by Mark S. Reed
Like other industries, many life sciences companies are shifting away from traditional office structures and implementing open office designs. Having worked with three companies recently that have taken this approach leads us to ask, “What does it mean to have your CEO sitting in a workstation just like everyone else, and what are the implications for the workplace?”
The easy answer is that the CEO wants to demonstrate an egalitarian work environment in which there is no preferential treatment for rank order. It implies a horizontal organization in which all ideas and contributions have equal merit. But having seen these companies in action, we believe there is a much deeper and concrete explanation for this emerging concept.
First, most emerging life sciences companies are led by CEOs who have been with the company since day one, serving as both a founder and the scientific visionary. As employee number 001, they have a seemingly parental interest in seeing the company grow, mature, and reach its potential. Like an involved parent, the CEO wants to have frequent and meaningful interactions with those whom they nurture. To be working openly within earshot and eyeshot of their teammates, the CEO is available to offer guidance and leadership on a range of issues, from the very minor to the consequential.
Second, R&D is a creative endeavor. No matter how much scientific and technical experience a team member may possess, the most successful are the ones who see patterns, opportunities, and solutions in novel ways using their imagination and three-dimensional thinking. These are often the characteristics that give CEOs the ability to form and lead companies. In an R&D environment, there are multiple inputs that need to be processed and understood, from determining therapeutic areas, evaluating the potential of molecules, assessing safety and efficacy, understanding intellectual property and patent law, developing the marketplace, conserving resources, and making profits. A dynamic CEO values and solicits the opinions and thoughts of teammates and see a missed opportunity when walls prevent those interactions.
Third, there are critical interchanges and handoffs between the research teams and the development teams when creating a drug therapy. Fumbling these handoffs can have significant schedule and cost impacts, and in some cases can threaten the viability of the whole company. By sitting in the workspace with the entire team, the CEO can feel the pulse of the workflow and can sense when miscommunication occurs or when critical information is not being properly transferred. The CEO has the opportunity to intervene before the problem becomes too severe.
The practical reasons for the CEO to sit with everyone else are strong, and it is equally important to understand the cons of this approach to workplace culture. The issue that most commonly rises to the surface relates to confidential information. The CEO is the repository of all the legal, intellectual property, and human resources information, most of which cannot be discussed in front or more than a select group of executives and board members. There are times in the life of the company in which the CEO is dealing nearly exclusively with these issues, and it is mandatory that there be a secure, private conference room in which to have these discussions.
It is possible for the CEO’s seating arrangement to have a chilling effect on the office culture. If the CEO is the first to arrive and last to leave every evening, the other team members may feel a sense of obligation or guilt in only working normal hours within clear view of the CEO. Some necessary conversations between colleagues may be toned down or become ineffective for fear of exposing weakness or conflicts to the executive leadership. Letting off steam, cracking jokes, or interacting informally may also be unintentionally subdued by the CEO’s presence.
Because CEOs understand the critical balance between openness and privacy, between being nurturing and being overbearing, the decision to sit in a cube is not taken lightly. Each company and each CEO will take a slightly different approach to this topic. As designers, it is fascinating to learn the rationale behind the decision to go one way or another.
Mark S. Reed AIA is a founding principal of Lab / Life. Science. Architecture, Inc. a Boston-based laboratory design firm.