Genentech, a leading biotechnology company, has always been on the edge of innovation. Recent breakthroughs include new treatments for women with advanced ovarian cancer, people with food allergies and those with wet age-related macular degeneration.
The company’s innovative spirit also extends to the workplace.
Here’s a look at how it’s using a little-known workplace trend to improve space utilization, collaboration, and employee engagement.
A rise in real estate costs was one of several factors that drove Genentech to explore a new way of working. Its workforce of 15,000 had become more geographically dispersed as it sought to attract top talent. Advances in technology made it easier for employees to work in new locations. However, workplace leaders discovered 50-65 percent of employees were not in their office or at their desks a majority of the time.
Yet the company still needed to have enough physical space and lab equipment available for employees to conduct their research.
Genentech’s leaders came up with the concept of Neighborhood Work Environments (NWEs), which involves a combination of shared work settings, technology and agreements to support collaborative and individual work.
The company began the transition to this new workplace trend in 2015 with the introduction of an open floor plan at its South San Francisco campus. This company video describes the approach in more detail.
The response from employees was overwhelmingly positive, according to Ann Bamesberger, head of workplace efficiency. Once the walls came down, employees began to have more frequent conversations, rather than blocking off so much time for meetings.
“The office is not bricks and mortar,” Bamesberger said. “The office is the experience of the employee when he or she engages with the rest of the company.”
The open office concept evolved into something similar to activity-based working, where employees can choose their space depending on the work they’re doing.
Terry Tran, who now manages Neighborhood Work Environments (NWE) for Genentech, looks at a number of factors to evaluate the program’s success.
During the first year of a new NWE, she gathers data every three months on how often employees use the space and assets and how it impacts the way they work.
“First, are the elements that enable successful work—social, technology, places—being used and used consistently?” she said. “Second, are key work practices occurring more often and effectively? For example, is there evidence of more spontaneous interactions with colleagues that result in fewer formal meetings? Are teams utilizing technology and tools to do collaborative work? Are teams working more effectively across distance and time zones?”
Finally, Tran evaluates the perceived impact on desired business outcomes.
“For example, has communication been simplified and improved across teams? Has there been a marked improvement in efficiency or productivity in certain work processes? Have we seen a reduction in employee work fatigue?”
Having someone who owns the workplace strategy and is responsible for continual improvement shows Genentech is committed to a better work environment.
We’ve all seen workplace trends come and go. Cubicles were the (beige) standard for decades, and now they seem stuffy and outdated. Several years ago, many company leaders rushed to “tear down the walls” at their organization—literally and figuratively.
Some later regretted the move to an entirely open office concept as employees complained about too much noise, too many distractions and too little privacy. Now, companies seem to be striking a better balance by adopting activity-based working.
Rather than adopting the latest workplace trend because everyone else is doing it, workplace leaders should think carefully about what makes the most sense for their employees There’s a lot to consider. In many cases, adopting new ways of working means updating your office design, implementing new workplace technology and convincing executives they’ll see a return on that investment.