As scientific research evolves, laboratory and workplace environments must adapt to support it. Based on our recent planning and design work for corporations, commercial developers and academia, here are several trends to watch.
Offloading Non-Lab Functions
Most non-research activities have already transitioned from the lab bench to workspaces better suited for computational work, data analysis, writing and collaboration. Some companies, including AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, collocate scientists with operational departments such as legal, marketing and sales to promote knowledge sharing and capitalize on synergies among them. At AstraZeneca’s Lab and Office Facility (above) in South San Francisco, central gathering spaces, stairways, and conference and lounge areas encourage social interaction and idea-sharing.
Some organizations are now exploring the benefits of segregating non-lab and administrative functions into separate buildings or even remote work arrangements. While this strategy can yield significant cost savings, there’s a potential downside: silos. By splitting up teams, companies risk losing the sense of community and collaboration that arises when diverse groups share space.
Enhancing Collaboration Through Free-Choice Workspaces
While employees increasingly want greater flexibility in their work environments, many research organizations have yet to fully adopt free-choice or free-address strategies. These approaches emphasize shared ownership of various spaces—such as quiet, interactive and support areas—rather than assigning specific desk space to individuals. This can create environments that enhance collaboration and creativity while improving space utilization.
The decision to put in place assigned or or free-choice workspaces requires a deep understanding the organization’s work styles, mobility patterns, level of interaction and privacy needs. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but leveraging the science of design to accurately assess employee needs will lead to effective outcomes.
Despite growing initiatives to encourage collaboration and dismantle rigid organizational hierarchies, traditional power structures persist in both corporate and academic settings. In universities, for example, principal investigators (PIs) who bring in significant grant funding often occupy private offices. While this arrangement facilitates focused work, it may inadvertently hinder spontaneous interactions and collaboration opportunities.
Tailoring Space for Tech R&D
The scientific workplace continues to evolve. Tech R&D companies have recently begun to recognize the distinct space needs of hardware and software engineers. Hardware engineers require more physical space to work with equipment and more desk area in close proximity, while software engineers need quiet settings for programming tasks. It is essential to understand how scientific work happens and to acknowledge that the workplace is a tool that can be fine-tuned to support specific activities.
Conversely, hardware, software and life sciences researchers working on wearable technologies like smartwatches, fitness trackers and implantable medical devices need collaborative makerspaces. Together, they can track and analyze data on health-related factors, including heart rate, activity levels and sleep quality, in real-time.
The Shifting Landscape of Life Sciences Funding
Research to combat COVID-19 jumpstarted a dramatic surge in funding in the life sciences industry. When the office market collapsed, investors seeking to capitalize on the rising demand for healthcare solutions poured money into this sector.
While corporate life sciences companies can afford a more patient approach, entities backed by VCs must deliver a faster return on investment. To succeed in this environment, they need their workspaces to attract talented people, foster creativity and collaboration, and drive innovation. Attention must be paid to the ways in which the scientific workplace can play an important role in the overall success of the organization.
The landscape changed over the past year, however, as interest rates rose and the stock market dipped, causing venture capital funding in life sciences to slow. The recent failure of Silicon Valley Bank has further intensified the challenges faced by the commercial life sciences sector. This could lead to a reduction in available funding and investment for startups and early-stage companies, potentially resulting in decreased confidence in the sector, slowed growth and diminished innovation. Companies now must pay even more attention to the ways in which the scientific workplace can contribute to their overall success.
Unlocking the Potential of Neurodivergent Professionals
Promoting workplace diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) is essential in today’s world. With 15-20% of the world’s population exhibiting some form of neurodivergence, tapping into this talent pool is crucial for STEM-based organizations. The unique strengths of many neurodivergent individuals, including exceptional attention to detail, hyperfocus, creativity, persistence and advanced systems thinking, make them particularly well-suited for excelling in scientific research.
Labs can be notoriously challenging spaces to humanize, given the structured settings needed for controlled testing and safety. To make these spaces more accommodating for both neurodivergent and neurotypical users, labs should be designed with as much focus on the users as on the science.
HOK’s research suggests that the key to fostering an inclusive workplace ecosystem is providing employees with options regarding where and how they work, as well as the degree of sensory stimulation they experience. By understanding the spectrum of sensory processing and recognizing the connection between muti-dimensional stimulus triggers and design elements, companies can better appreciate the benefits of this approach. By addressing the diverse needs of employees and offering a range of workplace solutions, we can create more inclusive and productive environments.
In addition, the way we design these spaces can have a significant impact on ESG and DEIA initiatives, which many companies are now prioritizing.
AI and Beyond
Technology remains the engine driving researchers forward on their quest for discovery and understanding. Along with artificial intelligence (AI), which is currently capturing the headlines, technologies changing the ways scientists work include:
Automation technologies like robots and advanced software.
High-performance computing technologies such as quantum computing.
Data visualization technologies including virtual and augmented reality.
Genomics technologies like next-generation sequencing.
Building Automation Systems and Building Management Systems, which regulate lighting, temperature, HVAC, security, acoustics and more.
These technologies have a multifaceted impact on lab spaces. Many institutions have streamlined experiments and reduced the space required for research. Others need more sophisticated infrastructure and specialized equipment that takes up a lot of space. For example, HOK recently designed space for a pharmaceutical company specifically used to house robots. As automation and robotics take on more work traditionally completed by lab techs and support staff, the need for ultra-flexible lab spaces that integrate AI-powered research tools and systems becomes paramount.
AI isn’t going to replace scientists. But it can help them push their research further than they imagined. Could AI begin to diminish the need for face-to-face collaboration among scientists? We asked ChatGPT:
“AI is transforming scientific collaboration by improving remote communication, automating research tasks, and creating immersive virtual environments. However, in the near future, AI is unlikely to fully replace face-to-face collaboration. In-person interactions remain crucial for non-verbal communication, fostering trust, and facilitating serendipitous encounters that can lead to breakthroughs. While AI will undoubtedly reshape collaboration, the richness of face-to-face interactions will continue to play a significant role in scientific advancements.”
Taking note of the “in the near future” caveat, we agree with its response.
Our expertise in designing adaptable, inclusive and innovative lab spaces positions us to help organizations navigate these trends and create environments that drive scientific advancements. Contact us with any questions about how we can help you.
Julia Cooper is director of Consulting in HOK’s San Francisco studio and a workplace strategist and change practitioner.
Tim O’Connell is a director of HOK’s global Science + Technology practice based in Washington, D.C.
Rob Williamson is the regional leader of the Science + Technology group in HOK’s San Francisco studio.