Shelby Bryant admits she wasn't thrilled to learn she would be one of the guinea pigs testing a new open office environment for pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline near Raleigh, N.C.
An administrative assistant in Research Triangle Park, Bryant, 39, went from having a desk outside her boss's office to having no assigned desk or phone.
Instead of personalizing her workspace with family photos and funny cartoons, she was expected to leave her work area each day the same way she found it: pristine.
"It was a big adjustment," said Bryant, who has worked for the drug maker for 18 years. "There were a lot of distractions, and it was hard to stay focused."
But the new setup had its advantages. The lack of offices increased collaboration among colleagues, cutting down decision-making time. E-mail traffic was reduced, as was the time she spent on the phone.
GSK, which already has open workspaces in London, is at the forefront of a movement with enormous consequences for employers, workers and the real estate industry.
"What you've seen over the course of four decades now has been a transformation in the way the office is approached," said Matt Dorsey, local sales representative for furniture maker Herman Miller.
Office and cubicle sizes have been shrinking and are being replaced by fewer walls and collaborative spaces that many employees can share.
The economic downturn has accelerated this trend, as real estate is typically a company's second-largest expense behind payroll.
"There's pressure to reduce cost" and to improve productivity, Dorsey said.
Moving to an open office environment doesn't make sense for all companies, and making the shift requires forethought.
GSK has been studying the way its employees worked for the past decade. The company discovered that its office buildings were underutilized and had become relics of a hierarchical work environment that was stifling innovation.
GSK, which employs 4,000 people in Research Triangle Park, is converting two buildings to open-office floor plans that will accommodate nearly twice the number of employees in the same square footage.
The overhaul is enabling the company to vacate 10 other buildings, saving millions in annual operating costs.
Open office environments are widespread in Europe, but are relatively rare in the Triangle.
"It's been slower to take hold here in this market just because it hasn't really been a progressive design market," said Dan Thomson, a broker with the commercial real estate firm Cassidy Turley. "But you'll see some of the larger and more, I guess, creative companies looking to different ways to do it."
Many companies view open-office environments as a tool for recruiting younger workers who may chafe in a place with few opportunities to interact. "You want that young talent that's currently in the marketplace or entering college," Dorsey said.
About 1,500 of GSK's Triangle-area employees will move into its new open-space floor plans. For the past 10 months, the company has been testing out furniture and layouts in a section of a building that it will eventually vacate.
To reach the open office laboratory, visitors must pass through a deserted landscape of dreary, high-walled cubicles that serves as a reminder of what GSK is leaving behind.
Bryant, the administrative assistant, is among about 40 people in the company's Worldwide Real Estate and Facilities division who have already made the switch. The larger move ultimately will include an extensive education campaign to prepare employees for their new surroundings.
Employees will work in neighborhoods, each of which includes meeting rooms and quiet areas. They'll attend etiquette workshops, and each neighborhood will adopt a set of policies to deal with hypothetical situations that may come up.
The groups that are moving to the new layout are those whose managers embraced the change. Bryant now sits at a desk directly across from her boss, David Bishop, GSK's director of site operations in RTP.
Bishop said as the move gets closer, more and more departments are expressing interest in unchaining themselves from their desk.
"I don't believe we will ever get to where everybody wants it," he said.