Designing workspaces for teams – a case study from Novartis

In the course of my career I have worked in many different physical spaces, ranging from a large office with two desks to a totally open plan environment. Each has benefits and challenges and many organisations are now paying a substantial amount of attention to optimising workspaces. Workspace design in the case of scientific research presents some special challenges because of the importance of weak ties between scientists working in marginally related areas. If you read the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson you will find that a crucial step in the process was a casual conversation with an organic chemist who pointed out an elementary mistake that the two scientists had made in the structure of the nucleobases which was halting their progress towards the identification of the double helix structure of DNA. Another challenge is that of needing both desks and laboratory benches.

The world of pharmaceutical research is a highly secretive one, and therefore I was suprised and delighted to come across a study of workspace development within Novartis. The research was carried out by a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) who spent over 700 hours observing team and individual interactions as research teams were moved from a cellular to an open workspace. What emerges from the research, published in Drug Discovery Today in April 2013, is that there is no ‘best’ layout, and indeed the layout may well be different for teams working at different stages of the drug discovery and commercialisation process.

The authors of the paper also make the point that in drug discovery the initial stages in particular tend to be poorly defined. They make a comparison with production teams (where it is known what needs to be done) and engineering tasks, where it is known what is needed. One size does not fit all, and yet many presentations on collaboration, team working and virtual teams all tend to make generic “organisational culture” assumptions about the working processes that need to be supported. The paper is not open access, and it will cost $27.95 to download it. If your company is involved in any aspect of research then I think this six page paper and its associated 36 item bibliography will provide you with some important insights into the issues around designing effective workspaces. For more on virtual teams come to my workshop at the IntraTeam Event in Copenhagen on 25 February

Martin White