Real estate, Surveys

Those open offices biopharma execs love so much? Most staffers hate them with a passion

The next time you hear an executive boast about the cool new open office design they’ve adopted to encourage collaboration and the viral spread of new ideas, keep this in mind: Most workers hate it.

How do we know? We asked. And the 606 responses we got left little to the imagination.

Inspired by AstraZeneca’s new Bay Area headquarters in South San Francisco, where they’re pulling in workers from all around the region into one new center, we pushed out a snap poll yesterday to gauge the industry’s sentiment to this wildly popular idea. 

The vote leaves little doubt where staffers would rather work. And it’s not in an open office.

Among the opinions registered, 80% said they hated the idea of an open office — and 43% of these people work in an open office. There were 47% in traditional offices and about 10% who were working remotely.

If you just concentrate on staffers in an open office, the numbers get a little better for the new designs. But just a little. About 29% love them, 71% hate them. Clearly, most people in a traditional office shudder about the idea of being forced into an open office. And those remote workers? They’re not coming back in. Nine out of 10 put them in the “hate it” crowd.

You can find new facilities like this from London to Philadelphia, Boston and Shanghai, as well as San Francisco. Whenever I’m shown around, execs always like to exclaim over their shining digs and wide-open windows. But hit the elevators and the staffers rarely hesitate to complain. 

The theme is clear: Many people find that open offices are a rich source of interruptions and delay. 

Here are just a handful of the pungent remarks that came through from our poll:

Taking a concept that might work in creative/advertising and applying it unthinkingly to scientific work is utterly moronic. Research people already mix and interact in the lab space; when they sit at their office desk it is to work on data and write, activities where concentration is needed. Most of my company is open-space, where people have to 1) mutter if they need to speak to each other or on the phone, and 2) wear noise-cancelling headphones when they need to concentrate. Management pushing for open-space office is either completely ignorant of what researchers actually need, or more likely just looking to cut costs, under the bu%^&^it guise of ‘increasing interactions and collaborations’.

Visually stunning to their architects, but practical nightmares for those who have to work in them. Too much noise and too many interruptions during the day…enclaves and meeting rooms get booked to get work done instead of at your station. List could go on. Personal experience in two companies with open office concepts.

Impossible to concentrate and focus when everyone around you is blabbing away about their f#@$%*g weekend plans.

I am distracted by others, people tend to chat too much. I don’t say it is a completely bad idea, but companies should provide quiet space for people like me…Otherwise the only solution is going to the restroom and work in peace!

But let’s hear it from the relatively few supporters as well:

As a previous intern at a pharma without open offices and a bioinformatics intern at a biotech that does, there’s a huge benefit to having open office spaces. It feels more collaborative and I feel projects especially computational ones work better when the scientist/user is right next to you.

It’s unlikely that architects at HOK and the rest of the industry will pay much heed. Open offices are also economical; the numbers work better. Many are firm believers in the culture an open office promotes. Biotech CEO Michael Gilman had this to say on Twitter:

For now there’s no open rebellion. But watch out for the pitch forks. 


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