The laboratory is a workplace. Whether the task is medical research to create innovative new treatments for life-threatening diseases or the latest in ground-breaking quantum computing technology, the lab environment supports the performance of sensitive, highly-skilled labor, and must be safe and effective. In fact, any tenets applicable to workplace design loom even larger and more important in these settings, since the research being performed may contribute considerably to improving life on our planet.
In this context, it is worth looking at recent and valuable trends in workplace design that are helping organizations accelerate and improve their work. Among the most effective has been the inventive use of spaces for collaborative work modes, and many lab managers are exploring whether such areas can be a valuable addition to the research facility, inside or outside of the lab itself. The short answer is, “Yes, without a doubt.” Most research is conducted by teams—even if the team members will spend a majority of their time involved in individual tasks—and investing in collaboration spaces to create a more positive and productive working environment can realize significant returns.
Recent work by Svigals + Partners in research-focused workplace projects, including a number of varied laboratory facilities, has illuminated the value of designing labs and other workspaces as productive playgrounds—in other words, environments conducive to open participation and creative collaboration. The reality is that institutional and corporate owners and operators of research facilities are faced with hard choices when planning a new facility or renovation. But once the long-term potential of integrating collaboration space into a facility program is factored in, there’s really no choice at all.
In the world of office design, hybrid open-office concepts with a variety of rooms and nooks for meetings and informal huddles are quickly becoming the new norm nationwide, and according to surveys of employers and employees, this focus on collaborative work results in improvements in performance and productivity. One recent survey from the Institute for Corporate Productivity and Babson College found that of 1,100 companies interviewed, the ones promoting and incentivizing collaboration among employees are more than five times as likely to rank as the highest performing businesses. Research by other groups such as Gensler, meanwhile, indicates that employees in corporate environments are spending less time working alone and more time “collaborating, socializing, and learning.” These surveys also strongly suggest that time spent in these “non-focus behaviors” correlates with improved business performance, personal performance, and—critically—innovation.
This last point is key. At the heart of every research project or scientific study is the hope that the team will achieve a breakthrough, which will advance the fortunes of the team and the sponsoring organization, and may offer some science-based balm or enhancement for the enjoyment of the world. Of the dozens of research-sector clients working with Svigals + Partners, most report that the inspiration leading to breakthroughs often strikes outside the laboratory and away from heads-down lab tasks. In this context, it becomes essential for organizations to promote collaboration and informal interaction among colleagues and their peers who are pursuing unrelated study. Providing spaces that support cross-disciplinary interactions, including break areas, cafeterias, lounges, and even outdoor patios, becomes a mission-critical investment.
Integrating collaboration space
The challenge facing the research organization is how to strike the balance between accommodating the work of research and supporting the opportunities for collaborative meetings, informal communication, and healthy downtime—a similar challenge to those the office world grapples with for their workplaces. While not perfectly analogous, there are similarities in the approaches of experienced design teams driving solutions in both sectors.
Most important, designers know that the client mission and culture should be the main drivers; there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Research facility programming should always include areas intended to encourage collaboration, but the amount and types of such spaces will vary. The task of the design team is to lead the corporate or institutional client to the mix of collaborative space types that will best serve their research. These may include:
- Conference room: While more suited to formal meetings and presentations, web-based scheduling apps or a simple whiteboard can offer ways to book the conference room for team-based tasks, increasing its value and utility. And introducing rich furniture and finishes can present more of a boardroom look, making an impression on visiting customers, research partners, donors, and benefactors.
- Break room: Often with a kitchenette or other support for meals and snacks, these are essential spaces for downtime that can also be utilized for quick meetings and team tasks.
- Lounge: With comfortable seating, a mix of surface heights, and support for mobile devices, this alternative environment for non-lab work modes supports a range of collaborative activities and, in the right location, fosters interdisciplinary interaction.
- Huddle area: Any space designed specifically to support small group meetings fall into this category. They may be enclosed rooms or partially separate, or even a corner of the lab itself if appropriate, often with data and audiovisual support.
- Innovation space: This term refers to any area designed for and devoted to the kind of collaborative effort that produces original thoughts and advances the organizational mission.
Just as there is no prescriptive formula for the correct mix of collaborative space types for lab facilities, an innovation space will likely vary considerably from project to project, because the organizational culture determines the design, form, and included elements.
Getting it right
A daunting array of questions face the project teams deciding what collaborative spaces to include, where to locate them, and what types of spaces may need to be moved or minimized to make room for them. A few things are certain, however. First, optimal design and layout always emerge from a thorough visioning session involving decision-makers from the research organization and experienced design team members. Working collaboratively in this process, project stakeholders come to understand more fully the culture, needs, and goals of the organization.
In the case of owners or developers building or renovating lab space to rent, the visioning process should aim to understand the target market, so that owners earn the highest potential per-square-foot rate while research group tenants perceive they are receiving the best value for their rental budget. The following are key guidelines for both laboratory designers and their clients to consider:
- Program for impact: Proprietary research is by necessity usually located at a remove from entrances. This presents an opportunity—to program invigorating collaboration spaces where glimpses of the process of innovation can make a positive impression on visiting donors and benefactors. In a research facility for a major corporate beverage producer, our firm designed a café/break area adjacent to reception at the corner of an L-shaped footprint, with branded artwork and other elements. The result is an activity-filled space that employees enjoy for informal meetings, fully visible from the entrance and waiting area.
- Consider health and wellness: If the goal is to create spaces that are used frequently and at length, their design must support occupant wellbeing. Finishes and materials should be low or zero-VOC, for example, while lighting and mechanical systems should provide a comfortable, productive environment. In terms of programming, active design principles suggest locating inviting collaborative spaces at a distance from the research space to encourage movement throughout the workday.
- Utilize transparency: Enclosing meeting rooms in glass and reducing partition heights around huddle areas can promote a sense of connectedness and shared mission, while reminding investigators of the availability of non-lab work environments. Additionally, strategic transparency can help natural daylight—shown in studies to foster health and productivity in workplaces of all kinds—to permeate both research and collaborative spaces.
- Don’t skimp on infrastructure: To ensure collaboration spaces are effective, they should include as much support for mobile work and audiovisual presentations as possible. Robust Wi-Fi is a must, and furnishings with integrated ports for charging and/or data are recommended. “Smart” whiteboards, screens, and other specialized equipment should be considered wherever they may support the research mission.
- Emphasize flexibility: Research evolves quickly, and lab facilities should support sudden changes in modes of investigation. Likewise, it may be advantageous to consider outfitting conference rooms, lounges, and other spaces to be quickly and easily reconfigured by users for specific types of collaboration. Movable furniture and partitions will help to support impromptu meetings, presentations, and brainstorming sessions.
- Integrate art and branding: Studies show that art can have a powerful impact on the work environment. One survey of 800 employees revealed that significant majorities of respondents believe that art helps reduce stress, increase morale, and enhance productivity. By starting a discussion about art and branding during the visioning phase, facility owners/developers and research organizations can realize additional impact from architecturally integrated artwork, reinforcing the corporate or institutional culture while promoting a sense of pride in the research workplace.
In this way, collaboration spaces reflect the creativity that they naturally boost. What’s more, designing spaces with collaboration in mind can improve team efficiency while making the laboratory into a “home for research”—a place that is comfortable, welcoming, and relaxing. In short, a home for research is a place where any team looks forward to spending time, where they are likely to work longer hours, and more likely to have positive energy. Approaches to lab design that create high-functioning, collaborative, and desirable workplaces also help corporations and institutions attract talented recruits and top producers, accelerating the cycle of breakthrough science.