Design dilemma: what do we do now with all this plexiglass?

This WORKTECH Briefing looks at life after plastic partitions, returning to the office to focus, and disruptive design principles for new workplace thinking

Remember the rush to install plexiglass screens in offices last summer in the early months of the global pandemic? The world went mad for the material and there was a dramatic spike in manufacture – not just make workspaces safer but also to make face shields, put up barriers in shops and restaurants, and separate hospital beds.

Plexiglass was the ultimate quick-fix but like the one-way systems and crosses on empty desks, it was never going to be a lasting solution in the office. Now, as more people of working age get double-vaccinated and the great workplace return appears on the horizon, the big question is what to do with all this stuff. Can there be an afterlife for this avalanche of acrylic?

‘Can there be an afterlife for this avalanche of acrylic?’

According to design reporter Anne Quito, writing in Quartz magazine, there is a danger that, without a viable plan, ‘tons of non-degradable plastic partitions will likely end up in landfill’. The chemical composition of plexiglass makes it very difficult to recycle.

However Daniel Neuberger, professor of industrial design at Iowa State University, believes that the material can be repurposed through clever design. Already his students have fashioned small-scale objects from redundant plexiglass – jewellery, mini-shelves and desk-top storage caddies. Neuberger believes large-scale items such as furniture and lecterns can be achieved.  All it takes is some design imagination.

We’d like to hear from our members around the WORKTECH network – what do you intend to do with your surplus plexiglass?

Working alone around others

As hybrid work heaves into view, the received wisdom right now is that people will continue to do focus work at home and return to the office only to collaborate and socialise directly with others.  However a global tracking study from the Gensler Research Institute suggests a more complex and nuanced picture. It suggests that employees want to come to the office to be with one another — but also to focus.

It seems that employees are eager get stuck into those interpersonal activities and impromptu connections they missed so much when excluded from the office during the pandemic— but they also describe the ability to ‘focus on my work’ as a key reason to return. This suggests the home may be diminishing in effectiveness as a place for working the longer the Covid-19 crisis drags on. The Gensler report concludes that ‘working alone, but being around other people, as well as having access to specialised technology or support, are important reasons to come to the office’.

Disruptive design

We are in the age of bold, prolific experimentation, according to Jane Young, director of innovation and workplace at Smartway2. Young spoke at the WORKTECH21 Work From Anywhere event in July about the importance of using disruptive design principles to forge new ways of thinking in times of constant change.

In the video below, Young presents a three-step approach to adopt a disruptive experience design in new workplace strategies. In recognising that organisations need to radically adapt to new expectations of work, Young explains that organisations need to go beyond implementing incremental changes and start to really disrupt old ways of working. Watch an exclusive extract of Jane Young’s talk below:

Design Thinking masterclass

As companies plan their strategies to address the emerging landscape of hybrid work, the role of design thinking as an innovative methodology to navigate complexity and change is rising fast up the business agenda.

To help organisations and individuals in the WORKTECH network get to grips with new tools and ideas in this field, WORKTECH Academy director Jeremy Myerson is leading a Design Thinking and Innovation Masterclass this autumn in partnership with the Royal College of Art and the Design Museum. The virtual masterclass takes place over four days 23, 24, 27 and 28 September (9.00-12.30 BST). You can find more details here. For members of the WORKTECH network, there is a special 10 per cent discount on the masterclass fee. Access this offer here.

In our WORKTECH Wednesday Briefings, we reach out to our 10,000-plus Academy members, WORKTECH attendees, speakers, partners and sponsors while WORKTECH’s professional conference series continues through our virtual platforms. This edition is posted 4 August 2021.
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