Things you will find upon arriving for work each morning at GlaxoSmithKline in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard: A tranquility room for prayer, a rooftop perch with city views for impromptu meetings, work stations that allow for typing at a keyboard while simultaneously walking two miles an hour on the treadmill, and a fairly good chance that at some point during the day you will bump into the CEO.
What you won’t find anywhere in the 208,000-square-foot space: a desk of your own.
GSK’s office design reflects a new approach to the workplace, one that embraces an open-space philosophy and uses a concept sometimes called “hoteling.” All workers, even top management, are assigned to “neighborhoods” — areas of workers engaged in related tasks — but no one has a permanent desk. Personal belongings go in a small locker.
Many employees work at computer terminals standing. Everyone is encouraged to float — in the cafeteria, on top of the deck beside a green roof filled with indigenous plants, on a sofa in a quiet room or in the lobby. The idea is that chance encounters will spark conversations and collaboration that would not happen when creative minds are moored to a single assigned desk. In GSK parlance, it’s called “smart-working.”
It might also be called smart cost containment. The new design allowed GSK to fit the same number of employees — 1,300 at this facility — into square footage that is a quarter of the size they previously occupied.
Open-space ideals began immigrating to this country from Europe in the 1950s and 1960s and have cropped up periodically since. But with the opening of some recent high-profile headquarters — Google, Facebook, Apple — many are once again embracing the movement. Two other large pharmaceutical firms have come in to study the GSK facility and are considering something similar, say GSK officials. “It was a trend in the 1980s and then it seemed to go away. Now it’s coming back again,” notes Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard. “I think there are a lot of benefits to it, and then also some costs.”