Nuclear family seeks ideal home

BNFL's new facility will mix and match, in the spirit of greater co-operation
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The Independent Online
Earlier this month, British Nuclear Fuels declared open its new Springfields research centre near Preston. Yet the general manager of research and technology, Peter Bleasdale, says it is already obsolete.

The building was conceived as recently as the beginning of the 1990s. But the company has already learned that it takes more than a physical redesign to persuade people to work together in more constructive ways.

Although it abolishes some of the class consciousness, it does not go far enough. Despite the intention to break down barriers between researchers and managers, the latter still strive to preserve their territory and rank.

Which is why BNFL's next big facility, the Nuclear Technology Centre at Sellafield, will have no private offices. As important, training is already under way to ensure that personnel will understand and welcome their new environment by the time it is ready for occupation at the turn of the millennium.

BNFL's earliest laboratories were built to a standard post-war government design with cellular laboratories located off corridors. The laboratories become "owned" by the teams of scientists in them. Teams would disappear into their labs and emerge at the end of the day possibly not having spoken to anybody other than the team. There was no space for research managers, who were given offices on another floor. With its role in Britain's post-war effort to assemble a credible nuclear defence, security was a priority, and the consequence of this was that interaction between research teams was actively discouraged.

"Facilities like this will hold us back if we continue to use them," says Dr Bleasdale. "People become territorial. It is the embodiment of the Upstairs, Downstairs culture, and the stairs are a real barrier, providing a significant disincentive for managers and experimentalists to get together."

The unsuitability of this environment prompted the move to Springfields. Here, research managers were relocated into offices at the ends of the laboratories. "At least the managers now have to walk past their teams to get to their offices - and that was a great shock to a lot of them!"

But these offices became the focus of competition. Senior management wanted large offices in order to impress visitors. The rest fought for the best location, the best views, and even for different offices according to the position of the building's columns against the window. "The unexpected things that crop up when you give people differentiators are incredible," Dr Bleasdale comments.

The intention had been that managers would have more frequent contact with laboratory scientists. The design may have got rid of the physical barriers, but it did nothing to remove the psychological barriers.

So, for this third-generation research facility, BNFL has chosen to abandon offices entirely, and is preparing people's attitudes for the change. Laid out by specialist planners of research environments, David Leon Partnership, the new building will be light and airy. Quiet rooms will be available for customer or personnel meetings requiring privacy, but any attempt to colonise these on a more permanent basis will be resisted.

In preparation for the change, the company has adopted a flatter management structure. It has appointed a facilities manager and also people to manage the team-building and other personnel issues associated with the coming transition. This leaves the technologists free to carry on their proper work with minimum disruption. Dr Bleasdale believes it will take three years to achieve the sustained cultural change - the time until the new building is readyn