The open office concept is trendy, but sometimes the reality of it doesn’t live up to the expectations of a creative, free-flowing workplace. Open offices trade privacy for ease of communication between co-workers, and for some, that trade-off is regrettable. Who wants to hear a ping-pong game going on while you’re trying to work? In some corporate headquarters, employees find themselves missing the small amount of privacy provided by a cubicle, or the sanctuary of a private office.

Silicon Valley pioneered the open office trend and is now seeing some backlash. At a 2016 Geek­Wire summit, Stack Overflow CEO Joel Spolsky said Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, an eight-acre open room, was scaring away talented software developers. “Developers need to concentrate,” he said. “Facebook is paying 40 to 50 percent more than other places, which is usually a sign developers don’t want to work there.”

But pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb has pushed forward with the open office concept in its new building, which it opened on Princeton Pike at I-295 last November. The company has taken lessons learned from its previous forays into open architecture and applied them to its flagship Central Jersey building, where 2,100 people work, and has found ways to keep coworkers in touch with one another while offering options to people when they need to work in solitude.

David Brienza, vice president of global real estate, works at the company’s Route 206 site, which is connected to the new Princeton Pike facility three miles away by the Lawrence-Hopewell foot and bike trail. The 650,000 square-foot building houses commercial and late-stage development teams as well as employees from research and development, global manufacturing and supply, and support workers. The BMS presence in the Route 1 corridor includes its 433-acre Hopewell campus housing research, data, and administration that is slated to close in 2020, its sales and administrative building on Scudders Mill Road in Plainsboro, which has closed and moved its functions to the new building, and its 280-acre R&D facility on Route 206.

Brienza oversaw the design of the new building, which took lessons learned from a facility in Tampa, Florida, that was an early attempt at an open-space design.

The final result, which took two years to build, is perhaps the most modern office space in the entire Route 1 corridor. It was designed by the Washington and Morristown offices of Gensler, a San Francisco-based architecture firm.

The most striking feature of the office space is its atrium, which is shaped like an intersection of city streets. The original plan for the site called for four buildings separated by an outdoor courtyard. The plan was modified to cover that courtyard with a roof. “That way we don’t have to worry about weather,” Brienza says. On the Plainsboro campus, workers have to use tunnels to travel between the campus buildings in foul weather.

Much of the atrium floor is taken up with tables and chairs, where employees can eat lunch from the cafeteria. The dining area doubles as a massive videoconference center, where about 1,000 people can gather to participate in company-wide meetings on a 28-foot screen. If the tables are packed at lunch, employees can escape outside to a patio area with 150 seats. There are also volleyball courts.

Every detail of the building was designed based on observations of how Bristol-Myers Squibb employees actually worked. Although the building has only been open for a few months, Brienza is considering modifications to the cafeteria seating. Having noticed a large number of people taking laptops or other devices to the tables, he plans to run flat electrical cables under the carpet and add charging stations to each table.

The seating area also has a section of living room-like furniture, where people can sit and work while taking a break from their desks.

In the very center, a spiral staircase leads upwards to walkways that crisscross the atrium between the four “buildings” and the office space on the second through fourth floors. “We encourage people to take the stairs,” Brienza says, pointing out one of many health-friendly features of the office. There are, however, elevators too.

While the layout of the campus isn’t very complicated, there are touch-screen panels to help guide visitors to particular rooms or desks. As a security measure, desks aren’t listed by name, but by a code number you have to know in order to look it up.

The first floor is home to all the amenities that make the campus a small, self-contained city. At the cafeteria, workers can buy sandwiches, salads, and other typical lunch and snack fare. Healthier options are subsidized by the company. Every fifth “healthy” meal is on the boss, to encourage people to pick oatmeal over breakfast sandwiches. Cashiers man the cafeteria during the day, but it’s still open after hours hours with self-checkout stations.

The open area not used for seating is open for other purposes. On the day this reporter visited, the space was being used for a retirement party, and one “street” had been home to a weekly farmer’s market.

Like any American office, keeping the workforce caffeinated is a high priority. The first floor boasts a Starbucks, and each of the four buildings has its own kitchen equipped with a high-end coffee machine that brews starting with whole beans. “Our new CEO [Giovanni Caforio] is Italian,” Breinza explains.

Across the hall from the cafeteria is a fitness center, where employees can work out by themselves or take classes. Towel service is included in memberships, which employees pay for, but which Brienza says are a break-even proposition for the company. “Since we moved from the old office, enrollment is up,” he says.

The old office was located on Scudders Mill Road, off Route 1 South in West Windsor, and a trek from other BMS locations. One reason for consolidating to the Princeton Pike campus was to make it easier for employees to travel between the marketing operations and labs at the other facility. “Route 1 is a big problem,” he says. “Traffic-wise, just crossing Route 1 mentally was fatiguing.” It sometimes took 40 minutes by car to travel between the two facilities. Now it’s just a short bike ride. “I actually run here sometimes from the Lawrenceville office,” Brienza says.

Another employee fitness measure is the bike sharing program. Anyone who bikes to work can grab a bike locker in the basement, and there are also 30 bikes on site that workers can check out to travel between buildings or to just ride around.

The first floor also holds an IT service area modeled after Apple’s “genius bar,” where anyone can make an appointment to get their laptop fixed. Rounding out the amenities are an ATM and a credit union. A short distance from the main building is a day care center with room for about 150 kids.

A cynical view of these creature comforts would be to assume that their purpose would be to discourage workers from going home. Brienza says this is not the case. “We manage by objectives,” he says, meaning that workers can put in whatever time is needed, from whatever location, including working from home, as long as they get the job done.

Most of the building was designed to admit sunlight. In fact, every single desk has a view out a window. The exception is the lower level, where training rooms and various meeting rooms are located. One of the more unusual features of the basement is the “roleplaying” center, where pharmaceutical sales reps can practice their conversations with simulated doctors. To add to the realism of the practice sessions, the rooms are set up like real doctors’ offices and waiting rooms.

Most employees work on the second, third, and fourth floors of each of the four sub-buildings. In a traditional office building, the upper management would have offices on the outside of the building, with the proletariat toiling in cubicles on the inside. But BMS is designed with a more egalitarian setup in work location if not in salary.

“We wanted to give people healthy doses of sunlight,” Brienza says. So they put all the desks on the outside, reserving the inner core for meeting rooms that called for more privacy.

Each floor is color coded, with all the furniture, carpeting, and wall paintings on every level sharing the same ultra-bright tones. Unlike the visual environment, the soundscape is quiet. Desks are separated only by waist-high walls, but while you can see people talking some distance away, you can’t hear them.

Brienza says most surfaces in the office are made of sound-dampening materials, and the ceiling — with exposed metal beams for an industrial look — is coated in sound-muffling foam. Careful study of previous open-office buildings showed that a lot of sound was transmitted through air conditioning vents, so those were re-engineered to be quieter. If you listen closely, you can hear a soft whooshing or humming sound that vaguely resembles distant machinery. It’s actually not the HVAC system, but white noise that is played throughout the building to further dampen ambient noise.

In case all this is not enough privacy, there are various pods, tables, and nooks where workers can retreat alone or in small groups. For small meetings, each floor has a row of mini meeting rooms, each with a monitor that can be plugged into any laptop or mobile device at any time to make it easier for workers to share what’s on their screens. Brienza says one early decision was to do away with all projectors in the building, since a new flat-screen TV now costs the same as a single projector bulb and offers more flexibility.

The individual workstations are also radically different from what came before. Every permanent desk, from the newest hires up to executives, is the same desk with electric controls that raise it into a standing desk or lower it into a sitting position. Brienza says the new furniture seems to be more comfortable for employees. Since moving to the new office, requests for ergonomic accommodations have plummeted, he says.

The new workstations are more Spartan than in the old offices, leaving less room for filing cabinets, storage, and knick-knacks. To discourage trash, individual wastebaskets were removed, and everyone now has to throw their garbage into centralized trash cans. Similarly, no one has a desktop printer anymore, and instead people share documents using Internet-based cloud storage or by printing them on a central printer.

The new office wasn’t an easy move for some employees who had their own office for years. “Some people have to shed 26 years of paraphernalia,” Brienza says. “All you could bring to your new desk was one or two boxes of stuff. You had to declutter and pare down all your stuff.”

The reorganization of the desks was accompanied by a reorganization of the way teams worked. Previously, departments like commercialization, R&D, and regulatory compliance all worked near other people in the same department. Now the teams are organized by project so that everyone working on the same product sits together and can talk to someone they work with from another department without leaving their desks.

From top to bottom, the building is full of “green” features in pursuit of the difficult-to-obtain “gold” LEED certification that recognizes environmentally friendly buildings. The rooftop is full of solar panels and also thermal cooling systems for the air conditioning. In the parking lot the best spots are reserved electric car charging stations and spots for hybrid vehicles.

As an alternative to using cars at all, an NJ Transit bus route has a stop right at the BMS doorstep, while a free shuttle is available to take workers to the Princeton Junction train station. The open office design itself is an environmentally friendly feature, since more employees can work in the 650,000-square-foot space. Preserved farmland makes up 168 acres of the campus, and the company is planting hundreds of trees on its property, including about 500 right outside the front entrance as a barrier against unexpected high winds, which blew the doors off the entrance shortly after the building opened.

Many who work in commercial real estate say that the age of the large suburban corporate campus is at an end, noting that many companies are building headquarters in cities, and that younger workers (aka millennials) do not like living or working in the suburbs. But Brienza says the Princeton Pike office has been a hit with workers, about 100 of whom find it convenient to reverse-commute from New York City thanks to the shuttle service. Because BMS is a science-based company specializing in drugs for hard-to-treat diseases, its workforce tends to be older and more highly skilled, so the company isn’t desperate to hire talent fresh out of college.

Brienza says that in designing the building, he and other people who worked on it looked not only at previous BMS buildings, but at the latest offices built by rival companies. The Princeton Pike building will serve as a model for other BMS facilities all around the world, and Brienza wouldn’t be surprised if features of it were imitated by others. Brienza can give certain statistics of the new facility off the top of his head: It took 1.5 million man-hours of labor, 3,000 tons of steel, and 15,000 square feet of glass. (The dollar amount, he won’t say.)

“We wanted to create an energizing workplace,” he says. “And it’s been a huge energizing force for the company. I experience it every day, and it’s fantastic.”

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