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No Desk, No Chair: Glaxo to Torture Staffers By Abolishing Personal Workspaces

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has a slightly insane plan to install a free-form, open-space office environment at its HQ in which no one has an assigned desk, chair or computer. Employees will just show up at the Research Triangle Park, N.C., building with their laptops and sit wherever they want.

This trendy new program seems guaranteed to make everyone crazy: Employees will be unable to personalize their workspaces with family photos or memorabilia. Instead, they will be given a storage locker in which they can keep files and keyboards. Welcome back to high school, GSK! About 40 GSK employees have already made the switch; 1,500 will follow shortly. Among the other changes:

  • Offices will be divided into flexible "neighborhoods" in which groups of employees can work on projects together.
  • Employees will receive etiquette classes to teach them to leave the space they used pristine for the next worker.
  • GSK expects the system will increase collaboration, and lessen use of email and phones.
  • Workstations will be adjustable for tall and short employees.
I predict disaster. It is true that offices often reduce communication and creativity. When everyone is locked behind a closed door, people retreat into themselves. On the other hand, workers need their own personalized space. Everyone needs to make an occasional call to their doctor -- and this is impossible to do without leaving the building in an open-plan office. I never thought I'd sing the praises
of the humble cubicle, but having worked in both closed-office and open-plan environments I can tell you that the cubicle, the happy medium between the two, is the preferable way to go.

More importantly, history is against "virtual" office spaces: In the mid 1990s, the trendy Venice Beach, Calif.-based ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day decided to abolish permanent offices and workspaces in favor of an open plan space, just like GSK. The agency's founder, the late (and slightly bonkers) Jay Chiat, justified it by saying:

And if you have to have a place for your dog pictures or stuff that you just can't get rid of, you'll have your very own -- personalized with your pictures, 3 feet by 18 inches by 18 inches locker. In what I might add is a very stylish, fun locker room.
The new setup -- in which no one had a desk that belonged to them -- drove people insane. I heard rumors that senior staffers would make their assistants arrive early in the morning and commandeer a conference room with orders to repel all other minions until the exec arrived. The office, like GSK, also devolved into a series of neighborhoods. When you have neighborhoods, you have prime real estate and you have ghettos. Who gets the windows? Who has to sit near the bathrooms? Worst, an open space is biased in favor of staffers whose work requires a permanent setup and militates randomly against those who only need a computer and a phone.

Ultimately, TBWA's virtual office was declared a failure and the agency moved to an aggressively trendy "creative city" with its own basketball court. Amid the surfboards and skulls and crossbones, everyone now has their own desk.

GSK CEO Andrew Witty may want to watch the movie Office Space before proceeding. In the film, management at Initech takes the Swingline stapler of put-upon file clerk Milton Waddams, and then repeatedly moves his desk until he eventually ends up working in the basement. Waddams responds by burning down the building.

It's funny because it's true: Anyone who has ever hidden a steel Stanley Bostitch stapler in their bottom desk drawer when the office supply people switched to the flimsier plastic Swinglines will recognize the murderous fury that overtakes you when you realize that someone has "borrowed" the last decent bloody stapler in the office and failed to return it.

Now every day will be like this at GSK!


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