Blogs & Thoughts

To build or not to build

The workplace love affair with walls has been on and off for years, with flexibility ebbing and flowing as management models change and cellular moves to open plan office design layouts and back again.

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  • Author Chris Carr
  • Date 13 September 2021
  • Read Time 2 minutes
Office walls made of glass inside a modern workplace

Does a workplace need walls?

A workplace needs walls—or rather partitions —to form meeting rooms, kitchens, toilets, print hubs, etc. Open plan without partitions can result in cacophonous call centre environments (even when staff aren’t packed in like sardines). Partitions in offices aren’t always solid plasterboard. They can be glass, acoustic screens, storage units, planting. They can be fixed as slab-to-slab or mobile as room dividers on ceiling and floor tracks. They can be used to write on, project onto, pin charts onto or they can be simply a means of delineating boundaries.

Partitions play an important role in workplace acoustics depending on their make-up. They can create a sense of enclosure and privacy. They can reflect more sound than deaden it. With noise being the number one workplace “killer variable”, putting up a partition is not a simple task.

A partition sends out a very specific message in an office design layout. It impacts the collaboration / concentration equation. It influences the one-organisation / our-team equation. In practical terms, it can also completely screw up the ventilation strategy with the thermostat and the HVAC vents being on opposite sides of the partition.

We want flexibility, but flexibility always comes at a price. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to have a meeting in a room that’s sub-divided by a movable partition with occupants on the other side.

I started using the phrase Zoom cupboards at the beginning of the pandemic to describe the small booths I imagine future workplaces will need as people look to accommodate ongoing video calls and focus space while in the office. Yes, build a 2m x 2m room with power, data, ventilation, acoustic treatments and you will have a micro-office that you can cocoon yourself in for a few hours. But how does this tie in with flexibility? How does building a room fit with the new phrase du jour “fail fast and try again”? Is a room always the right solution?

What are the alternatives—furniture solutions? They have the benefit of ease of relocation but sometimes this comes at the expense of degree of privacy, cost, or accessibility.

So, if you want a partition to demarcate a team home base or to create a Zoom cupboard, the balance is going to tip —with positive impacts for some issues and negative impacts for others.

As the wonderfully acerbic Mark E. Smith once sang, “No-one said it was going to be easy.”

Chris Carr, Associate Workplace Consultant

Chris arrived in workplace consultancy following stints as a scientist in the USA and a tour guide in Greece. He is passionate about the interaction between people and the workspaces they inhabit. Over the past six years, he has worked with numerous clients to help them envisage more effective and engaging spaces.