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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: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 21, 2014

This All Too Open Office

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Posted by Derek

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.

Comments (40) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Anon on May 21, 2014 7:44 AM writes...

"enabled a leading pharma company’s scientists to reduce lab size"

You mean by laying off scientists?

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2. The Iron Chemist on May 21, 2014 7:49 AM writes...

The guy in charge of a company that designs and builds open-space labs sees lots of benefits to having an open-space lab. He would conclude something else?

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3. Hap on May 21, 2014 7:53 AM writes...

Aren't the opportunity costs for developing drugs and the labor costs for your employees far greater than the savings made by changes in facilities? If you make cheaper facilities that make it harder for you to find products and make your (expensive) employees less effective, why do you think it will work well, unless you don't think you're going to be around when the shareholders realize you pillaged the company?

This seems to beg two lessons: 1) Penny wise and pound foolish, and 2) If you're dumb enough to invest in long-term businesses for short-term profits, you're probably either evil or stupid, and if you don't know which category you fit in, it's probably stupid, and you won't have to worry about your investment for long.

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4. Jonas on May 21, 2014 8:09 AM writes...

The director sees evidence that open-space research is better at meeting the needs of scientists. I see Talebs narrative fallacy

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5. Wile E Coyote, Genius on May 21, 2014 8:11 AM writes...

Do all these architects work in open offices? I think that would be instructive. I don't know, but is it practical for an architect to have non-defined work spaces? Is it first come-first served for the plum drafting table or the CAD station? I can't imagine that they'd be doing this work on laptops that travel from desk to desk, but would likely have specialized workstations with oversized monitor screens. Is a cubicle adequate for this type of drafting and design?

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6. annon 2 on May 21, 2014 8:11 AM writes...

To me, publishing such a one-sided article is yet another example of how C&E News is out of touch with so many of it's members.

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7. newnickname on May 21, 2014 8:17 AM writes...

Tagamet (cimetidine) came from the interaction between just a couple of med chemists and a pharmacologist at SKF who wanted to follow up on discoveries of James Black. Walls did not hold them back. (Management did and tried to kill the project repeatedly!) Prozac started from the small scale interactions between Wong, Molloy and Fuller at Lilly and walls did not hold them back. And so on, and so on.

Reasoning therefrom, if interaction between scientists in different areas of drug disco can create new blockbusters, let's increase the amount of interaction by removing every wall and barrier and actually force them to step on each others' toes and invade each others' space 100% of the time! That's practically guaranteed to produce more blockbusters!

After all, before these open office fads, scientists never talked to each other or collaborated and just avoided the corridors, cafeterias and seminars. Or that's what you believe if you're an architect.

Most people need their "space". I, obviously, hate this open office stuff and it negatively affects my productivity or even the ability to think (or to read and comment to Pipeline! Uh oh, someone's coming.).

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8. The Aqueous Layer on May 21, 2014 8:22 AM writes...

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.

It's a fantastic plan, actually, one that many biotech companies have done. Once the compounds are discovered and moved into clinical trials, you can move a bunch of the temporary walls on what used to be lab space because you let go most of the discovery scientists involved on the projects to pay for clinical development...

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9. Hap on May 21, 2014 8:25 AM writes...

Based on lots of the work of big-name architects, the needs of the hoi polloi who are actually going to use their buildings don't matter, only the awards the architect gets by designing the buildings. Maybe these people are different (they did design Camden Yards, which is a pretty nice ballpark), but I doubt it. In that case, why would I take any of their statements on scientist needs as being worth more than the hot air they expended saying them?

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10. Anonymous on May 21, 2014 8:29 AM writes...

Where do you give or take a bollocking in open plan workplaces?

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11. CanChem on May 21, 2014 8:31 AM writes...

"as a drug candidate goes from the lab development phase into administration-heavy clinical trials" - As someone who spends his days in the D side of R&D I can safely say this is nonsense. The lab space required by the development scientists is commensurate to those in research, and our work doesn't just end the moment you toss a compound into people. No, it's only just starting to ramp up, and doesn't stop until filing at the earliest.

I'm part of a company that just relocated to brand new digs, shedding a warren of hallways and 4-person cube areas for an open-ish cube farm style, and boy am I glad I was hidden away in an architecturally-mandated cubby. I'm one of the only people who's work environment is consistently quiet enough to actually do any work.

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12. Iguana on the Wall on May 21, 2014 8:32 AM writes...

The floor plan doesn't matter.

Having a similar level of experience as Derek, but in a mix of large pharma and small biotech, and having been involved with traditional and open office layouts including dealing with architects, I have not seen the layout to matter at all.

What carries orders of magnitude more weight on success and productivity is the ability of individuals to be smart, creative, communicative, understand the scientific method, and be able to adapt to change. Also, although many companies pre-select for employees from top-ten schools and groups, these skill sets and their development don't necessary correlate with pedigree in my experience.

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13. David Stone on May 21, 2014 8:33 AM writes...

We had two floors of essentially open-plan lab space built during a renovation. One snag: the fire department considered the entire floor to be one room, and told the department to reduce the amount of stored solvent to that allowed for one room. No where near enough for about 6 active research groups! End result: fire doors went in, and it's now separate lab spaces.

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14. Sideline Chemist on May 21, 2014 8:34 AM writes...

There is a grain of truth in generational differences in acceptance of open-office environments...young people are more accepting simply because they've been forced to have more exposure to open-office environments from the moment they entered school or the workplace. Pre-conditioning works wonders!

Ultimately these open-space Nirvanas will result in a completely insular workforce hiding behind headphones & mobile devices to escape the noise & bustle of the office & completely unable to communicate with anyone in person. Oh wait...perhaps we're already there.

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15. Anonymous on May 21, 2014 8:37 AM writes...

Before the closure of Pfizer Sandwich, the offices became open plan

The lab service elevators (which also had phones) became popular for exactly this!

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16. Ronald Pottol on May 21, 2014 8:39 AM writes...

I won't work in one again. I'm not going to see people moving around the sides of my monitor, and try and concentrate again. Put on headphones and face a window or a wall, sure, but my current job has me in tall cubicles, and I can live with that. Did they consider that people have headphones as a way to deal with open plan offices?

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17. jtd7 on May 21, 2014 8:48 AM writes...

" . . . the younger generation prefer[s] to use headphones and work on mobile electronic devices in open spaces . . . "

I put it to you that Odell has it backwards. When members of the younger generation do that, they are trying to create their own private, closed space, because the architecture has not given them one.

Older Than Derek

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18. Hap on May 21, 2014 9:01 AM writes...

@12: If environment doesn't matter, then why spend lots of money on it? Why do the executives have different environments?

Something tells me your comment is management-speak for "Shut up and work harder to cover my my mistakes so I can collect my bonus when I lay you off".

Of course, Dilbert had this right a while ago:

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19. dearieme on May 21, 2014 9:04 AM writes...

How in God's name would you manage the Health and Safety in a large open-plan lab?

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20. Yossarian on May 21, 2014 9:05 AM writes...

My Perspective on Time, Managers—and Scientific Fun (Chris Lipinski, Annual Reports in Medicinal Chemistry, vol 48)

“Simply put, a scientist has to have time to think. Constant interruptions kills thinking. You need periods of 90 min of uninterrupted thinking to have any chance of being creative.”

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21. The Fat Layer on May 21, 2014 9:09 AM writes...

WOW... such a claim indeed. And where's the proof of the claims? Where's the exact data that backs up such claims?

It'd be great to see if they do what they preach. Do all the architects at HOK work in an open-space format?

It builds credibility to walk the walk...

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22. Anonymous on May 21, 2014 9:10 AM writes...

As a member of the younger generation (I am too young to remember much of the Reagan years) I can tell you unequivocally: the day my nice, quiet, private walled office gets replaced with some Integrated Collaborative Open Environment (insert extra buzzwords here) nonsense is the day I start perusing the "Help Wanted" ads for better opportunities.

Take that, 40-something consultants who pretend to know what I want!

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23. Lead Paint on May 21, 2014 9:17 AM writes...

Open offices and labs mean this- being forced to listen to hours of discussions about your co-workers' fantasy football league while you're trying to write, and have nowhere else to go. It doesn't foster collaboration, it just makes people hate each other.

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24. Lead Paint on May 21, 2014 9:20 AM writes...

It also means that there is no door to block out the hip-hop.

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25. DCRogers on May 21, 2014 9:25 AM writes...

Even more extreme than open-office is the new trend to pack scientists at long desks (say, 4 on each side), with their flat-screens in the middle.

Any advantages of breaking down the walls is wiped out by the need to speak in hushed tones, lest you bother the other 7 people. For a real discussion, you need to drag someone from their desk into a 'huddle room' - a process onerous enough to make one abandon many possible interactions, and even if you make it to the huddle room, how is this interaction more collaborative?

I suspect the true motive is a combination of saving on space per scientist, and a more malign motive of reminding the scientist that they are of low status, so don't even *think* of asking for a raise!

I can report that scientists hear management's message that they are low status loud and clear.

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26. Dust In on May 21, 2014 9:36 AM writes...

Not pharma, but I work in a food and feed commercial testing lab. My company built our new building 5 years ago based on an open lab plan and auditors HATE it. They've been building rooms inside our lab ever since to keep our GLP clients happy.
The PCR machines are out in the open? Nope, build a seperate space to house them. GCs and LCs out in the open? You really should think about moving them into a seperate space.

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27. exGlaxoid on May 21, 2014 9:49 AM writes...

GSK jumped head first into the open office and open lab space idea years ago. Once the fire marshal and safety people saw this, they had a cow. As #13 said, the fire marshal deemed huge spaces one lab, limiting them to 10 gallons of solvent per lab, which made them unusable. I do like some movable benches on wheels, but having movable fume hoods (done at 2 GSK facilities) made the costs go through the roof. Both have since closed, after about 5 years of use. Little of value was discovered in either building.

And I constantly hear people complain about the noise in open spaces, I had people complain sometimes in cubicles with tall walls, as voices carried through the entire space. Trying to call someone for a private discussion was nearly impossible. At least I did not have to pack up my stuff every day. I can't imagine how I would cope with reference books, reports, journals, spectra, chemical schemes, and other paperwork without a desk to leave them on for more than a day at a time. One friend had that situation and he said it took him 30 minutes to set up each morning and get things out of storage, then 30 minutes each day to close up. He found a new job.

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28. MoMo on May 21, 2014 9:58 AM writes...

Brilliant! Once the drug is discovered chemical lab space is converted into Oak Paneled Board Rooms for the executives that made the discovery!

Just build hood sashes that can accept clip-on Oak panels, throw an oak top on the lab bench and voila! An efficient use of space!

But put up some fancy curtains to keep the unemployed chemists from looking in though!

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29. Anonymous on May 21, 2014 10:15 AM writes...

The open office concept is advanced architectural unicorn. Only one other concept is nuttier - the flexible lab bench that goes up for chemist and down for biologists.

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30. CMCguy on May 21, 2014 10:20 AM writes...

As noted above although there is lip service to creating better working environment yet it was evident the primary factor comes down to cheaper to build. Per #13 many years ago I was part of a design "recommendation" team when the biotech I worked for was moving to a custom build facility that targeted open labs concept (all chemistry on one floor with biology separate) even though by the time we saw them the layout plans were largely completed. Because I was also the Safety Officer I was familiar with the local fire regulations where quickly determined the chemistry operations would be severely hampered with restrictions on amounts of solvents and waste that could be stored and used in a single room, especially as anticipated doing process development and initial scale up along side the medchem and analytical benches. It was a struggle but I was able to eventually convince management we needed separated rooms for process activity so did put up walls to isolate a corner of the larger room (losing out on partitioning analytical and medchem as well). We likewise had to install more elaborate solvent storage cabinets under the hoods and along the walls to meet the codes and the extra venting requirements made the HVAC system much more costly. Originally the plan included having all Jr peoples desks in the lab but we also were able to change that to a few 4-6 people office rooms after voicing safety and staff complaint. In the end with the many hoods and pumps noise working in the open lab was not ideal for promoting interactions (the large offices did often seem to prompt better exchanges) and most chemists where disappointed with the new lab. At the same time most of the biology people in their one big lab did not encounter the same dislike as the chemists and did not mind it (which except for occasion centrifuge whirling where much quieter by comparison). Of course to me (as a chemist) the smells of the biology lab were much more off putting than in the chemistry labs.

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31. Doug Steinman on May 21, 2014 10:32 AM writes...

I smell the influence of HR in this type of decision. Hr, at least in my experience at Big Pharma, seems to revel in thinking that scientists should be treated the same as accountants or finance people because they don't understand how scientists work or even what they actually do. And, if open office arrangements are good for accounting departments then they are good for scientists as well. This too shall pass but it won't be until the pharma companies begin to again value the contributions of scientists instead of treating them as disposable commodities. Unfortunately, by the time that happens, most of us will be dead and buried.

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32. Chrispy on May 21, 2014 10:32 AM writes...

What do people listen to on headphones to drown out the noise? Podcasts? Music?

Seems like you trade one distraction for another.

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33. Curt F. on May 21, 2014 11:15 AM writes...

Interesting to hear the comments on open *lab* space. (Personally, I feel the topic of open office space is one I've already heard too much about.)

All of the reasons I dislike open office space would seem not to apply to labs. When my current company was much smaller we had one large lab. It was great -- easy access to everything. Now we have much smaller lab rooms and it is a pain; people are always walking from room to room with lab supplies etc.

I'd be curious to hear more from folks who have experience in *big* open lab setups. Do regulatory problems, like limits on solvent storage per *room*, frequently crop up? Is it easy to access all required equipment in an open lab? What about closed ones?

What is your ideal set up?

1. Closed office and closed lab
2. Closed office / open lab
3. Open office / closed lab
4. Open office and open lab

Personally my ideal scenario would probably be #2 but currently I work in 3. May not be aware of all the open lab downsides though.

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34. LostEnginer on May 21, 2014 11:19 AM writes...

As a veteran of a Merck cubefarm, I can tell you that the reason the cohort of 20-40 year-olds wearing headphones and working on mobile devices is doing that is because none of us have enough seniority to merit a door. When I got moved to an office due to a glut of contractors and the resulting space crunch, my productivity increased significantly.

@32 Usually some sort of white noise or wordless music, depending on the task and its focusing requirements.

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35. LMM on May 21, 2014 11:23 AM writes...

As a member of the "younger generation" who uses her mp3 player to tune out the ever-present background conversations, I'm seriously starting to worry about hearing loss.

On the bright side, if my hearing goes, so will my need for an mp3 player. It's a win-win situation all around.

(On a related note, if I can't have an office, I'd appreciate at least having a phone booth. Open offices don't just provide distraction; they also eliminate any ability to make phone calls, let alone ones about even slightly private material.)

@Chrispy: Depends on the context and the person. For me, audio tracks -- particularly dull ones -- become background noise after I've listened to them a few dozen times.

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36. Hap on May 21, 2014 11:26 AM writes...

I haven't worked in lab in a while, and I don't know how big the labs can be before safety issues intrude, but probably either 2 or 1 would make sense - there has to be someplace where one can go to do work alone and places to go to do work with others.

Having one single setup doesn't work - people are different, and forcing them into setups that seem not to work at improving productivity but make most people unhappy says pretty loudly that you neither care about your employees or the company's mission. Leading your employees together on a forced march to oblivion probably isn't delivering value to shareholders.

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37. K Yosce on May 22, 2014 11:04 AM writes...

Heh. In my open office plan we avoid talking to each other. It is considered rude to hold a conversation because it interferes with the work of all the others in the cube farm not involved. Most of the science discussions take place in the labs.

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38. Nick K on May 23, 2014 1:05 AM writes...

Fostering collaboration between scientists requires a long-term, supportive and trusting company culture, not open-plan labs. Guess which one is easier, cheaper and quicker to implement?

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39. Kaleberg on May 25, 2014 7:16 PM writes...

I don't know how it is now, but traditionally architects worked in open offices which held huge arrays of drawing tables. It was like an assembly line. If your firm was building a skyscraper, you'd need a detailed plan of each floor showing windows, electrical outlets, door =ways and so on. You couldn't just generate one set of plans and mark it "floors 22-35".

Nowadays, they can probably do it with cut and paste, but I get the impression architecture students are still socialized to work in spaces with large arrays of work desks.

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40. grad student on January 6, 2015 2:26 PM writes...

My university is planning to move my department into a new facility this year. (We're currently borrowing office and lab space from another department, it's complicated) The plan calls for an open lab space; multiple research groups will be in the same lab, with virtually no overlap in research interest. University research probably won't run into total volume of solvent issues, but equipment/supplies will likely be "borrowed" without accountability and the assortment of hazards will be lumped. (Share space with "Things I won't work with" research group!) I don't have high expectations.

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