7 human-centric design principles to improve the life science workplace

7 human-centric design principles to improve the life science workplace

Whether you’re leasing a lab space or building an all-new drug manufacturing facility, you’ll see a greater return on your capital investment when you deliver a workplace that fits the needs of your employees. That’s the principle behind human-centric workplace design, and it’s the key to a more resilient, flexible, and productive life science facility.

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Historically, life science employees have had to fit the workplace they’re given. This was the natural outcome of an industry characterized by strictly controlled norms and design practices. A cleanroom, for example, is designed to eliminate contamination risks and protect the stability of sensitive materials. The needs of those working inside the cleanroom are important, but they come second to the greater need for product safety and quality.

The problem is that life science companies often apply this mindset far beyond the cleanroom, operating under the belief that de-prioritizing people in all areas of the facility is required to protect the product. You can see this playing out in the traditional laboratory settings, rigid organizational structures, fixed working hours, limited remote work opportunities, and team collaboration requirements typical in many life science organizations.

Today’s life science manufacturers are beginning to realize the potential cost of these inflexible ideas. Many are looking for an alternative workplace design model—one that sees the life science workforce as a bolster for better product quality, rather than a hindrance. This shift has brought the life science industry to the threshold of human-centric design, a concept already well-established in other sectors as the key to greater productivity, creativity, and employee loyalty.

The human-centric life science workplace

The concept of a “human-centric workplace” has evolved beyond the stereotypical foosball tables and luxury furniture of Silicon Valley tech giants. As company leaders from various sectors grapple with post-pandemic conversations about remote work, return-to-office mandates, and the challenge of building strong and cohesive organizations in a hybrid world, a new consensus is gradually emerging. The bottom line: human-centric design is about more than flashy aesthetics. It’s about catering to employees through flexible, supportive and needs-based environments and policies, whether at the physical workplace or elsewhere.

according to Gartner, Inc.
Source: 2021 Gartner Hybrid Work Employee Survey

This expansive view of human-centric design is the pathway to real and well-documented value for both employees and employers. According to Gartner, Inc., for example, a workplace designed with a human-centric approach can positively impact employees’ fatigue, intent to stay, and overall performance.

If you’re a life science leader, how should you approach this concept? After all, you’re already facing a complex regulatory environment, a fiercely competitive labor market, and pressure to meet your speed-to-market targets. With these challenges bearing down, how can you afford to invest your time and effort on human-centric workplace planning?

The truth is, you can’t afford not to.

In the life science industry, human-centric design is not a luxury​​—it’s an imperative that’s quickly differentiating the R&D companies and drug manufacturers who attract the best workers, solve the hardest problems, and impact the most patients. By designing your life science workplace to meet the needs of your employees, you’re laying the foundation to:

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Improve organizational resilience
Design a workplace for greater flexibility, agility, and collaboration​​—key components of a workforce that’s able to move at the speed of science and stay ahead of shifts in the global marketplace.

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Build (and keep) a talented workforce
If you don’t offer a workplace designed to meet your employees’ needs, someone else will. But human-centric design isn’t only about outdoing the competition. It’s about fostering a culture of innovation and trust, which will help you retain talented employees who could choose to work anywhere.

Get high-quality therapies to market sooner
Establish an environment that incentivizes employees to bring their best selves to work. That means proactively offering them the tools, the space, and the opportunities they need to make a meaningful contribution to your company’s higher purpose​​—and to help you get solutions to the patients who need them.

Walk the walk of health and well-being
As a life science innovator, you’re in the business of understanding complex health challenges and helping people live longer, more enjoyable lives. So why wouldn’t you start by investing in your own employees’ wellness? Popular initiatives like the International Well Building Institute’s WELL Certification program provide a roadmap to get there. Human-centric workplace design provides the vehicle.

What does it take for life science leaders to unlock these benefits? To answer that, let’s consider your facility as a hybrid space​​—not just in the home/office sense that’s familiar to every industry, but in terms that are unique to the life science industry: the duality of operating both technical and non-technical spaces in the same building, of protecting both your workers and the products they oversee, and of nurturing both today’s employees and the workforce you’ll depend on in the future.

A hybrid workplace strategy puts humans at the center of labs, manufacturing areas, and office spaces

Life science organizations face a particular challenge when it comes to applying human-centric design: in addition to the office spaces, conference rooms, and amenities common to any large workplace, they also have research laboratories or GMP manufacturing areas to consider. While scientists may work remotely when focusing on paperwork or documentation, the scientific activities they undertake in these regulated technical spaces can’t happen anywhere else​​—certainly not in a home office.

In a way, this makes human-centric design that much more critical. There will be humans in your facility no matter what​​, and those humans need to know they matter. Here’s how to make that happen in these unique environments.

1. Establish a culture of transparency—literally.

Ten years ago, labs and cleanrooms were often far removed from the gaze of a building’s general population. That changed over the last decade as organizations embraced the concept of putting both the life and the science of a life science facility on display.

Today, human-centric design teams are finding all-new ways to bridge the divide between technical and non-technical spaces. Often, they achieve this goal by leveraging design strategies such as glass walls, diverse lighting environments and comfortable transition spaces to meet the goals of a well-planned workplace strategy. The result is a purpose-built environment that unlocks important benefits for all stakeholders within the life science industry:

For regulators, this approach has the potential to simplify and accelerate the inspection process in certain scenarios by eliminating the need for gowning and other time-consuming risk-management protocols.

For life science organizations, transparency between technical and non-technical spaces allows for non-invasive supervision, training, and security activities while protecting ongoing research and manufacturing activities from exposure to contaminants.

For people inside the lab or manufacturing space, this approach takes a workplace that’s traditionally siloed away and repositions it as an essential and integrated part of the whole community, signaling to technical workers that their work is valued and supported across the organization. In practical ways, this approach can also improve wellness for technical workers, who may gain access to natural light while working long shifts, for example (a key concept of WELL Certification).

For people outside the lab or manufacturing space, visibility into the scientific process can help to deepen their connection with the company’s overall purpose and take pride in its achievements.

Applying this design approach does require extensive understanding of the environmental controls that protect products in development, particularly where modalities which may be sensitive to UV exposure are concerned (such as cell and gene therapies). Keeping crucial intellectual property secure is also a consideration. By using glazing to filter UV light or enhance privacy, an experienced life science design team can solve each of these challenges while preserving the benefits of transparency and enhanced sightlines for all employees.

Case Study: Designing for Transparency

macrogenics lobby

The client: Biopharmaceutical manufacturer MacroGenics

The project: Our team partnered with MacroGenics to convert a 122,000-square-foot non-manufacturing building into a cutting-edge CGMP facility in Rockville, Maryland.

The challenge:

  • A small footprint: After reserving space for administrative and R&D activities, we faced the challenge of fitting five 2,000 L bioreactors and other production equipment into just 13,500 square feet of cleanroom space—that’s several times smaller than typically expected in a traditional facility.
  • A battle for labor: Maryland’s biotech hub is home to a highly skilled workforce—but to tap into that resource, MacroGenics needed a facility that could compete with the very best biomanufacturing employers.

The human-centric workplace solution: We worked with MacroGenics to build efficiency into every square inch of cleanroom space, and we surrounded that cleanroom with glass walls. This design approach accomplished several objectives:

  • Less traffic: By allowing the engineering team, process architects, and other stakeholders to observe regulated spaces without gowning up and going inside, these glass walls mean less traffic—and therefore less under-utilized space—inside the manufacturing core.
  • More light: People working inside the cleanroom benefit from a better quality of light, and they are more connected to non-production teammates.
  • Increased visibility: Because the manufacturing core is visible from the facility’s lobby, everyone from staff members to visiting school groups benefits from the modern, open feeling of a building premised on transparency and innovation.

Take a deeper dive into the MacroGenics project.

2. Rethink your allocation of space.

Design your facility’s key spaces for the way people use them, rather than expecting people to use spaces the way they’re designed​. That principle is at the heart of the human-centric workplace, and it has big implications when it comes to how life science manufacturers divide and designate their facility’s footprint.

Take your FTE (full-time equivalent) per workstation ratio, for example. Historically, most life science companies have maintained a ratio of 1.0​​—that is, one workstation per employee. From an office-centric perspective, that’s a rational calculation. But when you consider how your employees will actually use their workstations, you may uncover previously untapped opportunities to conserve space while meeting the needs of your end users.

Consider, for example, employees who move from the lab to an office desk to a training room throughout their day. Should their dedicated workstation sit idle when they move from place to place? And what about the rising number of employees working from home, if the nature of their job allows for it? Should they also have a dedicated workstation, despite using it only part-time?

Anyone who has collaborated with real estate developers to locate a new life science facility knows the answer to this question. Given the cost of commercial real estate, it’s vitally important to optimize your space down to every last square inch. If you maintain a traditional ratio of one workstation per employee, you could be leaving precious real estate on the table, unused yet costing you a significant amount to maintain.

To avoid this fate, consider a workplace planning strategy that takes advantage of unassigned or shared seating, helping you generate more value from every workstation while providing employees with an environment truly designed for the way they want to work: with maximum flexibility, mobility, and collaboration. Already, an overall push for flexibility is changing the way life science engineers future-proof their regulated spaces. Applying that vision more holistically across the workplace could generate more value and help your employees feel free to work the way they work best.

Case Study: Unassigned Seating for Optimized Value

The client: BioLabs, a national shared lab and office space company

The project: We partnered with BioLabs to convert a warehouse into a state-of-the-art coworking lab facility.

The challenge: To integrate well into their chosen location—a North Texas biotech hub known as Pegasus Park—BioLabs needed a design that would harmonize aesthetically with the overall campus while attracting a versatile clientele of innovative, small-scale biotech trailblazers.

The human-centric workplace solution: We designed the co-working lab space with adaptability and collaboration in mind, applying the principle of unassigned workspaces to ensure maximum utilization and ongoing, reliable access for members.

Learn more about the design strategy behind BioLabs’ co-working space for life science innovators.

The hybrid ecosystem: how protecting your people helps protect your product

Life science manufacturing typically follows a linear process: raw materials become a finished product through a series of sequential unit operations. It’s natural that a facility’s design would reflect this by “using” employees to support and accelerate that product’s movement along its pathway, from start to finish.

There’s a consequence to this product-first design approach, though: it can create a “cog in the machine” feeling among employees, especially those who are alienated at the far reaches of the process with little access to facility amenities, such as warehouse staff. This is the antithesis of human-centric design, and could damage the commitment and resilience of your workforce. Here are two ways to address this issue.

3. Equalize your employees’ access to amenities.

In a typical high-tech office, what’s to stop any employee from enjoying a break in the wellness room or joining a game of table tennis? That privilege is often less well distributed in a life science facility, where some employees face restricted movement because of their responsibilities inside regulated spaces.

A design team with experience in life science environments can find creative solutions that invite even those working deep inside highly segregated cleanroom areas to benefit from employee amenities in ways that are safe for the product, for the people making it, and for the patients who will eventually rely on its quality and purity.

Amenity hubs are one potential solution, giving employees within a certain restricted area controlled access to their own high-quality amenities. The right solution for your particular facility will depend on the regulations guiding its design, but here’s the point: while not everyone may have access to the same amenities, with good workplace planning and a proactive approach you may be able to give nearly everyone access to different amenities of the same quality.

Another factor to consider is the intangible value of supporting a strong employee culture by ensuring that people working in different functional areas have a dedicated space to meet among themselves. As workplace design increasingly embraces the democratization of spaces in order to give executives, front-line staff, and everyone in between an opportunity to share ideas and find common ground (often literally), providing a private break area where your warehouse staff can let off steam, or your administrators can gather to debrief, will go a long way towards further deepening the social ties and loyalties that hold your overall workforce together.

4. Innovate, celebrate, and bring your purpose to life.

When innovation is a goal established in the C-suite and pushed down to employees, it often moves slowly​​—if it goes anywhere at all. But when it’s a principle that’s baked into the design of your facility, it becomes a way of life (and a beacon for potential recruits).

That could mean setting aside areas specifically designed for experimentation, collaboration, and creative ideation, or it could be as simple as installing a high-profile display that celebrates recent employee-driven solutions and discoveries. The point is to demonstrate, through design, that innovation isn’t just a buzzword for your organization​​—it’s a pursuit worth planning for, investing in, and celebrating.

Celebration is also the key to helping employees conceptualize the link between what they do every day and why they do it. Unlike other industries, every employee inside a life science facility could directly or indirectly impact the lives of patients and their families​​. Making that impact real for employees is part of humanizing not just the work that they do, but the environment in which they do it.

For some life science organizations, that means installing an artful expression of patient stories throughout the facility, or designing a gathering space to host patient-focused events and speaking engagements. Some organizations also choose to display particularly impactful products for public viewing, giving both employees and visitors the opportunity to get “up close” to historic scientific achievements.

By finding opportunities like these to celebrate both your employees’ innovations and the impact they have on patients and families, you’re laying the groundwork for a workforce of ultra-committed, highly motivated problem-solvers all pulling together towards the same shared vision of success.

Case Study: Celebrate the Science

The client: Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical, a developer of novel therapies for treating rare and ultra-rare diseases

The project: We collaborated with Ultragenyx to design their first CGMP gene therapy manufacturing facility in Bedford, Massachusetts.

The challenge: As their first commercial-sale manufacturing facility, it was important that we capture and amplify the Ultragenyx culture of courage, talent, and dedication through careful workplace design.

The human-centric workplace solution: The completed facility features several features designed to inspire and celebrate the Ultragenyx culture, some large and others more subtle.

  • Design elements throughout the building invite employees to learn about and celebrate the science that drives the facility forward.
  • A double-height lobby gives those entering the facility a sense of calm and spaciousness—this is a place where big ideas have room to incubate.
  • A comfortable amenity cafe vertically connects the facility, inviting employees to take time out of their day to reflect, commiserate, and recharge.
  • Non-regulated areas of the building feature distinct “neighborhoods” designed for multi-function collaboration, meeting, and conferencing.

Explore the new Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical facility in more detail.

5. Leverage activity-based design as a pathway to wellness.

Humans need to move. And they need to move often, and in different ways, in order to stay alert, avoid ergonomic injuries, and maintain good overall health. In fact, movement is one of the ten concepts underpinning the popular WELL Certification program, which cites evidence that reducing physical inactivity by just 10% could avert more than a half a million deaths worldwide.

Designing environments that encourage healthy and frequent movement is an important part of this wellness paradigm. That may mean rethinking how employees move between floors, for example. Rather than installing elevators in a central location and relegating egress stairs to a remote corner, consider incorporating an attractive staircase as a central design feature in your lobby, with open amenity spaces designed around it. Think through the environment outside of your building too, where possible. Well-designed landscaping, featuring walkways and areas for outdoor activities, can also contribute to a holistic approach to employee movement and overall wellness.

The hybrid workforce: anticipating tomorrow’s human-centric needs today

Attracting a diverse and talented workforce today and long into the future means anticipating what different people within that workforce may need to feel comfortable, safe, and well-prepared to meet their responsibilities.

6. Design for a diverse workforce.

Lactation rooms for breastfeeding parents have become a popular feature of many well-designed facilities and an important concept of WELL Certification (they’re also mandated by law in many locations). But what happens when an employee needs a quiet room in which to pray at regular intervals, and the lactation room is their only option? That’s not an ideal situation for that employee, and certainly not for the parent who needs to maintain a regular pumping schedule.

The fact is, as your workforce grows, the opportunity to design a universal workplace grows with it​​—that is, a workplace that’s as inclusive as possible of every person who works there. To keep your employees, you need to keep up.

Universal design considerations may include:

  • Accommodations for neurodivergent workers, such as dedicated quiet zones or sensory rooms.
  • All-gender restrooms and gowning areas.
  • Multifaith prayer rooms designed to meet the spiritual needs of all employees.
  • Finishes designed to complement all skin tones (paint colors, lighting, etc.).

7. Invest in people who are not (yet) part of your workforce.

Designing a workplace to meet diverse needs is good for employees. Designing it to support and nourish a pipeline of potential employees? That’s good for business​​—and it can connect your organization within the local community in ways that benefit people both inside and outside of your building. The way to unlock those benefits is through education.

Perhaps you have a partnership with an adjacent higher education institution, and your facility needs to include shared training areas that recreate the manufacturing process. Or perhaps you plan to invite young STEM learners to tour your facility, meet with scientists, and experience “life at the research bench” in some way. Initiatives like these take advanced planning and smart, human-centric design to go from “good idea” to “impactful experience”—but the potential payoff, for your workforce and the patients who will rely on your therapies in the future, is huge.

Case Study: Invest In the Future of Your Workforce​​—and Your Industry

The client: Amicus Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company focused on rare diseases

The project: We worked with Amicus to consolidate their five research departments into a harmonized space on the top two floors of a 14-storey tower in Philadelphia.

The challenge: CEO John Crowley founded Amicus to save the lives of those facing rare diseases—including those of his own two children, who were born with Pompe disease and not expected to live past eight years of age. The Amicus facility needed to reflect this heart-driven mission by inspiring researchers and welcoming visitors, including those who may be impacted by the scientific discovery underway inside these walls.

The human-centric workplace solution: We focused on designing a cohesive, cutting-edge space that would attract the brightest minds and drive groundbreaking solutions. The final facility includes features such as:

  • Windows on all sides, bringing natural light into lab spaces and putting life-saving science on display.
  • Clean finishes and inviting furniture to encourage collaboration and deep thinking.
  • Greenery to bring the outside in and connect employees with the natural environment.
  • Careful architectural design to hide mechanical elements, creating a cleaner all-around appearance.

Take a closer look at the Amicus Therapeutics center of excellence.

The bottom line: when people come first, productivity follows

None of these seven principles is a magic bullet. Establishing your own human-centric life science facility will take time, expertise, and a unique combination of solutions and creative applications suitable for your workforce, your business goals, and the purpose driving your business.

But you don’t have to navigate that journey alone. When you’re ready to start, reach out to our team of specialists, who can bring decades of experience designing human-centric life science facilities to your next project.

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