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Glaxo's Open Office Plans Make 'Mine' A Thing of the Past

Open Office Plans Make 'Mine' A Thing of the Past [the News & Observer, Raleigh,


From News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) (March 13, 2011)

March 13--Shelby Bryant admits that she was not thrilled when she found out she would be one of the guinea pigs testing GlaxoSmithKline’s new open office environment.

An administrative assistant in Research Triangle Park, Bryant, 39, went from having a desk outside her boss’s office to having no assigned desk or phone.

Instead of personalizing her work space with family photos and funny cartoons, she was expected at the end of each day to leave her work area the same way she found it: pristine.

"It was a big adjustment," said Bryant, who has worked for the drug maker for 18 years. "There were a lot of distractions, and it was hard to stay focused."

But the new setup also had its advantages. The lack of offices increased collaboration among colleagues, which cut down the time it took to make decisions.

E-mail traffic was reduced, as was the time she spent on the phone.

GSK, which already has open work spaces in London and recently announced plans to build a similar environment in Philadelphia, is at the forefront of a movement that has enormous consequences for employers, workers and the real estate industry.

"What you’ve seen over the course of four decades now has been a transformation in the way the office is approached," said Matt Dorsey, sales representative for furniture maker Herman Miller in the Triad and the Triangle.

Office and cubicle sizes have been shrinking and are being replaced by fewer walls and collaborative spaces that many employees can share.

The economic downturn has accelerated this trend, as real estate is typically the second-largest expense for a company behind payroll.

"There’s pressure to reduce cost," Dorsey said. "But in addition there’s pressure to improve productivity."

Moving to an open office environment doesn’t make sense for all companies, and making the shift requires a great deal of forethought.

GSK has been studying the way its employees worked for the past decade. The company discovered that the offices in its buildings were underutilized and had become relics of a hierarchical work environment that was stifling innovation.

GSK, which employs 4,000 people in RTP, is converting two buildings to open-office floor plans that will allow the company to accommodate nearly twice the number of employees in the same square footage.

The overhaul is enabling the company to vacate 10 other buildings it occupies in the Triangle, saving millions in annual operating costs.

Open office environments are widespread in Europe, but are relatively rare in the Triangle.

"It’s been slower to take hold here in this market just because it hasn’t really been a progressive design market," said Dan Thomson, a broker with Cassidy Turley who previously worked for Raleigh office-furniture supplier Edge Office. "But you’ll see some of the larger and more, I guess, creative companies looking to different ways to do it."

Many companies view open-office environments as a tool for recruiting younger workers who may chafe in an office where employees have few opportunities to interact.

"You want that young talent that’s currently in the marketplace or entering college," Dorsey said.

Raleigh-based Red Hat, which is looking for a Wake County site on which to build its new 400,000-square-foot headquarters, is among the Triangle companies that have thought the most about how to create an efficient work environment.

For years, the software company has had a workplace strategy program that asked employees to fill out online surveys and attend workshops and focus groups where they discussed their work style.

Before deciding to build a new headquarters, Red Hat interviewed its employees to figure out just how much space they would need. Departments such as human resources and legal need more privacy, while the company’s engineers and salespeople tended to be more collaborative.

"When you add all that up, that is the total amount that we will need for our headquarters building," said Craig Youst, Red Hat’s senior director of global real estate and facilities.

Although the majority of Red Hat’s employees work in open office environments, the company has not adopted the no-assigned-seating approach that GSK is implementing.

About 1,500 of GSK’s employees in RTP will move into its new open-space floor plans. For the past 10 months, the company has been testing out furniture and layouts in a section of a Durham building that it will eventually vacate.

To reach the open office laboratory, visitors must pass through a deserted landscape of dreary, high-walled cubicles that serves as a reminder of what GSK is leaving behind.

Bryant, the administrative assistant, is among about 40 people in the company’s Worldwide Real Estate and Facilities division who have already made the switch.

The larger move will ultimately include an extensive education campaign to prepare employees for their new surroundings.

Employees will work in neighborhoods, each of which includes meeting rooms and quiet areas. They’ll attend etiquette workshops, and each neighborhood will adopt a set of policies to deal with hypothetical situations that may come up.

The groups that are moving to the new layout are those whose managers embraced the change. Bryant now sits at a desk directly across from her boss, David Bishop, GSK’s director of site operations in RTP.

Bishop said as the move gets closer, more and more departments are expressing interest in unchaining themselves from their desk.

"I don’t believe we will ever get to where everybody wants it," he said. or 919-829-4548

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Posted: March 2011