Collaborating in private – the open-plan office of tomorrow

Julian Sargent, group managing director of partitioning expert Style, considers the need to balance collaborative working with privacy

Designed with the aim of improving productivity by developing a collaborative culture, the modern, open plan office has largely become the norm. However, a recent Gallup report on the state of the global workplace found only 11% of employees are engaged and inspired at work, with 63% being unmotivated and unlikely to invest effort in organisational goals or outcomes. The report goes on to show that privacy is often under-valued and the drive for collaboration needs to be balanced with space for quiet, solo endeavour. Providing options to ensure all employees have an appropriate setting that is conducive to maximising their output, at any point in time, is a very tall order.

In addition, today’s millennials have high expectations for their work environment and a grey cubicle and staff canteen is unlikely to attract the bright young talent that you want. As the boundaries between work and personal life become ever more blurred, employees expect varied workspaces, vibrant interior design, creative lighting, comfy areas for eating and socialising with colleagues, as well as places where they can work in peace when required. In these competitive times, attracting the right employees in the first place means offering a more exciting, fluid working environment.

Certainly, participating in meetings, informal conversations, brainstorming sessions and working in adaptable groups, have all been shown to lead to greater creativity and innovation, resulting in increased productivity. However, different individuals will be most productive in different environments on different days, depending on their mood and the task in hand. There is no one definitive solution to office design and flexibility is key, as the recent transformation of the London offices of global leader in online trading, IG Group, clearly demonstrates.

Style was brought into this project by the architect ID:SR Sheppard Robson, to work alongside workplace specialist BW, to create a uniquely flexible office environment, quite unlike anything that had ever been done before. IG Group was seeking to create adaptable meeting spaces within an open plan area. Here, employees could gather to discuss ideas or share information, with the ability to screen themselves off as required, whilst making good use of the walls as magnetic, writeable white-boards.

“The concept of individual allocated offices was removed, to be replaced by innovative furniture pods,” explains Paul Etherington, Senior Project Manager for BW. “Existing lighting was changed for contemporary LED fittings, significantly enhancing the environment, whilst tea point hubs would provide a place for casual interactions with colleagues, to work and socialise.”

It was anticipated that teams may often be gathered in small breakout units but working on the same project as others in the area, so it would also be necessary to have a means of sharing ideas between the groups.

When Style first considered the brief, it was clear that there was no existing template for such a movable wall solution. Our technical team went right back to the drawing board, designing panels from scratch and devising the optimum way to enable them to move freely, yet be secure when still and rotate when necessary.

Once manufactured, the resulting installation of panels, slide and spin across the open office space, creating informal, collaborative meeting areas for groups of anything from two to twenty people. Delivering the required level of functionality, both sides of the panels act as magnetic writeable white-boards, making them great for brainstorming sessions. A further adaptation means each panel can be swivelled round, allowing other people to see what is written on them, effectively bringing them into the discussion.


“The feedback we have received from the client and their professional team has been outstanding,” confirms Etherington. “The re-design has delivered the wow-factor to the project stakeholders and the staff are using the space positively, adapting to the agile new working environment that has been delivered.”

Clearly office design in the future will redefine boundaries between departments, breaking down traditional models with the aim of improving everybody’s performance by creating relaxed and positive working environments. The challenge is in coming up with product solutions, such as this new moveable system, that matches an increasingly complex range of demands.