New Direction. Fresh Start.

Jean Nayar

A new corporate headquarters facility serves as the foundation for a culture change that has driven Biogen into a new era of growth

When George Scangos took over as CEO of the biotech giant Biogen in 2010, he brought with him a bold new vision that laid the foundation for a new phase of explosive growth. “Coming into the company, he hoped not only to launch three to four new products over the next three years, but also to change and improve the culture of the company,” says Ed Dondero, director of real estate and planning for Biogen. “Among the steps he took to move the company into a dynamic time was to change the way our people work to reflect what he estimated us to become—a rapid-growth company.”

Unfortunately, the design of Biogen’s headquarters building in Weston, Massachusetts, contrasted with Scangos’ vision of how the company’s employees should most effectively work. So he undertook an effort to locate a new site and design a whole new headquarters facility that would take the company into a new era. And the new 507,000 square-foot, multi-structure headquarters and R&D facilities completed last fall have been instrumental in driving the culture change that is taking Biogen to a higher level of productivity and growth. “His idea for changing the culture turned out to be spot on,” says Dondero.

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Biogen Research & Development designed by NELSON. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography.

Designed by the Boston office of the global firm NELSON, the new headquarters facility promises to provide Biogen the flexibility it needs to readily adapt and change as it continues to evolve. It also facilitates the collaborative, top-down/bottom-up approach to working that Scangos envisioned. Yet, its success, says the facility’s lead designer, Micheal Bourque, can ultimately be attributed to the interactive approach through which it was developed. “Ed Dondero initiated a pilot project to test some of our concepts, and we learned that we got a lot wrong,” says Bourque. “It wasn’t an inclusive process for the employees, and it turned out that the layout and major circulation ideas didn’t work for them and that going completely to a desking system was too radical for the Biogen culture.” So they teamed with ARC, a change management division of Steelcase, and undertook in-depth interviews through all levels of the company along with an employee town hall session that enabled employees to participate in the development of the design. “The process became educational for the employees and with the feedback we received on concepts developed through the interactive design process, we were able to move forward full steam ahead,” says Bourque.

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Biogen Research & Development designed by NELSON. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography.

Ultimately, the new headquarters spaces are divvied up between two new facilities—a 200,000 square-foot research and development facility and a 307,000 square-foot office space for general administrative functions, such as human resources, legal, finance, and IT. These are situated in an urban campus context in downtown Cambridge and adjoin two historic buildings that are also part of the headquarters complex and house a community lab and training center. The end results for the new buildings are open-plan office spaces with plenty of natural light for everyone, including the CEO. “We thought we might have 20 percent enclosed space, but instead we wound up with completely open work areas with gestures of boundaries,” says Bourque.

The workspaces are defined with a desking system that was customized for a measure of privacy with 42” high panels. “A modified, more open panel system was definitely preferred,” says Bourque. As a trade-off for so much open space, the designers developed plentiful huddle rooms, a collection of enclosed spaces with as many seats as there are desk seats. “These are unscheduled two- to six-person nooks or team rooms that people can duck into for impromptu meetings,” says Bourque. Each building also contains different shared elements, such as a cafeteria, daycare space, and fitness center, which draw employees housed in one facility to the other and keep people interacting.

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Biogen Research & Development designed by NELSON. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography.

In higher density open spaces, incorporating elements that can absorb sound are critical to maintaining a viable acoustic environment for working. Among the elements that support proper acoustics are a white noise system, fabric-covered panels, and carpet. The choice of carpet tiles from Interface was also critical in physically defining work zones and enabling the space to be adaptable. “Because the space needed to be flexible, we opted to install a 4” raised floor with electrical and data systems running beneath it,” says Bourque. “This allows changes to be made overnight and steered us toward selecting the carpet tile, which is equally flexible, as flooring.”

Even the color scheme of bright blues, greens, and reds, which is evident on walls and many of the carpet tiles, reflects a new kind of energy that now brims throughout the office spaces. The variegated carpet tiles also enabled the designers to flexibly define ever-changing work areas with minimal expense and fuss. “In addition to the huddle rooms, we created what we call ‘cloud areas’ that are easy-to-assemble and easy-to-move 10’x20’ or 20’x20’ enclosed rooms. A concentration of carpet tile in a single color gives employees a cue as to where these spaces are located,” says Bourque. “The fact that the carpets are sustainably manufactured is a bonus,” adds Dondero.

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Biogen Research & Development designed by NELSON. Photography by Halkin Mason Photography.

So what is the upshot of the inclusive design process in the new headquarters of the second largest biotech company in the world? One measure of its success, says Bourque, is that decisions are being more efficiently made in an unscheduled manner, which was reported to the design team in an informal post-occupancy survey and corroborated by the fewer documented bookings of the large conference rooms. Another is the positive reception of the space by employees, says Dondero. “At the start of the process we ran a survey and found that only 10 percent of the employees were in favor of a more open-plan concept,” he says, “after 90 days of occupation, 92 percent were either neutral or favorable toward the new space.”

With such a dramatic culture change, it may come as little surprise that the company is now also experiencing the unprecedented growth its new CEO envisioned.

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