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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Alice Shaw, Lung Cancer Foundation of America

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Hal Barron, GSK's president of R&D and CSO, speaks to Endpoints News founder and editor John Carroll in London at Endpoints' #UKBIO19 summit on October 8, 2019

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