Monday, May 19, 2014

Open-plan skepticism

In this week's C&EN, a very, very interesting article on open-plan buildings by Alex Scott. There's plenty of coverage of scientists' general skepticism about them. I have even more skepticism for ya here: 
[Author Susan] Cain’s findings raise interesting questions about collaborative work in chemical and pharmaceutical research, where scientists who resisted sharing data on electronic notebooks 10 years ago now swear by the tool and research-sharing strategy. The idea of groupthink would also seem essential to collaborative research in the drug industry, where competing companies now share laboratories in search of breakthroughs. 
But Lowe makes a distinction. “I like electronic notebooks very much and would never want to go back to paper. My spectra are attached, pdfs of the relevant papers can be attached, other experiments are automatically cross-referenced, the whole thing is searchable by structure and six dozen other fields,” he says. “There are just so many obvious enhancements that most chemists in my experience are eager to make the switch. Open offices, not so much. And the benefits there can be a bit fuzzy and hard to quantify.”
I don't think that resistance to electronic notebooks was about a desire not to share or collaborate. I suspect that resistance to electronic notebooks is about the horrendously terrible software that is foisted on bench chemists by their managers. But I digress...
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.
Maybe I'm crazy, but there's something VERY wrong about this sentence. If a pharma company's lab space needs to be reduced in order to accommodate more clinical research staff, then this company is a hell of a lot smaller than they're letting on with that "leading" bit. It smells like baloney.

Besides, which clinical research staffers would be comfortable with such a shift? "This office used to be our animal lab/bench chemistry area, but don't worry, we cleaned up really well."
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.
You know, I'm in my 30s, and I would love my own office. But no, instead I've lived most of my life with "open-plan" buildings because businesses are cheap, they can't quantify the negative costs of open-plan buildings and because people like Bill Odell keep patting them on the back and telling them what a good idea it is. No thanks. 

11 comments:

  1. They used the open lab/open office concept at my grad school in the new chem. building they put up a few years ago. Great building, but I'm glad I was on my way out. Having all the labs connected didn't seem any better or worse than having them separated, but the offices just rows of desks next to each other with very little personal space. Seemed like it would lead to less productivity there. I'm glad I work for a more old-school company that allows us to have our own offices. Allows you to make your office seem a little more like .

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  2. 1) Considering employment timeframes, I'm guessing any pharma employee explaining that they're building open office plans to support their younger employees is expelling massive quantities of bovine waste material.

    2) Odell's bovine waste products have been explained before:

    CMCGuy: "The "increased interaction of people" is a smokescreen as is really more about lowering building costs (assume so could spend on electronic "toys") as having walls are much expensive because of more complex configuration of utilities, particularly for labs. It also levels "those with offices vs lower ranks" to promote idea of flat organizational structure (usual also a smokescreen). "

    Cellbio (response in part to above): "CMCguy nailed it re true driver being cost. Everything else is a smokescreen. I've been part of a team "designing" new labs. When every user desire is fully explored, reduce noise, meet my bench needs, quiet place to analyze data etc. the only reply that comes back is those changes compromise the flexible work space that allows for future low cost reconfiguration of the space, either for internal use, or for a different tenant if the site is closed."

    (both from <a href = "http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2010/11/19/novartis_and_the_labs_of_the_future.php>here</a>)

    Translation: "Employees are expendable. We're not planning on being around any longer than it takes for us to get our bonuses and find another industry to manage into the grave."

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  3. I'd rather not have a cell, I'd much rather have a cattle car. Mooooooooooooooooooo!

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    1. I'd be careful with that analogy...http://search.dilbert.com/comic/Kill%20Us%20In%20Our%20Sleep

      Dilbert: I think they'd kill us in our sleep and sell our organs if the return on investment was good.
      Wally: Stop it. I'll be afraid to sleep in my cubicle now.

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  4. Does anyone, outside of execs, have offices of their own anymore?

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    1. Yes, I work at a large specialty/commodity chemicals company and we do have offices. It's nice ��. And I am grateful.

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  5. Where I come from, most chemists paid their dues with "open-concept" labs in grad school, when your desk was next to your hood and bench. I'm not sure management had the same experience.

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    1. Oh, yes, this was my experience. It was okaaaaaay, but not great.

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  6. I'm left wondering what US organization is building new labs, a University I guess. Wait until someone drops a bottle of THF on the floor and then see how well people like open labs as they vacate the premises.

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  7. My old department had open plan offices. It was great for interacting with people from other groups; even some inorganickers right next to us organicists, who would help us/laugh at us (mostly laugh at us) whenever we needed something metally doing. Brilliant for gossip too, as you could see what was going on in 1/8 of the building's office space at any given time. However in terms of interacting with my own group... I prefer the closed off desk in the corner that my current department gives us.

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  8. Open plans with desks next to hoods becomes more and more terrible to live with as lab safety standards increase. Yes, it is a good thing when labs encourage safety but all of a sudden there is no wall or door between my desk and the lab so EHS rules that I cannot drink water (even from a sealed bottle) and must make a mad dash from the lobby through a hallway, separated by waist-high walls from the labspace, to the break room if I'm going to bring in my lunch. Combined with the realities of lab culture which doesn't encourage breaks and with the pain of stripping off PPE, I spent two years straight being dehydrated. Maybe in another industry, but I just want to eat a sandwich at my desk without exposure issues.

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