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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Comments (And Everything Else) Are Back | Main | Panel on Academic-Industrial Collaboration in Drug Discovery »

January 25, 2012

Open Office Plans - A Question or Two

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Posted by Derek

As a follow-up to that post on open offices (and the others referenced in it), I've had a letter from a reader who wonders the following:

(1) How many recent research buildings have been built with open offices, as opposed to cubicles or actual office space? Is this the wave-of-the-future, or is it just a few high-profile examples getting attention?

(2) Does anyone know of any examples where a research department has tried an open-office plan and moved back from it after the experience?

Just to clarify, I don't mean large, relatively open lab spaces (those are pretty common, and often seem to work just fine). What's in question are the wide-open no-walls office and desk areas, with the extreme being the ones where no one has any actual assigned space at all. Thoughts?

Comments (27) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


COMMENTS

1. See Arr Oh on January 25, 2012 7:32 AM writes...

I have heard through the grapevine that GSK recently redesigned their entire space this way. There are now "shared spaces" of a few ethernet hubs or monitors that you are supposed to log into when you're in certain parts of the building.

I heard they deliberately ordered fewer chairs, after hearing that there would never be a time in a normal work-day where everyone would simultaneously sit down...

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2. wwjd on January 25, 2012 7:49 AM writes...

@1
They ordered fewer chairs because they knew they would have fewer employees after they switched to the open office design.

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3. anon on January 25, 2012 8:47 AM writes...

I can't speak about open offices, but the open lab concept was a disaster in grad school. As if it weren't difficult enough to find 4-6 compatible people to occupy a lab bay, partition-free labs invited trouble in regards to fire safety, clashing music preferences, and noxious fumes from microwaved niche cuisines.

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4. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on January 25, 2012 9:39 AM writes...

I have a couple of colleagues that had to change over to an open office instead of a cubicle design. The open office was such that no desks/work spaces were assigned, but it was a free-for-all each day, with everyone having just a locker to keep personal stuff in (all files are supposed to be on the network and accessible by their wireless laptops, so no need for any place to store paper). Anyway, they would arrive early and camp out at the two desks/work stations most out of the way where they could concentrate and collaborate with each other best. Consequently, other colleagues were resentful of them getting the "best" workstations every day, ratted them out, and they were reprimanded for not honoring this spirit of the open office design, while the reason that these two did this was to be more efficient and productive.

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5. Twelve on January 25, 2012 9:48 AM writes...

Jonah Lehrer has a provocative article in the Jan 30th issue of the New Yorker that discusses shared office space in the context of enhancing innovation. Not simple to summarize - he challenges some aspects of modern groupthink while embracing others, but well worth a read.

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6. bbooooooya on January 25, 2012 10:37 AM writes...

Worse, in my opinion, are the labs with integrated desk space in the actual lab. Always seemed to me a horrific way to needlessly maximize workers exposure to chemicals (note, very certainly not a chemophobe, but if my coworker is incorrectly disposing a Swern oxidation I don't need to know about while I'm reading).

Let's not kid anyone, though, the rational for these open concepts isn't to encourage collaboration but to cut down on facilities costs. Pretty sure no C level pharm execs would ever debase themselves to the point of working in even a cube, much less an open office.

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7. R on January 25, 2012 10:37 AM writes...

Some years ago I was involved in the planning of a new research centre (as a staff member of said centre working for a big pharma company). This open office concept was being pushed on us quite hard, for all the aforementioned reasons.

When it came up during a meeting with the designers (held at their offices) I explained that many of us spent at lot of time sat at desks writing proposals, analyzing data etc, and that packing up and moving everyday was not practical, and that surely the system would break down as people established unofficial permanent desks. The guy running the design side of things informed me and my two colleagues that people were naturally resistant to change, but his company been using this system successfully for 2 years; since we were sat in an open area at their offices rather than playing the scientists are different card, I turned very quickly to one of his younger colleagues, not in the meeting, and said Excuse me when did you last change desk?, answer “Oh I hve never moved, no one does" case closed. In the end we had permanent desks with a limited number of hot desks for visitors, part-time staff, fellows etc. This concept is fine for people who are on the road, but for people who are office based it is a bit of a joke, and often seems to be promoted by managers who themselves have an office which they never use.

My current employer has not taken the concept this far, but is very keen on open plan offices, the result being a noisy environment in which it is difficult to concentrate in (which means if you really need to think you work from home), and a general problem booking meeting rooms (people can not hold a meeting in their office because they dont have one).

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8. ex-GSK on January 25, 2012 10:41 AM writes...

I was fortunate enough to leave GSK before they started the open office. My former colleagues all hate it. They note that none of the senior management are subjected to open office indignities. Only the proles.

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9. lazybratsche on January 25, 2012 10:53 AM writes...

@3 These days everyone has some sort of MP3 player or smartphone, so music from a loudspeaker is rare. And who the hell is microwaving their lunch in the lab?

Safety issues I can see. Or conflicts over sharing of reagents. But I actually like the open-lab setup (at least in the bio labs I'm familiar with).

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10. RB Woodweird on January 25, 2012 10:54 AM writes...

In the very interesting book The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars there is a description of the Mars corporate headquarters where the CEO and a vast number of the management had simple desks in one big open room.

The M&Ms QC department tested out various changes in ingredients and formulations by putting a tared bowl of the trial candies on each desk in the morning and then weighing the difference after the work day, the hypothesis being that people would eat without thinking more of a better tasting M&M.

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11. SomeGuy on January 25, 2012 2:03 PM writes...

I work in a modestly successful biotech that's kind of quasi-open: Everyone has an assigned desk and they're arranged in order of seniority. Techs and interns in the center, each at a desk adjoning one another (no walls). Scientists in offices around the outside, adjacent to the group. Senor scientists and directors get window offices on a different portion of the floor.

The lab space is adjacent to the Techs/Intern desks and only separated by a glass wall; most of us call it "the fishbowl" since you're able to see people working in the lab from the intern desks and vice versa. No desks in the lab space at all.

Overall it works fairly well. Everyone has their own space, but it also fosters a sense of community within the group. Those up against the fishbowl glass are sometimes disconcerted with the concept, but you get used to it over time. Intern/tech area can get noisy and distracting from time to time, but it keeps morale high and fosters a fun atmosphere in which to work. Best lab space I've ever worked in, bar none.

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12. SomeGuy on January 25, 2012 2:03 PM writes...

I work in a modestly successful biotech that's kind of quasi-open: Everyone has an assigned desk and they're arranged in order of seniority. Techs and interns in the center, each at a desk adjoning one another (no walls). Scientists in offices around the outside, adjacent to the group. Senor scientists and directors get window offices on a different portion of the floor.

The lab space is adjacent to the Techs/Intern desks and only separated by a glass wall; most of us call it "the fishbowl" since you're able to see people working in the lab from the intern desks and vice versa. No desks in the lab space at all.

Overall it works fairly well. Everyone has their own space, but it also fosters a sense of community within the group. Those up against the fishbowl glass are sometimes disconcerted with the concept, but you get used to it over time. Intern/tech area can get noisy and distracting from time to time, but it keeps morale high and fosters a fun atmosphere in which to work. Best lab space I've ever worked in, bar none.

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13. exGlaxoid on January 25, 2012 3:40 PM writes...

I have worked at a lab desk, in a cubicle, in offices from small to large, and somewhat in open offices, including while on temp. assignments. For people who travel a lot, work from home, or do jobs with little complex analysis and only one tack, open offices make some sense, although most people do tend to pick a spot and use it over and over.

For scientists, with reference books, NMRs, lab notebooks, journal articles, etc, trying to pack up every paper, every day into a file cabinet would be a disaster. I can barely fit my few personal papers into a briefcase each day, there is no way to put all of the paper there. And that is with all of the modern PDFs, computer access, and most things electronic. But there is still a wealth of paperwork everywhere I have ever been, GSK was no exception.

Offices are nice, cubes are passable, but a place to put my stuff is very useful and productive. The noise from several people on the phone, chats, music, etc at once in open places is dreadful.

I like open lab space to a degree. Having movable, non-fixed, cabinets, benches and storage places is great. But we found that if you have more than 4-6 people in a lab, you start having logistical issues. For example, local fire codes don't allow more than 10 gallons of flammable chemicals in a single lab, that is nearly impossible to avoid with more than 6 people in a lab working. Also, you start running into each other trying to get to the balance, sink, etc.

So open labs of 4-6 people are OK, if that means the benches are adjustable and cabinets can be moved without a team of contractors. Since most people don't use steam and water as much as in the past, avoiding those on most bench tops makes for much easier times modifying space for new equipment. I loved the ability to move a bench a few feet over or to swap it for a deeper/wider one for an HPLC or other bulky item.

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14. darwin on January 25, 2012 8:01 PM writes...

DEFCON level 2 argument: fear of inter office MRSA epidemic with shared space. Got to be an OSHA issue buried in there.

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15. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 25, 2012 8:05 PM writes...

I work best in a quiet place where I can hear myself think. Fortunately for me, I have such a place: the office where I've been the only occupant for over 10 years.

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16. J. Peterson on January 25, 2012 8:42 PM writes...

Wired had an article about this several years ago ("Lost in Space", 7/2002). The office was a hip advertising agency that decided to do away with offices and any assigned seating at all.

Upshot: It was a complete fiasco.

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17. provocateur on January 25, 2012 9:28 PM writes...

#15
In my company, a corner 'isolated' office occupant was busted for thinking with his eyes 'closed;.

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18. smurf on January 26, 2012 2:37 AM writes...

This is all about cutting costs - do not put lipstick on a pig.

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19. sepisp on January 26, 2012 9:52 AM writes...

I find it outright impossible to write or read other than cursorily if someone's having a conversation nearby. Fortunately I share an office with a coworker who rarely holds meetings in our office. I can imagine if the work consists mostly of discussions with others, then an open plan office might make sense, but not with anything where you really have to think.

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20. AlphaGamma on January 26, 2012 12:12 PM writes...

#9: Where I am at the moment (university department, UK), safety rules prohibit listening to MP3 players in the lab- the main rational being that it would probably get contaminated when you changed track.

On the other hand, microwaving lunch in the PhD students' shared office (NOT THE LAB) is commonplace.

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21. Nick on January 26, 2012 12:54 PM writes...

Open offices appeal to CFOs (chief financial officers) who think everyone is sleeping on company time. It shows you that executives are the reason Pharma is failing.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-power-of-introverts&WT.mc_id=SA_CAT_MB_20120125

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22. pharmadude on January 26, 2012 9:21 PM writes...

GSK needs to go all in...and tear down the partitions and stalls in their restrooms. No barriers!

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23. sepisp on January 27, 2012 5:10 AM writes...

#22: On the same vein, what do we need walls for? Or the roof? This would also instantly solve all ventilation problems.

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24. ariel on January 27, 2012 7:51 AM writes...

#8: Just to clarify one point about GSK, everyone in our department, including the SVP/Department Head as well as all VPs and Directors, sit in an open plan area, mixed in with Admins and scientists, just like everyone else. I'm not saying it's great, but it seems fair enough.

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25. jr on January 28, 2012 11:40 AM writes...

This is great for folks who can't think for themselves. They know who they are. As for the rest of us who have to carry the weight for the slackers...god help us.

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26. WB on January 29, 2012 9:51 PM writes...

The whole open-office concept is demeaning and de-humanizing. What this idea perpetuates is that the average worker isn't worth a permanent space at the workplace. If you think communism is bad, serfdom is infinitely worse!

Anyone who does any real work knows how important it is to have your own personal space to organize things. Being told to pack it up at the end of the day and scrabble around the next day for a space is just plain idiocy.

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27. RTP Going Postal on January 29, 2012 10:10 PM writes...

From a GSK'er in the open working area (mgt calls it the Smart Plan) - the distractions are bad (mainly people talking on their headsets), & you waste 15-20 minutes at each end of the day setting up and closing down. I rarely used to be sick, but have had three colds since moving to the area. Management didn't figure well on the parking spaces, so they allocated one lane on each side of the tree-lined boulevard as parking spaces - to make people slow down, many (way too many) COLOSSAL speed bumps were installed - you can feel your chassis hit if you are going faster than 5 MPH. Fortunately most people have high speed internet at home, so they can telecommute part of the time.

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