Reinventing the Office with Glass Partitions

Glass ManifestationFor most of history, the office has been a pretty dull place.  The origins of the office go back to the Renaissance period, when the merchant’s counting house was the centre of all business transactions and when new forms of accounting and finance were emerging.  The industrialisation of the 19th century led to a constant growth in administrative work, scribes and copyists dominated the scene, carrying out their work with pen and ink.  Central typing pools appeared in the 1920s and, by the 1950s, modern office equipment like dictating machines and reproducing equipment was becoming more widespread.  But all of these workplaces were characterised by one thing: the need for everyday office activities to be carried out with an air of correctness and discipline.  Work was not fun, it was to be taken seriously, and was to be carried out, preferably, in gloomy wood-panelled rooms straight out of Charles Dickens novels or at banks of grey desks lit by flickering strip lighting.

But times have changed.  Office interior design has moved on.  The wood-panelling has been replaced by glass partitioning, the gloom replaced by smart LEDs and fluorescents and pen and ink by computer screens and photocopiers.  The office is now a nicer place to spend your days, a more comfortable place and, in some places, it can actually be fun.

Yes, offices are now allowed to be fun places.  Companies, particularly those in the creative and IT industries, are ploughing both money and energy into designing offices that are less like offices and more like playgrounds for grown-ups, in the hope it will make employees more creative and more productive.  The trend started in the US, with basketball hoops and jellybean machines, as it was believed that having an open, fun environment would spark conversations and collaborations, encourage people to be playful so that they will, ultimately, generate newer and greater ideas.  Indeed, research at the University of Exeter has shown that enriched work environments can improve productivity by 15%, rising to 30% where employees are given a say in the design of their workspace.

Whilst even the most sensible of modern offices are sleek, well designed affairs, with glass partitions, ergonomically-designed chairs, breakout areas and lots of potted plants, some companies have taken the concept of a “fun” office to a new level.  One company’s offices has a wooden treehouse and gingerbread house as meeting rooms, a colouring-in wall and hobbit holes as quiet areas, another has a giant red Buddha, a VW camper van and a life-sized plastic llama.

Most of us still spend every day in a traditional workplace, a pleasant if fairly formal space with glass-partitioned cellular offices.  But, as you sit at your desk and gaze out through that glass partition just remind yourself that, one day, you too could slide down to Accounts, have meetings in tropical jungle huts and take telephone calls sat on beanbags.  Although, probably, all you really want is a new coffee machine and a couple of biscuits to get you through the afternoon, right?