Friday, 26 July 2013

The ideal scientific workplace

Many scientific workplaces are stereotypically drab places. To scientists this isn’t news, we have gotten used to cutting edge research taking place in the most uninspiring surrounds. But does it have to be this way? Would we be more effective if a little more thought and planning was put into our place of work?


Walking around my own workplace the sad edifices of austere 50’s and 60’s architecture certainly do nothing to inspire me, despite the swathe of bright posters that have recently started to appear. Science-lab-grey and beige are gender-neutral, culturally neutral and all-round inoffensive but I’m sorry they just don’t get my motor running. So what would you change about your workplace if you were in charge?

I recently put this question to friends and colleagues and got some fascinating responses that I’d like to share with you.

One of the key points focused on the physical environment. To start with, large open plan offices would be banned as being the most unproductive invention ever to beset scientific life. The temperature would be comfortable and controllable by the office inhabitant (in general women complained it was too cold, men complained it was too hot). These suggestions aren’t silly either; the last few weeks my office has peaked at over 35 degrees in the afternoon and this has seriously affected my productivity and I am not happy about it!

Google offices, from the 'Office Design Gallery
Many suggestions centered on a better integration of modern working styles in science. Moving outside the individual or small shared offices, there would be comfortable places to sit quietly, to gather informally for discussion and somewhere to make private phone calls when necessary. There would be interaction spaces where it is possible to work either individually or together and WiFi networks which cover outdoor spaces (heck, in my workplace it would be good if they even covered the indoor ones!).

One of the best suggestions I had was “people should actually have to talk to each other to communicate”. This means the default for internal communication should be face-to-face unless absolutely necessary. Get up from your desk and away from your email, people. There should also be fewer pointless meetings held simply because they are a regular fixture, even though there is nothing to discuss.

We should acknowledge that for creative scientific insight the best route is often a period of rest and reflection. Having flexible working hours is key for this and for maintaining a good work-life balance. While having bunks or hammocks above every desk (as one person suggested) may be going too far, having a chill-out space or meditation room to clear the mind or take a quick powernap is a great idea.
Some people were lucky enough to have lunchtime yoga classes in a nicely designed space, somewhere nice to go for a short walk or run as well as good showers with lockers. These were certainly the subject of some envy to those doing without!

The next major focus was on food and drink. My own workplace is rather cut-off and the only catering is that available on site, so it’s crucial to get it right. In this area people wanted healthier food options, qualified baristas to make the coffee and better food supply out-of-hours. It seems so simple, but it’s so important.

There are other schemes that affect workers happiness, which many people are still missing out on; better disability support and flexible working hours are particularly important ones. To my surprise, one person bemoaned the lack of a recycling scheme. What workplace doesn’t have recycling nowadays? I can see how someone would be unhappy with that.

Another recurrent theme we probably all know well is the illogical rules for expense claims. We could all do with a finance department that takes less than six weeks to pay back expenses (a rare find, trust me!).

As something of a final flourish, people even went so far as to suggest an entirely different management structure. They wanted a flatter structure, where staff members have local autonomy over projects and teams or research groups change over time. This is not the same as having short-term post-doc staff who leave the institution after a year or two.

Permanent or long-term staff would join a project when necessary and then put their skills to use in a different team or on a different project of their own choosing afterward. This would not only keep working teams ‘fresh’ but also lead to a greater cross-pollination of ideas, while giving staff job security and professional development. I’m not sure how well this would work in research, but it’s a fascinating prospect.

I realised after all this discussion that not all of these things are expensive or difficult to implement. In fact, some of them would only rely on our own initiative to change the environment we work in.

One day, when I’m in a position to think about how my staff work and interact with each other I will try to make verbal communication the default and seriously contemplate the management structure before simply complying with it.

For now, there is a lot you can do right now. Instead of sending an email get up from your desk and chat to your colleagues. Rather than standing at the door or chatting across the open plan office, go out for a short walk and get some exercise while you talk. Decorate your own workplace with things that inspire you, rather than just pinning up the most recent publication on the noticeboard. Campaign for healthier food if that’s what you want. Think you’d be better off working on a different project? Talk to someone about it!

As for those old buildings we all work in? Change is happening. Take the new Francis Crick Institute as an example. It seems we are finally waking up to better use of architecture and the built environment and its potential to enhance the scientific workplace. It might take a while, but we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for the kind of environment we want to work in. After all, who wants to spend half their life in the same old beige box?


What would make your ideal scientific workplace? Is there something you could do differently to enhance your working environment? Leave a comment and let me know.