominator of the productivity formula (=output/spending) increases the quotient, ergo productivity goes up. It's called "denominator management" and it's taught at a fine business school near you.

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25. Hap on March 18, 2011 10:23 AM writes...

#7: How about not trying something as policy that hasn't been repeatedly tried and has repeatedly failed? That might help.

You want people to 1) take up less space and 2) be more collaborative. You could do 1) by having more computer tools, particularly portable tools like tablets, and by allowing the access to documents to be free - otherwise, people will either have to save lots of paper or will not have access to useful information. From the statement, that seems to be pretty much what you're not doing. Money savings from lower rent are obvious, but the costs to employee productivity are probably real - you may not see them, but they are there. Short-term thinking in a long-term business will not win.

2) is hard, but forcing people to collaborate is pretty well known not to work. If you want collaboration, then you need to structure pay and incentives around team goals (preferably ones that actually matter, rather than just putting through compounds or candidates), but that's pretty hard because you need to assess individuals to see if they're actually doing what you're paying for them to do. You may also not know what matters (general information about a disease pathway or pharmacokinetics might help generate drugs later, but doesn't do much now). Of course, shipping people out the door rapidly is unconducive to having employees play well with others, as well, but you probably won't stop doing that either. If you're not willing to give some semblance of stability (with the risk that people will be selfish and game you), then 2) is not going to happen. Sorry.

Doing what you (should) know won't work so that you look like you're doing something is not managing your way to success.

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26. milkshake on March 18, 2011 10:23 AM writes...

Its great to sit next to your boss - they ought to remove the walls in the bathrooms too

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27. Agilist on March 18, 2011 10:25 AM writes...

Correction, #19, I'm just trying to bring some balance and perspective. Contrary to what is often written here, GSK is a refreshingly open company where its CEO, Andrew Witty, encourages informality and open debate. Our industry is going through an exceedingly tough time at the moment so it is easy to be negative and cynical but difficult to come up with solutions to the current malaise afflicting our industry!

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28. bbooooooya on March 18, 2011 10:26 AM writes...


I wonder how many shareholder dollars were destroyed planning this crap, and how many more will be vaporized when GSK realizes how stupid this is? Maybe everyone will have been outsourced (I wonder when some moron from BCG or McKinsey will have companies rebrand this as 'right-sourcing'?) to the PRC by then.

It would be fun to sit in on an etiquette class and ask what the correct form is to belch/break wind/clip one's toe nails.

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29. Hap on March 18, 2011 10:27 AM writes...

#24: Managing the denominator only helps if you don't reduce the numerator at the same time, or don't reduce the numerator more than you reduce the denominator.

Maybe agilist is overinvested in GSK? At least it's better than Generex.

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30. wwjd on March 18, 2011 10:34 AM writes...

LOL Agilist,

When Moncef first took over R&D he said if you didn't agree with him you should leave the company.

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31. Rick on March 18, 2011 10:40 AM writes...

Hap (#29),
"Managing the denominator only helps if you don't reduce the numerator at the same time, or don't reduce the numerator more than you reduce the denominator."

The denominator can ALWAYS be reduced more than the numerator on a quarterly or annual basis. Longer time frames are irrelevant to the point of non-existence from an investor relations perspective, which is the only perspective that matters (right?). That's the beauty of denominator management!

Besides, if it doesn't work out, it'll take so many years to realize it that by then the consultants will have been paid in full, the management that implemented the policy will have received their golden parachutes and moved on to their next "improvement" and the new managers will have accumulated plenty of other "externalities" to blame the failure on. No harm, no foul.

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32. Chemjobber on March 18, 2011 10:42 AM writes...

a genuinely innovative approach to encouraging greater staff interactions.

Why are the tried-and-true ones not working? Not working or not tried?

Free food, alcohol, putting a white board next to the coffee pot, free time to think, hiring people who can work as a team. All of those, I came up with in less than a minute. They're probably cheaper than the cost of moving all that stuff around.

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33. sigma147 on March 18, 2011 10:43 AM writes...

We spend too much time teaching small children not to accept candy from strangers and not enough time teaching the same lessons to managers about consultants. Unfortunately, the outcome in each case seems rather similar.

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34. Anonymous on March 18, 2011 10:46 AM writes...

I love this idea! Now no one will ever know which scientists were terminated because there will be no assigned space to remind the survivors that the occupant has disappeared.

We are all just ghosts in the machine.

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35. Anonymous on March 18, 2011 10:49 AM writes...

Humans are territorial. We are also possesive. No etiquette class will remove that from our genes.

All this is is some overpaid consultant trying to justify his career choice.

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36. anotherlabrat on March 18, 2011 10:51 AM writes...

GSK is not exactly leading the way here. Other Pharma like Lilly and Pfizer in research have already done this. It's an adjustment to say the least..

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37. Agilist on March 18, 2011 10:55 AM writes...

#30. wwjd, you've taken what Moncef actually said out of context. I was there in April 2006 when he used a phrase similar to what you've quoted and it was definitely meant metaphorically. He was trying to convey a sense of urgency by issuing a clarion call for change and few in the room disagreed with him at the time. Moncef has rarely beeen given positive coverage in this forum but he's remained steadfast in his resolve to reform GSK and implement a princ