UK workers have adapted to new ways of working, but does that mean that the days of the office and opportunities for the glass sector are numbered? Glass Times talks to Bohle’s Dave Broxton.

It was more than 80 years ago that the architect Frank Lloyd Wright set out his ideas for the open plan office: a place that would literally and metaphorically tear down walls and barriers between people, making the office a more productive place.

His was a vision of space and light, collaboration at work and happy and healthy employees. But open plan didn’t, well, go to plan.

In common with many of the great ideas of the 20th century, the open plan office was seized upon by the corporate machine, not to drive social change and better working practices, but to fit more people in less space.

Even before Covid-19 turned the world on its head, progressive business was turning its back on the open plan model.

A 2018 study by the Royal Society found “pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries…

“Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approximately 70%), with an associated increase in electronic interaction…

“Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and instant messaging.”

Dave Broxton, Bohle MD, said: “There was already a swathe of evidence to suggest that open plan wasn’t working. Productivity in open plan offices has been shown to drop-off, while there has been increased demand for agile shared occupancy spaces.

“Covid-19 has hammered the message home that the office environment needs to change, but there is still significant value (however much we have all embraced Microsoft Teams and Zoom) in face-to-face communication.

“The challenge now is to adapt office spaces to reassure workers and minimise risk.”

Designers, architects and the facilities management industry are mobilising to try to manage this change. Solutions on the table include the creation of the ‘six-foot office’, a virtual division of space around each worker’s desk, and marked on flooring.

Analysts also expect a reversal of the trend that saw the average size of a workplace desk shrink from 1.8m to 1.4m since the 2008 economic crash.

New ventilation systems are being developed, to include more effective air filtration, while single direction ‘traffic’ inside workplaces, to avoid congestion and contact between people in narrow corridors, is expected to become common place.

“The demand for protective sneeze and cough screens is already there,” Dave said, “and glass is being used widely as a way to reduce risk and provide reassurance to workers. We are seeing them now as an immediate fix, but we believe that there will be demand in the longer term as they become part of standard office design.”

Barriers can help prevent disease transmission from physical contact or from large respiratory droplets released when someone sneezes or coughs. While many of Bohle’s pre-existing fittings were suitable for adaptation, it is now offering a dedicated solution in the form of VetroScreen.

Available either as a clamped or free-standing option, VetroScreen was developed by Bohle as a solution to screen-adjacent desks in open-plan offices.

Able to accommodate glass thicknesses of 4mm-10mm, and to a maximum height of 1,000mm, the easy-to-fit system maximises glass pull-through.

A weighted desktop version manufactured in high quality powder coated aluminium and steel provides a solid foundation for glass screens of up to 800mm high.

An alternative clamped system simply slides over the edges of a desk or table and can be tightened with a knurled screw, providing a secure, safe and unobtrusive fix for screens of up to 1,000mm high. There is no requirement to screw into the desk so preventing permanent damage.

“While office design is being developed, VetroScreen is a very flexible solution,” Dave said. “It doesn’t materially impact on desks, there’s no requirement to drill into the desktop as it’s free standing, or simply clamps on.

“That also means that it can be fitted very easily, minimising disruption, while delivering a significant pull-through of glass.”

While the prospect of rocking up at the office may still feel distant, the UK hadn’t pre-Covid-19 embraced home working. In fact, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), only 30% of employees had ever worked from home.

The research, published on March 24 this year, looked by way of comparison at how many people worked from home on a regular or occasional basis previously.

Since 2015, the percentage of people that mainly work from home has slightly increased. During the period of January to December 2019, 5.1% of the UK population mainly worked from home, compared to 4.3% in 2015.

“While home working is going to be much more important going forward, there are very few analysts who believe that we are about to see the end of the office altogether,” Dave said.

“The commute may not appeal but for many, trying to explain to a toddler that they’re on a Zoom call has created its own set of problems.

“Having people in one space (at least from time to time) is seen as far too important in productivity by businesses. We may be heading towards a permanent form of hybrid working but that will continue to include the office space.”

One area where change may be on the horizon is co-habited office space which, with its previous focus on flexible but shared and open spaces with private meeting rooms, had been a growth area for the glass office fit-out sector.

The sector pre-Covid-19 had seen forecasts of significant growth. A report by the property firm Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL) said last year that this new approach will deliver 30% growth annually in demand for more flexible working spaces describing it as “one of the biggest shifts in the property industry”.

“The brakes are now on,” Dave said. “Personally, I’m not sure companies are going to want their employees turning up to shared spaces and hot desks with people they don’t know, and who are operating to a different set of Covid-19 policies and working practices.”

This, he argues, again points to a revised form of the office as a place of work.

“There is too much collaborative value in working together,” Dave said. “It is, however, going to look different. We’re going to need to put more space between people in addition to creating more dedicated workspaces.

Bohle launched FrameTec Select, a variant on its industry leading FrameTec commercial and domestic partitioning system in May 2020. With a more edgy industrial design, it features the same modular and easy-to-fit format, plus sound proofing up to 39db, something that may be a godsend to workers desensitised to working in shared spaces with vocal co-workers.

“Reducing head count in the office on a day-to-day basis through flexible working does not mean we won’t want or need offices altogether, simply that their design must change,” Dave said. “Demand for space that delivers a sense of light and openness remains.

“We now need to balance that with requirement for safe working. Glass is the material to deliver it.”