What is going on in the scientific workplace today?
Innovation is the buzzword in today’s workplace, and the consensus seems to be collaboration is key. So walls are coming down, private offices are disappearing and workplaces resemble cafes with white boards. This is possible because we are wireless and can work anywhere and anytime.
Except that scientists work in labs, and labs aren't portable. Labs are highly specialized zones where hazardous materials are handled, and protocols must be followed for safety, efficiency and to produce effective work. Labs are equipment-, process- and material-centric, and aren’t, by their nature, people-friendly places. We’ve mastered designing for equipment and their processes, but what about the people who work in this environment and the relationships they have with their machines, and with each other? As designers, our biggest and most exciting challenge today is designing labs for people.
Three primary work zones in the scientific workplace will benefit from a concentrated focus on people: the wet lab, the dry lab and the membrane between.
The wet lab: Where is everyone?
Walking through most research labs today can give the impression that everyone is on break. In today's lab, machines do the vast amount of the work process. Procedures that were once done by hand on a wet bench are now done in batches of thousands by machines. People still design these processes and make sure that they run successfully, but when data is collected they analyze results in dry lab space at computers. Still, there is important work to be done in wet labs, and bringing colleagues together in these spaces can be beneficial to an innovative and problem-solving research process.
Most wet labs are noisy, cold, machine-like spaces with hard cleanable materials. People wear protective clothing, log their work and follow strict working protocols. How can we make these areas more conducive to interaction and even simple human comfort?
The first thing on the list is managing mind-numbing and nearly constant equipment noise. Working with manufacturers on reducing noise output is one solution, but a more immediate strategy is to isolate loud equipment by building an equipment room with sound-proofed glass and automatic doors with sound gasketing.
Next, bringing in natural light, adding color and texture to surfaces, reducing visual clutter and removing rarely used equipment relieves visual monotony and creates a more welcoming aesthetic. Using resilient floors where people stand reduces fatigue and creating standing space for the use of laptops or electronic lab books allows immediate data entry or monitoring without requiring a separate dedicated desk. Introducing just-in-time supply delivery systems reduces the need for storage space and allows the removal of upper shelves that visually divide the lab bay.
Even though there’s a movement to bring them back, I'm not a fan of the bench-side write-up desk assigned to lab workers as their only desk. I believe that desks are better just outside the lab zone—ideally within sight of the bench, but in a lab-coat-off zone designed for humans. The argument may be to encourage people to remain in the lab to increase collaboration, but I would argue that bench or hood lab work usually involves delicate, precise tasks requiring intense concentration and that more natural collaboration happens in space designed specifically for human comfort.
The dry lab: Where did the offices go?
The scientific workplace is affected by the same trends that affect knowledge workers everywhere. First, work is distributed and computers are wireless. If part or all of your work is outside the wet lab, chances are you can do your work almost anywhere. Today, people work wherever there is an internet connection. The traditional walled office has all but disappeared in favor of collaboration spaces of all types with smaller open area desks, touchdown spaces, and employee amenities. Work/life balance and a healthy workplace are important factors in attracting and retaining top talent and the new dry lab workplace reflects this trend.
Second, everyone wants choice. It’s no longer enough to provide standard assigned desks, typical conference rooms and a small kitchen. Today we expect adaptable spaces, with movable furniture, user control and great acoustics. Flexibility is key: What works today will need to change tomorrow, and with minimum capital and time.
Third, collaboration spaces, venues and pathways for chance meetings are seen as critically important to foster an innovative culture. A variety of meeting rooms with video conferencing, informal social/working areas with a place for laptops, whiteboards on every surface and glass walls are the norm. Today's workplace is an extrovert's dream.
Which leads us to the fourth—and most critical—trend: the disappearance, and now reappearance of quiet space. Science is typically an introverted and contemplative pursuit, requiring time to think, process, and reflect. Dry lab space must contain write-up space for bench scientists, heads-down quiet space for computational scientists and general office space for non-science functions. We are now designing nooks and crannies, niches and small rooms with a variety of comfortable chairs and tables for one or two people to work in an informal setting. A key ingredient to success involves acoustically insulating video conference rooms and other gathering spaces to allow loud and quiet to co-exist in proximity to one another.
The membrane between: How can it be a connector and keep us safe?
All labs have a separation between the wet lab and dry lab zones to provide safety, operations efficiency and visual clarity. The nature of this membrane varies from hard walls with card access to virtual barriers relying on protocols only. Today most labs compromise and use glass walls. Because of the desire to encourage interaction and easy flow between wet and dry zones, there’s considerable pressure to remove barriers and work out ingenious environmental health and safety protocols to insure safety. But can we rely on everyone to be on the “honor system” and wear lab coat and gloves at the bench and then remove them to work 6 ft away at their write up desk—and vice versa?
Physical barriers, whether solid or glass, provide the most effective way to insure compliance with safety protocols and proper airflow in each zone, and making them as permeable as possible to increase the collaboration so vital to success. This involves carefully detailed design, and safety and gowning protocols that take into account human nature and ergonomics. We have to make lab gear easy to find, store and take on or off.
The nature of lab work requires distinct workspaces, and a defined, but permeable barrier between them. And the scientists working in these spaces need spaces that allow for both focused concentration and easy engagement with colleagues. Our designs should use acoustic technologies and visual cues to bring these different spaces as close together as possible. While technology is essential to the scientific process, it mustn’t pre-empt human needs for natural light and a colorful, comfortable work environment that allows both collaboration and contemplation. Finally, while barriers between wet and dry work zones are a necessary design feature, let’s make them easier to cross, with safe and simple openings.