Mind Matters: Working Space

“I try to abide by the Laws of Ten for productive science,” quips neuroscientist Tom Caltagirone, CEO of Aptagen, a biotechnology firm located in Jacobus, Pennsylvania. For each new researcher he hires, Caltagirone allots 10 hours a week for mentoring, $10,000 per year for laboratory supplies, and 10 square feet for personal lab space, he explains.

Caltagirone’s three-pronged formula underscores the essential role that space plays in fostering scientific productivity. “Every scientist needs a working environment with adequate space to move around [in] and do experiments without infringing on the work of others,” he says. “Each scientist should have a designated bench and desk area with a clear physical separation of the two. Lab work must be separated from other mental work, which may include manuscript writing. This physical separation gears the mind to work accordingly.”

Space, performance, and job satisfaction

Before my own institution, the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research (NKI) in Orangeburg, New York, moved to more spacious quarters about a decade ago, our staff (then comprising more than 250 scientists) was housed in an old two-story stucco building on the campus of Rockland Psychiatric Center in Orangeburg. Dormitories built in the 1920s, once occupied by state hospital patients, had been converted into small offices and makeshift laboratories. “The grated casement windows didn’t open or provide much light,” recalls Henry Sershen, a neurochemist at NKI. “Because our instruments generated heat and there was no air conditioning, we often had to turn off all the lights in the summer” so it wouldn’t get too hot to work.

There was virtually no storage space in the labs. People tended to work in isolation behind heavy wooden doors. “Scientists work under whatever conditions they have to, but when visitors came around it really had a negative effect on their perceptions.” The setting, Sershen says, made it difficult to recruit new staff.

But the problems of space extend beyond a bad first impression. “It makes a person feel cramped and uncomfortable, and this feeling often leads to overt behaviors of being out-of-sorts and general grumpiness, churlishness,” says organizational psychologist Billie G. Blair, president of Leading and Learning Inc., a management consulting firm. “Lack of adequate space also makes humans feel unappreciated, and this is particularly true for researchers who hold advanced degrees and are highly acknowledged in their fields,” she says.

One study in particular illustrates the impact the quality of the workspace can have on job satisfaction and morale. A poll of 1000 U.S. workers, taken between 2000 and 2005, examined the relationship between work environment and employee performance. The study, published in the Gallup Management Journal (GMJ), found that the less comfortable people feel in their working environment (because of the acoustics, ventilation, or physical surroundings), the less satisfied they are as employees. The researchers identified three groups of workers: engaged, disengaged, and actively disengaged. Those who were actively disengaged–unhappy to the point of undermining the work of others–included as many as 17% of the surveyed workers.

On the other side, there is growing evidence that buildings and architecture can affect brain performance in a positive way. A recent study at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis, for example, found that students in rooms with high ceilings perform better on tasks that entail seeing relationships between things, whereas students in rooms with low ceilings perform better on detail-oriented tasks.

When it comes to space, it is important to consider personal preferences and accommodate differences in working styles whenever possible. While Caltagirone recommends separating bench and office space, just the opposite works for Mary Ann Wagner, a professor of biotechnology at Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania. “My most productive times were when my office was just next to or–better–within the lab,” Wagner says.

Cutting the pie

The Research Laboratory Space Distribution Guidelines at the University of Toledo College of Medicine in Ohio makes it explicit: “Research laboratory space, like money, is a finite institutional resource.” Forced to make hard choices, administrators often decide, in what seems like a chicken-and-egg judgment, that space “must be utilized in support of productive laboratory-based research programs.”

If you are a productive Principal Investigator (PI) with plenty of recent grants and publications, you are more likely to be assigned adequate office and lab space. Remaining productive also better positions you to renegotiate your needs for space and other resources as these needs grow. It also makes it likely that someone else will give you more space even if your current employer won’t.

The catch-22 is that if you start off without much space, your ability to produce good science is seriously compromised. Not having ready access to or having to wait in line to use a PCR machine or another essential tool can cut a scientist’s efficiency and spark conflicts among even the closest colleagues. And, lacking that extra square meter of laboratory space, you may find you can’t recruit the people you need. Good ideas, determination, and persistence can help compensate for a space deficit, but it can be a big disadvantage nonetheless.

Wide open spaces

In recent decades, the design of research laboratories has undergone dramatic changes, with a new emphasis on openness and more flexible workstations for employees. For example, “Emory has done a great job providing us with ample lab and individual work space,” says Holly Carpenter, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She points out that not too long ago, chemistry students at Emory were housed in small labs in old buildings with few windows and no desk space. Now her department has five glass-walled rooms with two desks per room and a large divider between the two. Yet the building, which houses several science departments, has a “much more open interior architecture that forces physicists, engineers, chemists, and biologist to collaborate,” she says. “It is important to have common areas where you can freely talk science and socialize and/or eat.”

But the concept of open labs and offices isn’t without critics. While open spaces may minimize psychological distance between researchers, they also may inadvertently compromise privacy, leave materials vulnerable to theft or misuse, or create noise and distractions that impair concentration. In an office, at least, “space is not nearly as important as privacy—and more vital, the quiet that allows someone the ability to concentrate,” say Jeff Davidson, author of

Tips to make your space work

Given the finite resources of many labs and the vital link between space and productivity, what can trainees do to improve their own environment? Here are some tips from experts:

1) Just as you might check out a hotel room before you unpack your suitcase, make every effort to visit a prospective lab before settling in for the next few years. Think hard about how you are likely to feel working there.

2) Do not leave the placement of your desk to chance. Facing it toward the door may be more welcoming and feel less claustrophobic. Facing it toward a wall may help you stay better focused. Do what makes best sense for your working style.

3) The GMJ survey suggests that employees who personalize their workspace feel more engaged and comfortable. Once there, use small fixes like art, color, and photos to make your space your own.

4) When space is limited, it helps to be organized. “Get rid of clutter on your desk and lab bench, organize regular cleanup days for the whole lab, and ask the PI to put people in charge of certain pieces of equipment or space,” says Michiko Watanabe, an associate professor of pediatrics, genetics, and anatomy at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, who once was a professional organizer.

5) Take charge to improve your environment. Speak to your lab mates and supervisors to see what improvements you can make together. Can you use cabinets to keep everything in order and dividers to enhance privacy and reduce distraction?

6) Try to be flexible. If you need quiet time and the lab environment is too noisy, or if you like to work with minimal interruptions, make arrangements to work at home or in the library, or to work in the lab when fewer people are around.

7) If you are a supervisor, make sure you take the concerns of your staff seriously. “When supervisors listen and acknowledge [the] space problems trainees are having in the lab, it helps [the trainees] feel respected and appreciated for working in less-than-optimal circumstances,” says Linda Ligenza, a clinical social worker with theCenter for Mental Health Services in Washington, D.C.

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