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Vol. LVIII, No. 10
May 19, 2006

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Beyond an 'Open Door' Policy
CSR Tears Down Its Walls

Last year, the Center for Scientific Review's new director declared an "open door" policy by taking his office door off its hinges and having it removed. Now, in a further effort, he has torn down the walls that separated him from other staff members and created what may be NIH's first full-fledged, wall-less director's office.

The result is an airy, welcoming suite where staffers feel they are working alongside each other and the director as well.

"The goal was to transform a director's 'castle' into an 'agora' — a democratic open space," director Dr. Toni Scarpa says. "It's designed to be an interactive space where everyone feels at home, with easy chairs, a small library area and an espresso machine." A native of Italy, he brought in the specialty coffeemaker to welcome visitors and staff.

"Plus," he adds, "an open office space is cheaper. Walls cost money. Separate vents and mixers for heating and air conditioning in each small office cost a lot."

Scarpa isn't talking about cubicles either — those padded office cells, the bane of Dilbert and his cartoon officemates, where HR Magazine estimates 70 percent of office workers spend their hours.

By contrast, an open-space office is a radical departure embraced initially by business innovators such as Motorola and Progressive Insurance. Open-space management offices are probably found in only about 10 percent of businesses and are even rarer in government.

According to a 2002 report of the National Federation of Independent Business, tearing down the walls eliminates "the psychological distance" between the various levels of a company or organization. "An open-space office brings everyone together," according to the report, enabling managers to make better decisions because they are in touch with day-to-day realities.

"Employees find it easier to approach managers with operational questions [and] are able to learn their jobs quicker and perform them better [while] managers themselves become more involved in the front-line activities."

The NFIB report adds, "Experience has shown that when upper-level management and other employees are sitting in the same general area, less time is spent by employees and managers alike on unproductive activities."

For conversations that may require privacy, the new CSR space provides a small private office for anyone to use.

Beside the wall-less director's suite, other areas in CSR's offices in Rockledge II are being renovated more traditionally to accommodate a staff that outgrew its old offices as the number of grant applications has soared in recent years. Additional space changes are anticipated as electronic grant applications are phased in, with electronic R01 applications now planned for Feb. 1, 2007. Space now necessary to store multi-page applications will be converted to other uses or eliminated.

"Our wall-less offices, along with new Explorer staff awards for innovation and a new communications plan that encourages feedback and teamwork are efforts to revitalize and make more efficient the 60-year-old system of independent peer review we provide for NIH," said Scarpa. "As stewards and managers of peer review," he continued, "we at CSR should be open to new ideas that will help us give the best service to the people we serve — NIH, grant applicants and the public."

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