About this Author
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: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« A Tool Compound's New Personality | Main | An All-In-One Alzheimer's Paper »

January 8, 2014

Evidence Against Open Offices

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

It's clear that many readers here are not fans of open-office designs - and whether that percentage is higher or lower among chemists (or scientists in general) is an interesting question that hasn't been settled yet. But if you're one of those dissenters, take heart: this New Yorker piece is the herald of the backlash.

In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. . .

There are plenty more links of the same type in the post, so if you're looking for ammunition against open-office plans, that's your one-stop superstore. Designers of new spaces in this industry sure do seem to love 'em, though. But personally, I'm not enthusiastic. I like talking to people about ideas, and I like hearing what other people are up to. But when I'm thinking, I shut the door. When I'm interrupted, my thoughts take off like the pigeons do when someone rides their VestaVespa into the market square in an old Italian movie. Update: my brain was apparently thinking about the asteroid instead of the scooter). It's almost physically painful to feel the structure I was building collapse, knowing that I'm going to have to assemble it all again.

Comments (35) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Hap on January 8, 2014 10:36 AM writes...

But they're cheap! When your company lays everyone off, it's going to be cheaper to renovate the space, too. Everyone wins!

I think open offices are management's homicide notes to their companies. "Yes, I know that you can't work well in open offices, but we don't care, because we don't care about your work, either. We're just hoping to pillage as much of the company's value for a few lucky investors before everyone else realizes that our company isn't worth a cup of warm...something not from Starbucks..., by which time, there'll be another lucky company for us to strip of value. Good luck, suckers!"

Permalink to Comment

2. The Iron Chemist on January 8, 2014 10:44 AM writes...

Plus, it makes it far easier for people to jack your stuff.

Permalink to Comment

3. lynn on January 8, 2014 10:50 AM writes...

Yes - hate open offices. Can't think in 'em! But, importantly - A Vespa is a motorscooter, a Vesta is a match.

Permalink to Comment

4. dearieme on January 8, 2014 10:58 AM writes...

I like separate offices. I even like the ability to lock the door so that people know that I really, really do not want to be disturbed. I had a boss who did that once; I got a key from his secretary, let myself in, and pointed out to him that he was the only one of us who really must not behave like that. He took the sermon remarkably well, all considered.

Permalink to Comment

5. TypoFinder on January 8, 2014 11:09 AM writes...

Vespa, not Vesta.

Permalink to Comment

6. Hap on January 8, 2014 11:20 AM writes...

And, of course, if your company really wants people to work together, they could try things like making sure that employee objectives don't reward employees for hosing one another, or making sure that employees think they're actually valued and not expendable (which this pretty much says they are).

If your company thinks this is a good idea to get people to work together, perhaps they should simply go straight to handcuffing pairs (or groups) of employees together so that they learn to work as a team. I know that that will probably have lots of unwanted side effects (positive and negative), but their employees will work together. Of course, it would only be fair if management tried the idea first.

Permalink to Comment

7. Esteban on January 8, 2014 11:37 AM writes...

Open offices are brutal, I escaped from one a few years back when I switched employers. When at any given moment a dozen or so people could make eye contact with me, it was just unnerving. Just blowing my nose made me feel like a spectacle. I truly think the cumulative effects were a type of psychological torture. I did like many and would escape to the enclaves designated for private conversation just for mental health reasons. There came to be many such would-be squatters predictably, so before long enclaves were getting tough to find. I initially had the choice of having an assigned desk or being a floater who just carried around my laptop and had a locker for my personal effects. In hindsight I should have floated so that I wouldn't have been trapped in the menagerie.

Permalink to Comment

8. Myma on January 8, 2014 12:37 PM writes...

We have mid-height cubes here (4-5'), which I think are a good compromise between open offices / tall cubes and completely open desking. I get a ton of natural light and enough visual privacy to focus on my screen and not be distracted by others movements about the office. Also, the white noise generator is good enough that I can only hear things well enough to be a possible distraction maybe 10 feet - so the nearest 8 cube neighbors. The mid height is short enough however to stand up and just look across the room to see if someone is in (by the crown of their head just poking above the "parapet".) There is also a common code used for more privacy needed, and that is to open the door of the storage unit that opens right behind my desk chair. When that door it open while the person is sitting there, it means "don't bug me".

Permalink to Comment

9. Hap on January 8, 2014 12:54 PM writes...

In that case, though, you're having to work around the policy to do your job, which doesn't fit with its stated/alleged goals. Unless you get something else beneficial (better teamwork, happier workplace, more productivity), the open office plan doesn't make sense.

Permalink to Comment

10. drug_hunter on January 8, 2014 1:00 PM writes...

I suppose next you'll complain about the smell of frying fish or popcorn or fresh onions wafting over the cube farm. Sheesh. There's just no satisfying you people.

Permalink to Comment

11. Drug Developer on January 8, 2014 1:04 PM writes...

#8: I've always loved the term for this pop-up surveillance: "prairie-dogging".

Permalink to Comment

12. MoMo on January 8, 2014 1:29 PM writes...

Ye Gods! Ridiculous idea from the get-go and the sign of new-age creep(s) in innovation. Several start-up companies Cambridge come to mind where CEO leaders had no offices and are still without commercialized products after many years of investor fleecing.

And Big Pharma is doing this? Not the smart ones!

Let the Big Clean Out continue but with management first!

Permalink to Comment

13. pete on January 8, 2014 1:33 PM writes...

@11 "prairie-dogging"
- and when there's some really juicy confrontation, go for the stealthy periscope

Permalink to Comment

14. Curt F. on January 8, 2014 1:41 PM writes...

We have open offices here and while I'm not a huge fan, I despise them far far less than most of the commenters here. I really don't see what the big deal is. Yes, I'd prefer my own office, but that costs quite a bit more.

Distractions are a problem with open offices but a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones can help with most of those. Besides blocking out unwanted noise it also indicates visually that you don't want to be disturbed. Or at least, people should ping you online instead of in person, since online "pings" are easy to disregard if you're busy.

The two things that make our open office setup workable are (i) a pool of very small conference rooms / large offices that can be used as-needed by anyone who needs quiet space or a closed room, and (ii) a work-from-home friendly culture. If you're spending the whole day writing, and you don't write well in the open office environment, staying home to write is fine.

The other thing that probably helps is transparency. Folks in charge have been pretty clear that cost is a driver of the decision to have open offices. I could imagine being a lot more resentful if they tried to convince me their chief concern was really to "foster interactions" or whatever.

I wonder if adding those features to other companies' open office setups would alleviate some of the hatred.

Permalink to Comment

15. Hap on January 8, 2014 1:54 PM writes...

Cutting productivity to cut costs doesn't seem like a good idea in any case - having alternatives to the open office area would help, but ultimately you're making people's work life worse for little gain. That's never going to be popular.

In addition, lowering the productivity for employees in relatively expensive places seems like a recipe for more outsourcing (on one of the previous bang-the-open-office threads, a commenter noted that Pfizer Sandwich had gone to open offices not too long before they nuked the site from orbit). Lowered productivity + sacrifice to preserve someone else's bonus but not your job = not a popular policy.

Permalink to Comment

16. Hap on January 8, 2014 2:07 PM writes...

None of the methods (cutting people, open office, cutting pay or benefits) are going to be popular. A reasonable question would be which one saves the most money for what it costs (loss of productivity per person or overall).

Permalink to Comment

17. milkshake on January 8, 2014 4:00 PM writes...

shared office space that consists of a large semi-partitioned room is OK with me - if I get enough dest space, my own phone, and if it is close to the lab. But the "open office" needs to be reasonably cosy: that means no huge two-story-high glass cage, no drafty walk-through highway, no ginormous cubicle hive. (The kitchenette area needs to be separate because it takes just one person fond of fish sauce or garlic to ruin it for the rest. Like with room-mates, it helps if the office colleagues are not complete jerks)

Permalink to Comment

18. Pennpenn on January 8, 2014 5:45 PM writes...

To be fair, riding into a town square on a 525 square kilometer asteroid would be distracting to all concerned, though not likely to turn up in too many old Italian movies. Especially since that would entail there not being an Italy any more in that film.

Permalink to Comment

19. Activist investor on January 8, 2014 6:44 PM writes...

Pfizer, the most innovative, productive and efficient company in the world have adopted open offices in Cambridge, MA.

Watch out all the useless physicochemical properties and metabolism-related reviews to be published in the next five years!

Permalink to Comment

20. Big Brother on January 8, 2014 7:01 PM writes...

STOP WHINING, PROLES! Be grateful for the open plan offices that our program of VIBRANCY THROUGH CONSOLIDATION brings, and never forget that from the comfort of my well-upholstered office the latest state of the art surveillance system installed by VICTORY PHARMA is watching you 24/7...

Consult is Dictate, Respond is Ignore, Challenge is Comply.

Permalink to Comment

21. annon on January 8, 2014 7:52 PM writes...

When GSK moved their Philly corporate offices, the new facility was totally designed to have open desks. As it was expected that a fairly large number of staff would not be on-site every day, the "desk space" was less than needed to accommodate everyone. As the new facility opened, most staff decided to show-up.....finding that the allotted space for them to work did not account for them all to be present at once. So, many now work from home. To me, this is both very funny & pathetic at the same time.

Permalink to Comment

22. Cloned Lab Rat on January 8, 2014 7:53 PM writes...

I currently work in an open office set-up, and it is far below comfortable or productive. HR, legal, execs. and directors, have offices with real doors. The rest of the scientists are in either open offices or cube farms. To be fair, some cubicles are nice if they have enough visual and sound privacy. The "3 desks in the corners of a 4-sided box" type of cublicle where the fourth corner is an entrance for 3 inhabitants is just as bad as an open office - Don't back your chair out too quick!
I prefer a small, quiet broom closet over an open office or poor cube set-up for getting serious work done.

Permalink to Comment

23. Anonymous on January 8, 2014 8:03 PM writes...

@11/13: I prefer meerkats!

Permalink to Comment

24. boo on January 9, 2014 2:47 AM writes...

In recent days, I've read articles about how a sure sign of a company peaking and about to crash is the construction of spiffy new headquarters buildings. I've also seen articles about the follies of open floor plans.

Hey, Biogen, how's it going?

Permalink to Comment

25. DA vinci on January 9, 2014 8:11 AM writes...

How odd! Is this an American thing? Everywhere I've always worked (Netherlands and UK) has had open plan offices for everyone apart from PIs. Much nicer than being cooped up in a dreary little office. It does seem to be a cultural thing, given the weird American obsession with cubicle offices, which I don't think actually exist this side of the pond.

Permalink to Comment

26. Iridium on January 9, 2014 9:09 AM writes...

Da Vinci,

I am not American but I do not like open offices (although I have tried them and I could live with it). I actually never met anybody that woudl like to work in an open office.

I really dont see any advantage for the scientists, even just theorethic, potential or immaginary.
The several disadvantages are, on the contrary, obvious and undeniable.

Permalink to Comment

27. NMH on January 9, 2014 9:49 AM writes...

I really believe why that start-up company I was briefly at failed is because the scientists and techs were WAY to social, thanks in part to open offices. Not a lot of work got any work done (but people were happy and ate a lot of pizza).

Sometimes I think we Americans deserve our out-sourcing fate....

Permalink to Comment

28. Curt F. on January 9, 2014 9:54 AM writes...

I don't think anyone is disputing that open offices have disadvantages. Failure to provide employees with free massages, free lunch, and eight weeks of paid vacation a year probably also has disadvantages.

Most of the evidence in the New Yorker article is difficult to parse: are the observed detrimental effects due primarily to the open office per se, or primarily to employees being forced to transition from a traditional, familiar closed-office environment to a strange new open one? "The more senior the employee, the worse she fared," says the article.

It's also difficult to exclude framing effects: if the expected norm is that employers provide cushy private offices, then anything less could seem like a "cut" or a penalty placed on employees.

Again, I have no doubt that open offices do have some negative features per se. But despite what Iridium says, there are clear advantages too! Not the least of which is that companies that are smart about how they set up their open office space should have more money to pay employees!

Permalink to Comment

29. Hap on January 9, 2014 10:24 AM writes...

28: That's not really accurate - if you're paying your employees the same amount of money but they're not as productive, you're losing money (now or in the future), not gaining it, so there isn't more money to pay them, but less. In addition, companies moving to open offices because they're cheaper (the only sensible reason) don't appear to be eager to pay anyone other than their executives any more money.

I'm not really seeing how making people less productive is a money-saving strategy - unless you save more on facilities than you lose in productivity, or unless the real point is to justify getting rid of everyone for cheaper people elsewhere. I can't imagine why people aren't flocking to support such policies.

Permalink to Comment

30. emjeff on January 9, 2014 10:43 AM writes...

I dread the coming of the open plan, but do plan to work at home a lot (I am not a bench scientist) so I will adapt. My issue with the implementation of this at GSK as more to do with how they are "selling" it to us. If they would say to us, "Look, we can't afford offices, so we're going to this open plan, because it will save us money and you'll be able to keep your jobs. If you don't like it, then find another job, you ungrateful bastards", I would respect that, because it is at least honest. All of this talk about fostering "communication" and "creativity" is a bunch of crap. If they wanted to foster team communication and creativity, then they would have dedicated spaces for teams - but they don't. It is "catch-as-catch-can", so in reality, my teams are going to be spread all over.

Permalink to Comment

31. db on January 9, 2014 11:02 AM writes...

I work for a chemical company that is planning a move to new offices. The rumor among people who know more than I is that cubes/open office are a strong likelihood. In our current space, everyone except clerical staff has a private office with a door, and most of us have windows.

Having worked in a cube farm before, I know that I will be subjectto distraction, interruption, and lost productivity. I imagine open work environments are more suited to sale and marketing staff than engineers like me who need quiet and focus to most competently execute our duties. But if the engineers get offices, then the sales and marketing staff will get jealous. Since the current leadership here mostly come from sales backgrounds (with the obligatory engineering degree), I suspect we will all end up in cubes.

I expect to eventually have to make a move or go out on my own.

Permalink to Comment

32. Am I too late on January 9, 2014 10:16 PM writes...

Having visited Novartis and other pharma companies in Cambridge recently, it appears that open-office spaces and transparent meeting rooms are en vogue.

I like Derek's and Chemjobber's earlier posts on the "labs of the future" design concepts being considered by Novartis.

Permalink to Comment

33. Scholander on January 10, 2014 4:38 PM writes...

I suppose it depends on the nature of what you're doing at a desk, and how much time everyone is spending there. In our small biotech, our office space are largely open, though most people are spending the bulk of their day at a bench in the lab. My supervisor and I are the computational biologists, and we share a closed office, though we keep the door open 95% of the time. It seems to be working pretty well, and does help foster a collaborative atmosphere. If everyone was an office drone tied to a desk though, I think it would be very problematic.

Permalink to Comment

34. sepisp on January 13, 2014 5:04 AM writes...

Hah, during my studies I was at a summer job in a paint factory. We had an "open office" indeed; a desk and chairs next to a structural column, all in the middle of the machinery (such as mills, mixers, dissolvers and a solvent pump). They had placed a compressed air-powered powder hopper next to the place, entirely unprotected. This thing, when it's operating, puts strain even on earplugs - a horrible loud hiss and roar that has no problems tearing off the small bones in your ear. It switched on apparently at random - I imagine there was a level sensor in a receiver below. One day the thing burst and covered the whole area in a white powder - its identity was not disclosed to us, but it was probably calcium carbonate. There was no emergency stop button next to it, so it kept doing that for a while until someone in the central control room noticed.

Working in an office where the other occupant's main task is to make phone calls felt like nothing after that.

Still, I hate even shared offices. When an experimental scientist is at the office, his job is not to be social or creative, it's to do his damn job. This is writing and reading reports, which is distracted by any noise.

Permalink to Comment

35. zorkbirder on January 13, 2014 2:55 PM writes...

I worked in an office for 20 years and found it very productive and never inhibited me from collaborating throughout the company.
One year ago, my department was moved to a Cube Farm without any direct natural light, to "promote collaboration and new ideas", but of course, really to save money. I and my Cube Farm mates found the Farm disruptive to concentrating on tasks, while also inhibiting any speculative (shall I say creative) conversations, so as not disturb others on the Farm.
It was one of the reasons I left the company.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry