The Scientific Method at Work: Designing Labs for Productivity

Not all labs are created equal. Why do some research facilities produce more patents?

By Dave Miller March 22, 2019

Not all labs are created equal. Why do some research facilities produce more patents? Others have greater throughput given the same space and time. Using evidence-based research, designers and lab owners/operators alike can enjoy the benefits of laboratories built to champion productivity.

Here’s a list of the Top 10 design strategies for 21st century lab productivity:

1.      Bring the outdoors in. Most everyone likes nice views at work, and they also affect the bottom line. Views to the outdoors, particularly long views, positively impact well-being and attentional focus.1Staying focused for longer periods of time certainly allows for greater production, but outdoor views have health-related benefits as well. When the eyes can refocus to different distances, the dilating muscles are exercised. Fewer cases of eye strain and nearsightedness were found when views were available to occupants.

2.      Add some color. Retailers know that colors affect mood and emotions. Fast-food restaurants usually have sharp, vivid colors, whereas clothing stores and other places where lingering is encouraged typically have cooler colors. Sharp, vivid reds enhance energy while yellows help people feel clearheaded and alert.2 Bright colors, such as reds, blues and greens, enable higher focus and task accuracy. Cool colors, such as blues and greens promote calm and creative thinking. The right frame of mind for focus allows for greater productivity.

3.      Improve posture. Ever wake up with a stiff neck or wonder why height-adjustable standing desks are so popular? Better check your ergonomics. Good posture, less exertion and fewer motions to complete a task lead to greater productivity.3 Being able to work longer before fatigue sets in and being able to position the workstation for easy access to instrumentation and tools saves time and effort. Using adjustable chairs, benches, sit-to-stand desks and other ergonomically beneficial furniture and fixtures improves posture and ergonomics.4

4.      Optimize work lighting. One-third of U.S. employees experience downtime due to headaches and eye strain. In the lab, ambient lighting is often insufficient for work at the bench. Beyond proper brightness, task lighting can also provide other important lab features, such as proper color rendering, temperature, directionality and diffusion.5

5.      Let the sun shine. Like proper indoor lighting, research has shown that daylight has its benefits. It helps regulate circadian rhythms, which improves health and productivity in several ways. Employees with views to natural light experienced a reduction in absenteeism and an increase in productivity, job satisfaction, work involvement and organizational attachment.1

6.      Remove the bottlenecks. As laboratories go through changes and expansions over time, adjacencies, layouts and headcounts typically depart from the ideal. Even new lab owners/operators need to consider space constraints, equipment utilization, collaboration, safety, sequence and the variability and uncertainty that comes with lab environments. CRB has developed workflow centric lab design that employs operational improvement principles to eliminate bottlenecks. Using tools and techniques, such as simulations, cluster analyses, spaghetti mapping and artificial intelligence, a corporate laboratory in the Midwest saw an improvement in utilization by nearly 30 percent.8

7.      Limit distractions. The two most commonly cited distractions are excessive noise and visual interruptions.6 The biggest culprit? Large, open work areas. When work requires concentration, disruptions can require up to 20 minutes for personnel to reorient. Beyond issuing headphones to laboratory staff, some quick fixes have included introducing pink noise into the environment and creating quiet zones.

8.      Design for proximity. While large, open labs can cause distractions, research confirms that some proximity, up to 35 feet, has a positive impact on collaboration among researchers.9 Moreover, it helps if the researchers are on the same floor, which illustrates that passive contacts, or chance “collisions,” outside of the lab are where collaborations begin. 10 Thus, a mixture of open and closed spaces provides the optimal environment for researchers with differing needs and personalities to do their most productive work.11

9.      Remember the four C’s. If collaboration does, in fact, begin outside the lab, more attention should be placed on designing for the four Cs: collision, connection, comfort and coffee. “Collision” spots, the places along circulation routes and public areas where occupants cross paths, are being taken advantage of by intentionally making them attractive for serendipitous encounters. Creativity increases where chance encounters are more likely to take place.12 These small nooks and other gathering spots encourage face-to-face interaction and sharing by featuring connection (Wi-Fi), comfortable seating, coffee and other amenities.

10.  Mix the disciplines. Finally, there is a relationship between interdisciplinary research and the probability for discovery. When research is a collaboration of different scientific fields, the number of citations increases significantly.13 The implications are changing the direction of research funding and lab design. Arizona State University is seeing great success with its new model of interdisciplinary research. The program funds two multi-unit, faculty-led teams. Each team must consist of three faculty members from two or more different campus units to form a collaborative trio or “cube.” For the past two years, ASU has been named the “most innovative school in the U.S.” 14

Research departments can be de-siloed by taking a cue from one of the most successful interdisciplinary buildings in history: Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Building 20. According to a researcher at the institute, Noam Chomsky, “There was a mixture of people [from] separate departments…The space also forced solitary scientists to mix and mingle…The building’s horizontal layout also spurred interaction.”15

Can design influence productivity in the lab? Yes, it certainly can. By creating places where people can and want to spend time and enabling the connections that improve discovery, laboratories will operate at optimal productivity.

This article originally appeared on CRB’s blog. CRB is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: Dave Miller represents CRB’s Science & Technology Group throughout the Midwest Region.