Many of you will have seen this article in C&E News on open-plan offices. Its author, Alex Scott, got in touch with me while writing it, and there are a lot of interesting things in it. But as Chemjobber says here, some of the claims that Scott's interviewees make are a bit hard to believe. I refer specifically to one Bill Odell. I had exactly the same reaction Chemjobber did when I read this part:
Bill Odell is the director of the science and technology group for design and architecture firm HOK and has been creating open-plan science buildings for three decades. He sees evidence that open-space research is better at meeting the needs of scientists as science becomes ever more complex and multidisciplinary.
HOK recently designed an open-plan research building in the U.S. that Odell says has enabled a leading pharma company’s scientists to reduce lab size and increase office space by moving temporary walls just as a drug candidate goes from the lab development phase into administration-heavy clinical trials.
Now, this truly sounds like a load of crap. How, exactly, does lab space get turned into administrative office space, and vice versa? Useful lab space is a very specialized thing to build - benches and hoods, air handling, water, gas, and electricity lines, shelving. None of that translates into office space, does it? And if this is a "leading pharma company", why are they so tight for space that they would contemplate such a thing? And how do they only have this one drug candidate whose passage through development changes the entire layout of the building as it progresses into the clinic? Isn't there, like, some other compound coming through at some point? None of that statement makes any sense. If anyone from HOK would like to take another crack at explaining it, my inbox is waiting.
One problem with any discussion of open-plan labs is that no one is quite sure what the term means. (A cynic would say that it means whatever the architects think you'll buy). Does it mean that no one has a permanent desk? Does it mean that no one has a door? Do people share a lot of lab equipment, or is the number of people per lab more than usual? Or are the labs pretty much like usual, but surrounded by lots of glassy spaces and coffee areas designed to make people run into each other? These are all different things, but they get lumped together when the phrase "open plan" comes up.
Chemjobber also highlights another Odell statement that seems to have been pulled right out of thin air (or from some other handy storage compartment):
Any dislike of open-plan science buildings is something that Odell predicts will fade over time because it is the older generation of scientists accustomed to closed environments who oppose open-plan buildings. “That is because people in their 30s and 20s work in a completely different way than anyone older. Putting them in a cell is just anathema,” he says, citing examples of how the younger generation prefer to use headphones and work on mobile electronic devices in open spaces.
Here's a useful rule: whenever someone tries to tell you that you don't understand about this new generation, because they're so totally different, which makes them act so totally differently than anyone older - you're being sold something. Marketers absolutely love to pretend that this is how the world works, as do many varieties of consultant, because it gives them a chance to sell their hot, happening expertise that you don't have, you see, because you're behind the times. Kids these days! You just have no idea.
But one small compensation of experience is that you note the same sales pitches coming around again and again. This one, which I call Dig the New Breed, is a perennial. There are indeed such things are generational differences, although you'll have a fun time trying to define "generation". (For instance, I was born in 1962, and despite what article after article will tell you, I have little in common with the classic "Baby Boom" generation. I was seven years old when Woodstock was going on; it didn't have much effect on me). But generalizing about these differences is usually a sign of lazy thinking (or, as noted, a sign of a sales pitch). I see that Odell is sort of hand-waving in everyone from 20 to 40, but you know, that that's a pretty heterogeneous group, like any other 20-year span in the population. They're not all chatty wanderers wearing headphones, happy to mill around all day in a great big cavern of randomly placed desks, especially ones that used to be lab benches.
Personally, I'm sticking with another line from Scott's article as the real take-home about open office plans. That's the one where he says that "open-space labs are cheaper to construct and operate.". Those are the magic words; all the stuff about collaboration and productivity comes afterwards, and whether there's anything to it or not is for me still an open question. It's certainly possible to design research buildings that reduce productivity, but increasing it is elusive (and elusive to measure). But no matter what, there's one area that never does seem to turn into a big, open, collaborative share-space: wherever the higher-level executives work. Funny how that happens.