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Biogen’s new offices look to break down barriers

Company hopes its new Cambridge complex, devoid of cubicles, will foster a culture where employees can talk, meet informally

Featured in the new Biogen Idec buildings will be huddle rooms that officials hope will encourage unplanned meetings.

JESSICA RINALDI FOR THE GLOBE

Featured in the new Biogen Idec buildings will be huddle rooms that officials hope will encourage unplanned meetings.

CAMBRIDGE — Can office architecture drive corporate culture?

Biogen Idec Inc., the largest biotechnology company based in Massachusetts, is about to find out.

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Starting this week, about 300 employees are moving from older offices on the company’s Kendall Square research and manufacturing campus to the first of two new buildings opening this year. Building 9, as the six-story, 190,000-square-foot complex is called, will house drug development operations, including a preclinical group managing toxicology studies, a regulatory group responsible for government filings, and data managers who track clinical trials.

The“open space” design is a radical departure from operations elsewhere at Biogen Idec and other biotechs. The organizational structure of those traditional hierarchies is mirrored in the architecture, where executive offices are lined up along the windows, while rank-and-file employees are clustered in cubicles in the center of floors.

Building 9 has no private offices, just individually designed workstations called “I spaces” and common “huddle rooms” for private phone calls or spontaneous meetings. Each floor has two “walk stations” where employees can work while walking on treadmills. The company has scrapped telephone landlines for Building 9 employees, who are issued laptops and headsets.

“This whole idea of no offices is a little controversial,” admitted chief executive George Scangos. “It’s a new way of working. The idea is to foster more collaboration. People can talk to each other now. A lot of ideas can come out of these informal discussions.”

The company runs a commuter bus with Wi-Fi and charging spots.

JESSICA RINALDI FOR THE GLOBE

The company runs a commuter bus with Wi-Fi and charging spots.

Scangos and other executives are set to abandon their own offices in November, when they move into Building 1, a 305,000-square-foot structure being constructed on the site of the original Biogen building that opened in the late 1970s. That will mark the official return of the company’s headquarters to Cambridge, just three years after an ill-fated experiment — initiated by Scangos’s predecessor James Mullen — that moved the executive team to a palatial suburban setting off Route 128 in Weston.

“We’ve had a lot of success in the past couple of years,” Scangos said. “It’s important that we don’t feel complacent. Sitting out in Weston in our big offices in a fancy building is not the kind of culture we should have. Everybody’s here doing a job. We need to be talking to each other.”

The most important benefit of the move for Scangos will be reuniting the corporate team with the research and manufacturing that are at the heart of Biogen Idec. The company is a leading maker of multiple sclerosis drugs and is also developing treatments for hemophilia and other diseases. The drug development team’s move into Building 9 will free up space to build additional labs.

Biogen Idec, which now has about 2,000 workers on its Cambridge campus, expects to have about 2,800 by the end of the year when executives move back from Weston. Because the company has grown so rapidly over the past year with the rollout of its MS pill Tecfidera, some workers won’t be able to make the move. About 300 — those in the US commercial organization and some information technology workers — will stay in Weston.

Even before the corporate team returns, Biogen Idec is beginning to introduce new amenities in Cambridge. This week, a commuter bus called the “Biogen Idec Coach” — equipped with Wi-Fi, coffee, and charging stations for cellphones and computers — began shuttling employees here from the Worcester and Framingham areas. The company is planning to add other bus routes originating elsewhere in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The “open space” design is a radical departure from operations elsewhere at Biogen Idec and other biotechs.

JESSICA RINALDI FOR THE GLOBE

The “open space” design is a radical departure from operations elsewhere at Biogen Idec and other biotechs.

In September, it plans to open an 8,000-square-foot day-care center and playground for up to 124 children of employees.

In Building 9, there will also be a ground-floor fitness center, open to all employees of the Cambridge campus, including showers and an aerobics room for yoga and spin classes.

The building architecture is considered a blueprint not only for Building 1, the corporate headquarters, but also for eventual renovations at existing Biogen Idec sites.

“The major difference between this building and everything we’ve done before is that employees were involved in the design and in picking the furniture,” said Ed Dondero, Biogen Idec’s director of real estate and planning. That includes not only their individual workstations but also the huddle rooms, some of which have writeable walls and only a few of which can be reserved in advance. The idea is to encourage unplanned meetings that can accelerate innovations and decision-making.

“Maybe the decision that was going to get made next week at a scheduled meeting gets made today,” Dondero said.

Sections of each floor also have raised floors and ceiling “clouds” with light fixtures that can be lowered, enabling Biogen Idec to quickly assemble “pop-up rooms” for teams to work on short- or medium-term projects.

One such room houses a “Manhattan project” for a team seeking to jump-start new approaches to fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“We need a group to brainstorm this for a couple of years,” said Douglas A. Kerr, medical director of neurology, who is heading the group. “We want to put our heads together and innovate more rapidly. If the architecture can help us do that, that’s great.”

But will some Biogen Idec recruits be pining for their own private offices?

“There may be some people who say, ‘I don’t want this, I want an office,’ ” Scangos acknowledged. After pausing, he said quietly, “Then they don’t come here.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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