On the (in)convenience of open space labs

Encouraging interactions to the detriment of researchers’ comfort

When open spaces first appeared in companies, they raised quite a ruckus. Today, these open work spaces are invading laboratories and dividing opinion. Researchers, just like human beings, are social and sociable animals. However, their work requires concentration and time for careful reflection. Promoting interactions between researchers is a fine idea, yes, but at what price?

When open spaces first appeared in companies, they raised quite a ruckus. Today, these open work spaces are invading laboratories and dividing opinion. Researchers, just like human beings, are social and sociable animals. However, their work requires concentration and time for careful reflection. Promoting interactions between researchers is a fine idea, yes, but at what price?

This article was originally published under the title “De l’(in)opportunité des open space dans les labos”. It was translated from French by Timothée Froelich.



It’s like working on the factory floor. It’s like China. These were the thoughts that came to my mind when I first entered an open space laboratory. Lab benches and desks lined up one after another in a single, entirely decompartmentalized room. A deafening hubbub reigns in the laboratory and the place buzzes continuously like a swarm of busy bees. “So long, concentration,” I thought, aghast at the prospect of having to work in such a merry mess! I soon realized that I was not wrong. Although communicating and interacting with my colleagues were going to permeate my routine at work, I could already say goodbye to silence and concentration. A lukewarm experience, to put it mildly. Did we really need to go this far?

“Today, research is all about constant productivity”

Catherine Alcaïde, researcher at the Institute Jacques Monod (IJM) in Paris, is not particularly fond of open spaces: “At the IJM, we really had to insist to get partitions separating the desks and the labs.” Dr. Alcaïde thinks that open spaces only displace a problem that has deeper roots. In her opinion, the issue comes from the situation that research is currently in: “Today, research is all about constant productivity. There is less pleasure and passion than ever. The financing system of laboratories generates tremendous stress, which destroys interactions and creates competition at every level. [Thus,] researchers don’t communicate enough with each other. They are trapped in a closed room. The open space is only justified by the lack of interactions between the teams.” So, it seems that the open space is becoming more and more popular in labs for the sole purpose of shattering the isolation caused by the stress of competition. Other, more down-to-earth aspects come into play, too. Open spaces have recently been built at the Institute Curie, “with the sole objective of making room in the very constraining geographical context that is the center of Paris,” explains Corinne Cumin, deputy director of the research center.

A co-op-like laboratory

Space optimization, stimulating interaction, healthy competition between colleagues: open spaces still don’t sound ideal. Dr. Alcaïde describes this choice as “a utopia, impossible to maintain in practice,” even if she admits that “compartmentalized spaces close off communication.” She says that she has experienced the most extreme kind of open space work environment, where the researchers even shared desks and lab benches. There was no personal storage space. Everything was pooled, like a co-op on a laboratory scale. “We couldn’t find any room to read papers or concentrate. The open space, at this level, also denies the fact that we need specialized equipment to work: I used to pace up and down with 13 other people in a room made for 8 people!” Corinne Cumin also admits that “in a more ideal world, we would have created more isolated office spaces. But in regards to the price per square meter in Paris, we had to make choices.”

Finding alternatives to encourage interactions

For Dr. Alcaïde, there are other solutions: meetings between team supervisors, platforms where PhD candidates can interact… There is no shortage of ideas. She recalls having participated in an interesting experiment that consisted of organizing daily meetings where the whole team gathered for a snack and shared aspects of the work they had done throughout the day, whatever its nature. She was, at first, reluctant to engage in such forced interactions, but ended up getting into it and has very fond memories of the experience.

Even if there are some alternatives, which are sometimes put into practice, open spaces, with their pros and cons, are becoming more and more popular in the researcher’s work environment. As humans are naturally resistant to change, there has been no lack of adverse reactions. Should we adapt to this new environment or should we, on the contrary, make it match with the specificities of the job of a researcher? The debate is on.

 

About the author:

Antoine Campagne is a 3rd-year PhD student at the Institut Curie in the Genetics and Biology of Development unit. Under the supervision of Raphaël Margueron, he studies the mechanisms of the repression of proteins from the Polycomb group and, more specifically, the role of cofactors linked to the PRC2 complex.

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