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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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July 25, 2013

Biogen Idec Goes Open-Office

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Posted by Derek

Here's a new development in the office/lab architecture topic, which has been the subject of lively discussion around here over the years. Biogen Idec has been putting up a new building (I've been following its progress as I go past it), and they're getting ready to move in. According to the Boston Globe, the entire thing is a completely office-less and cubicle-less space.

Building 9 has no private offices, just individually designed workstations called “I spaces” and common “huddle rooms” for private phone calls or spontaneous meetings. Each floor has two “walk stations” where employees can work while walking on treadmills. The company has scrapped telephone landlines for Building 9 employees, who are issued laptops and headsets.

“This whole idea of no offices is a little controversial,” admitted chief executive George Scangos. “It’s a new way of working. The idea is to foster more collaboration. People can talk to each other now. A lot of ideas can come out of these informal discussions.”

. . .But will some Biogen Idec recruits be pining for their own private offices?

“There may be some people who say, ‘I don’t want this, I want an office,’ ” Scangos acknowledged. After pausing, he said quietly, “Then they don’t come here.”

Problem is, like all other big-culture-change ideas, it takes years before you find out if it's working or not. But Biogen seems to be very big on the idea, and it'll be quite interesting to hear reports about how it's working (or not).

Thanks to Lisa Jarvis at C&E News for the tip, via Twitter.

Comments (49) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Overthetop on July 25, 2013 9:15 AM writes...

I've had the opportunity to work in both environments, as bench chemist and as a patent agent. My experience is that the open office plan works great for the high paid execs that are always traveling and never really used their offices in the first place. For the rest of us, the peons, it results in the opposite of "collaboration". These places are as quiet as tombs. Everybody worries about bothering everyone else by speaking too loudly, so conversations are done in whispers...if at all...and serious conversations are taken into the private rooms or outside.

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2. Tom on July 25, 2013 9:17 AM writes...

“It’s a new way of working". Really? It's been around for years, and for people who actually have to think, read and do a lot of data analysis/mining, it never worked. You need quiet space, and some not-so-quiet space for bouncing ideas and chat.
Sharing an office with 2-3 peoples is great, putting everyone in the same open-office empowers the loud idiot to annoy everyone else.

Call center architecture will give you call center science. Your call, Mr Scangaroo.

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3. Anon on July 25, 2013 9:19 AM writes...

Some people have their own binders of CMC material, physical marked up copies of patents, notes they've made on publication they printed, etc. I don't understand where all this physical material will go.

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4. Anon on July 25, 2013 9:21 AM writes...

"Call center architecture will give you call center science."

I'm going to have to use that.

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5. Hap on July 25, 2013 9:31 AM writes...

As long as they can get call-center science with call-center wages, I don't think they care - by the time investors realize what that means, the people in charge will be "on a beach somewhere, earning 20%".

You'd figure that office plans that have been around for years, widely slagged by most who have to use them, and not successful enough to become fixtures would not be considered good ideas to build your company around. One might also figure that telling your current and potential employees where they can go if they don't like your (bad) ideas might be counterproductive. Maybe that's why I'm not a CEO.

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6. Anonymous on July 25, 2013 9:37 AM writes...

We're still waiting on the paperless office too... trying to do social engineering by changing people's environment is very nice, but some baseline intelligence/understanding of people's needs are still needed. I remember an open office space in the south west of England, where "hot-desking" was tried; people received a small plastic box to lock their stapler, the picture of their kids etc. everynight... The person who came up with the idea obviously *needed* to keep her office. Despite the office, she was a call center scientist

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7. Hap on July 25, 2013 9:39 AM writes...

Also, where does HR go when they need to discuss your relationship with a coworker, or your health reimbursement for fertility or hepatitis treatments? I imagine that performance review time is going to be a blast, too.

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8. Yazeran on July 25, 2013 10:00 AM writes...

#6 Regarding paperless office, just couldn’t resist qouting UserFriendly (
It existed all right: back when they used clay tablets, lots of them... :-)


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9. The Aqueous Layer on July 25, 2013 10:11 AM writes...

Lilly has gone to this type of setup for some areas down in Indy, although I don't believe the scientists were part of this experiment.

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10. Helical Investor on July 25, 2013 10:39 AM writes...

the entire thing is a completely office-less and cubicle-less space

Oh. You had me scared for a moment. As someone responsible for portions of regulatory filings (CMC), I was afraid they were dropping Microsoft Office for OpenOffice. The latter is fine, but the features of the former (and honestly my familiarity bias) do help with highly structured documents.

So this gets an LOL for headline misinterpretation.

I think open laboratory architecture is a bit more useful than office regarding encouraging collaboration, though it depends on the job being done. But lets be honest, one problem that has arisen over the past 15 years is work attention deficit largely due to the internet and all its distractions. So .. an open space makes getting distracted in such a way (call it screwing off if you will) more uncomfortable. Heck, I guess I'm doing that a bit now right?


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11. derek m on July 25, 2013 10:41 AM writes...

Been there, worked there. Lasts about as long as it takes for a senior executive to decide he/she and his/her teams need offices to function and that immediately triggers a status race among other people of the same level to emulate, and before you can blink all those quiet rooms and call rooms are someone's office.

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12. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on July 25, 2013 10:47 AM writes...

I have an acquaintance at Lilly that had gone through the open office experience (she has since left there). She would show up early each day, pick the plum hot desk where she could be most productive, and a couple of colleagues that she collaborated a lot with routinely sat nearby. This was noted by other employees, who resented her getting the best hot desk location everyday and complained to HR. This person was then reprimanded (basically for looking for ways to be productive in an unproductive environment).

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13. pgwu on July 25, 2013 10:51 AM writes...

I think there are more positives than negatives with open offices. Beside more open communication (or maybe as a side effect), to me the biggest benefit is that it forces some people to behave to a level not detrimental to a business. When open secrets are more likely to be caught outside a small selective group, there is less chance such things occur. Opportunities knock when some people turn a policy of "on need to know" basis to "no need to know".

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14. Jeb Bush on July 25, 2013 11:12 AM writes...

I am of that generation where it was thought that the schools shouldn't have classrooms. Large open spaces better fostered education and communication. All the schools like that are now being knocked down because that idea didn't quite pan out and the tax payers are on the hook. That idea seemed idiotic at the time as does this one..

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15. Hap on July 25, 2013 11:20 AM writes...

I think there are more positives than negatives with open offices. Beside more open communication (or maybe as a side effect), to me the biggest benefit is that it forces some people to behave to a level not detrimental to a business. When open secrets are more likely to be caught outside a small selective group, there is less chance such things occur. Opportunities knock when some people turn a policy of "on a need to know" basis to "no need to know".

Then why aren't open offices ever implemented for upper management? They would seem to be poster children for "behavior detrimental to a business" and the secrecy culture, and yet....

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16. johnnyboy on July 25, 2013 11:53 AM writes...

@13: I don't know what you do for a living, but it sure doesn't sounds like research. In my line of work, sometimes I need total silence so I can concentrate, sometimes I need some music to keep me going while doing something repetitive and boring. Both these conditions require an office with a door. If i need to communicate, I write an email or knock on someone else's door and talk to them. It's all very simple. One thing that my work doesn't include is "open secrets", "small selective groups", "on need to know to no need to know" - frankly I have no clue what the hell you're talking about. Are you a management consultant by any chance ?

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17. bboooooya on July 25, 2013 11:56 AM writes...

The real reason to build office free buildings is to save money. The bit about "The idea is to foster more collaboration" is as bollocks today as it was when companies started experimenting experimenting with this in the 50s/60s.

I guess worrying about office design is easier than thinking about science.

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18. RKN on July 25, 2013 12:08 PM writes...

First it was the paper-less office, now it's cubicle- and office-less. How long before it's employee-less?

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19. Hap on July 25, 2013 12:25 PM writes...

It won't be employee-less for a while, unless you mean in the US and Europe, and even then we will need management and finance and HR (because of course their contributions are invaluable and can't possibly be recreated by cheaper people elsewhere).

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20. RKN on July 25, 2013 12:41 PM writes...


Indeed. The Management Rowing Race parable comes to mind:

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21. oldnuke on July 25, 2013 1:04 PM writes...

I worked for a division with a new nut-case Sr VP who thought that everyone should work in a cubicle. I was the Chief Tech Officer of that division and was very fond of my private office (no windows - private!) where I could close the door and lock it and not be bothered when I needed to concentrate on a problem.

Needless to say, I stayed put and outlasted Vice President Nutcase, who got canned very quickly (thankfully)...

This too shall pass when the village idiot moves on to the next village.

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22. emjeff on July 25, 2013 1:10 PM writes...

#17, you are spot on. I would have more respect for these decisions if they just came out and said, Look, this way will save us a ton of money, so shut up and be thankful you have a job." This BS about open offices being more collaborative, etc., is just insulting.

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23. pgwu on July 25, 2013 1:22 PM writes...

#16. I did not mention the down side which is the noise distraction. I used to work at a company (of the BIIB CEO's previous one) and I am on the highway now. He used to have "what's on your mind" meetings with regular folks and I have a high respect for him. Didn't Intel's Andy Groove use to sit in an open office? You may disagree with Andy's views about pharma, but I think he set an example of open office.

I am amazed that you can get all the info you need in a corporate setting and do not get stone-walled. What I meant was that some people use "need to know" to hide activities. And that's how frauds are discovered so much late or at all.

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24. Hap on July 25, 2013 1:27 PM writes...

You would figure, though, that if it didn't lower productivity (or had lower costs in productivity than it saved in facility costs), everyone would be doing it. Why not save money you can better use for something else?

Since that doesn't seem to be true, then either 1) management has no idea what it does to productivity (possible - why would competitors help one another?) or 2) management knows that it isn't good, but managing the denominator is all that matters, since they don't intend to be around for the effect on the numerator to be clear. If 2) is true, cutting costs on open offices won't save anyone's job for long, and will cost the investors money (or at least decrease the value of their stock). Even ignoring the employees, this doesn't seem like a good idea.

If they were looking to save money, couldn't they have chosen ways that hadn't already been tried and failed?

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25. Anon on July 25, 2013 2:04 PM writes...

#5 Hap... Die Hard quote.... nice.

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26. Hap on July 25, 2013 2:26 PM writes...

Frauds are like cons, though - you give people what they want to hear and most of the time they will buy it, particularly when their paycheck depends on it. Open offices don't necessarily help that.

If someone wants to hold back on useful knowledge for their self-interest, I don't know that open office arrangements will help - unless there is either leverage from above or knowledge that people who help coworkers improves your status to management, they are going to act to preserve their indispensability at others' expense. What helps is having everyone's interests in register - if that's the case, then open offices might be helpful for coordinating teams and getting info to the right places quickly. If self-interest and company interests don't cohere, then trying to force teamwork (to force people to act out of concert with the interests the company has established for them) will fail badly.

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27. llearch on July 25, 2013 3:59 PM writes...

I've been told that it takes about 20 minutes to regain your focus to get back into "the zone" after being interrupted. Based on my experience, that seems about right.

This means that open-plan offices don't work well if your staff need to think; if I have a question, I can spend 15 minutes looking it up, or 2 minutes asking my co-worker. That saves me 13 minutes, but wastes 20 minutes of his time. I only have to ask or be asked once every half hour to lower _both_ of our work output to the level of idly reading the internets...

In short: I think this is doomed to fail, but it'll be interesting to watch how they try to spin it.

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28. LMM on July 25, 2013 4:12 PM writes...

@ 12: Wasn't that a scene in _Snowcrash_?

Seriously, though, I don't get how this is supposed to help *anyone*. Even with a paperless office, people still need to have personal supplies. Do they assign lockers so employees can keep a spare jacket and some aspirin at work?

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29. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on July 25, 2013 4:27 PM writes...

@28, Sorry, no idea what "Snowcrash" is. They did get lockers, but you can't sit and work in front of a locker. There were just a bunch of desks arranged in the open space that were first-come-first-serve. She was an early riser and got the best location (i.e. back in the back corner which tended to be quietest with the least interruptions.

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30. lynn on July 25, 2013 5:26 PM writes...

So glad to be out of the madness of corporate science!!! Even back in grad school or as a postdoc with no office - at least I had a desk to call my own [maybe only a lab bench - but it had drawers!]. I would like to know what all these MBA types think the process of "being collaborative" is??? E-mail is actually pretty efficient at this - BUT I imagine management doesn't want a lot of electronic but informal records of ongoing research. Face-to-face collaboration is best done in my experience by a few people in a small room [office] with a blackboard.

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31. Neo-Wrinkly on July 25, 2013 6:03 PM writes...

Nirvana for the chattering classes, a nightmare for the reflective thinkers who constitute most of the named inventors of marketed drugs I've known over the last forty years...

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32. anonymous on July 25, 2013 7:15 PM writes...

I worked at a small company that downsized, abandoned their fancy private offices and landlines. They expected employees to use Skype for phone calls or their private cell phones. The new open office space was silent and cramped. I was much happier to just stay in the lab full time unless I had a meeting. The executive who suggested the idea is gone and a surprisingly many employees are "working from home" not a formula that increases collaboration or communication in my opinion.

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33. Dr. Manhattan on July 25, 2013 8:24 PM writes...

individually designed workstations called “I spaces” .... wow, what an original name; "iSpace"! Well, AstraZeneca already has "iScience" & "iMeds". Apple should get some sort of royalties for starting the "i_____" (fill in the blank) craze.

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34. G. Orwell on July 25, 2013 9:16 PM writes...

I assume that chief executive George Scangos will also be "officeless". All are equal, yet some are more equal than others.

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35. Anonymous on July 25, 2013 11:38 PM writes...

@34 I was thinking along the same line regarding his quote, whether he needs an office or not:

“There may be some people who say, ‘I don’t want this, I want an office,’ ” Scangos acknowledged. After pausing, he said quietly, “Then they don’t come here.”

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36. Nick K on July 26, 2013 2:45 AM writes...

This concept of hot-desking and open office working was tried a few years ago by BT in the UK. The company had to employ several psychiatrists and counselors to cope with the huge increase in depression and absenteeism among the staff.

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37. MoMo on July 26, 2013 9:37 AM writes...

Suicide jump nets on the buildings are next. Works in China.

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38. Anon on July 26, 2013 3:13 PM writes...

Having work in open office/hot desk space for a few years now I personally love it. No one has an office, even the most senior company execs. I see and talk to my colleagues everyday since we are not all locked away in our offices. It does take a while to get used it and sure, those hoarders out there will need some councilling when you only have one drawer or box to store your stuff in, but once you've been in that space for a while many would not want to go back.

Taking out all the office walls and cubes opens the space up and real sunlight gets in.

There are still a few buildings on my site that still have old school offices. I find these buildings claustrophobic and those places are the "tombs", with no apparent life going on in there, just dark corridors with closed doors.

Getting the senior leaders out of their offices and in with the at-the-benchers is the way to go. Just having your SVP sitting at the same table is a sure fire way to minimize slacking off and a great way for everyone, at every level to see what people really do, the challenges they face and (usually) how hard people work.

In my experience its the chemists who are most opposed the losing their offices. Usually through fear of actually having to talk to someone and not being able to hide away at their hood or in their office with the other socially challenged at-the-bencher :-)

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39. AngryBird on July 26, 2013 3:29 PM writes...

Has the regulatory bureaucracy become so annoying that people need distraction through open offices? How can you really focus on something when constantly being under supervision by everybody? What about confidentiality?

But that's where all the healthcare money goes - into monumental architecture on pharma-campuses.

Time to cut some overpriced and overmarketed nonsense coming out of these open spaces - I think.

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40. Lu on July 26, 2013 9:00 PM writes...

So how does in work for you guys in the industry now?
Does every PhD has a room of their own?

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41. Anonymous on July 27, 2013 9:37 AM writes...

I am at Biogen, and there are a few misconceptions in the comments. Each person maintains their own assigned space, and while they are not calling them cubicles, they are very similar to cubicles but with much lower walls (think half-way between Mad Men and Dilbert). After the transition, nobody will have an office, including Scangos. The older buildings still have offices until they are reconfigured. While the desks have shorter walls around them, they also have much larger desk space and storage space than a standard cube. The furniture is also modular, so individuals could pick what kind of storage they wanted (i.e. bookcase vs lateral files), with ease of swapping out. That said, I am not a fan, but it is not as bad as some of the comments make it out.

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42. DrSnowboard on July 27, 2013 11:51 AM writes...

So open office, first come first served. And then you realise they built the space to house less than the number of employees who could use it. Late comers have to go home to work. GSK anyone?

Feeling mobile and empowered good, feeling transient and subservient to a 'grand design' , bad.

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43. Brad on July 28, 2013 10:41 AM writes...

I've been seeing this a lot in government, but our senior management doesn't care about employee productivity; they don't have to, because they won't be fired unless caught snorting lines at work. (Even that might not be enough unless the perp is only in the office for ten hours a week and putting forty on his timecard.)

I only wish I'd seen a quiet open-plan office; in my experience they're always can't-hear-yourself-think loud.

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44. Boo on July 29, 2013 9:23 AM writes...

I'm glad I saw this. I am being recruited for a position at Biogen that may be located in the new building. If I confirm that is the location where the job will be located, I will withdraw my candidacy. I have seen these kinds of environments before, and they do not work well for R&D or tech people who need to "get in the zone" and concentrate. The enhanced collaboration that environments like these are supposed to foster never quite materializes, and the ability to focus on actual work is significantly reduced. None of this is new. How many times do we have to rediscover the basics?

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45. Hap on July 29, 2013 9:33 AM writes...

@40: The good news is that it applies to everyone, which doesn't make it raucously unfair, and that there's significant storage for things so that you don't lose all of your saved papers. That helps some. It's also good that it isn't the combination of open office and hot desking which gets conflated a lot.

The bad news, though, is that unless the incentive structure encourages people to act together and doesn't give them reasons for conflict with each other or the company, its investors, etc., it isn't going to make people play well together. But you already know this.

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46. Kim McDonald-Taylor on July 29, 2013 2:46 PM writes...

Too bad they didn't check the literature. Not a "new" idea at all. And an idea that is an epic fail. Increased collaboration does not occur and less work is done due to all the distractions. It may work in a company that needs constant collaboration - perhaps in advertising. But not in Pharma or Biotech. They will have many of their better workers leave.

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47. Anonymous on July 30, 2013 4:49 PM writes...

Office-less leads to focus-less.
Just like Lean-Lab leads to lean results.

Honestly, if management just said "we need to tighten our belts" it would be better all around...these shams are just covers to cut costs.

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48. hn on August 3, 2013 1:48 AM writes...

More from Dilbert:

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49. JB on September 29, 2013 10:46 PM writes...

I work in an open office and had some trouble getting used to it, but I made some steps to adjust. To reduce noise distractions, I purchased a quality pair of noise cancelling headphones and made mixes of music with ambient noise in the background. To reduce visual distractions I built an apparatus that I attach to my head which blocks movement on my left and right sides. I also attached a large piece of drywall to the back of my monitor to block visual distractions in front of me. However, I don't not want to appear totally anti-social, so I make sure to take part in a lot of the conversations that occur amongst my colleagues. Because we can all see and hear each other, about every 15 minutes or so someone will crack a joke and then we all get in and start laughing. I know my coworkers very well as we have lots of group discussions. In the morning we start the day by talking for about 20 minutes about random things. And then again like this several times before lunch. By 4:30 we are pretty much done working and spend the rest of the time chatting some more. I never have felt so close to people I worked with before. I discussed with my manager all the distractions and we agreed that I could work from home two days a week and one day in a conference room because he needs me to get some work done. I find on these days is when the open office environment works best for me. I also try to use a PTO day once a week, on the days that I would have to be in the office. So in short, if you are creative, you can find a way to make this arrangement work.

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