There Goes the Corner Office, Here Comes the New Status
Spotting status used to be simple: you looked for the biggest office with the most windows and best views. Today status is no less important to how and why we work, but it manifests itself in increasingly diverse ways.
Written by: Drew Himmelstein
Artwork by: Daniel Carlsten
When the Sears Tower was completed in 1973, the upper floors of the world’s new tallest building were designed with recessed spaces that intentionally maximised the number of corner offices. Architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill bet that offering plusher office assignments for top executives would make the upper floors, with their already prime aerial real estate and expansive views, even more desirable for business tenants.
Forty years ago, such offices were in such high demand that architects looked for ways to add more corners onto buildings. It’s striking, then, that for many of today’s top companies, that once essential feature of corporate facilities is increasingly obsolete.
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously doesn’t have a personal office; he works in an open workspace with other employees. Count Jack Dorsey of Square, Gilt Groupe’s Michelle Peluso and Virgin’s Richard Branson among other chief executives who’ve joined the office-less class. In 2015, some of the most eye-popping, up-to-date offices from Silicon Valley to Sydney embrace designs where entry-level employees brush elbows (and espresso cups) with executives.
So why is it that companies in virtually every field, from tech and real estate, to finance and media, are moving from the traditional trappings of status towards other arrangements?
“Status is a fundamental human motivation – it’s evidence that the group values us,” says Tracy Brower, Director of Human Dynamics and Work at Herman Miller. Traditional offices found plenty of ways to reinforce those motivations, giving high-status employees private offices with better views and guarding them from the rest of the staff with administrative assistants. But why has the tide turned on this approach? Brower explains: “On the human side, you’re challenged by the difficulty of connecting to other people and to work – providing that essential feeling of belonging – and on the facility side, you’re being asked to extract greater and greater value from every square inch of real estate.” In other words, an assigned private office – closed off, and underutilised – sounds ideal until you look at the bigger picture. “Status used to separate us from others. Today we better understand that you actually experience status within groups. This also contributes to why we’re seeing more and more open office environments.”
Brower was part of a team that researched what motivates people at work as part of the development of Living Office, Herman Miller’s new approach to realising higher-performing, human-centred workplaces. They identified six key human needs – security, autonomy, belonging, achievement, status and purpose – and are using these to help guide organisations.
THE NEW STATUS
According to Brower, recognising status is still crucial, but there are new ways to go about it. “New studies show us that people will choose status over salary, and they are willing to accept a lower-ranking position if it’s associated with a group that they feel will deliver greater status.” While in a traditional office the perks that came with status were available only to an elite few, new ways of working and new workplace designs show that status can manifest democratically – and at a group, or organisational level. “The freedom to come and go as I please, being able to choose where I want to sit, getting assigned to a key account, posting to social media about the free organic Thai food in the cafeteria – these are all ways that people sense status now,” Brower says. Although the corner office may be increasingly obsolete, the fact is that status isn’t going away, but organisations are finding new ways to more broadly reinforce it.
The Chicago staff of CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm, recently moved into a new light-filled office occupying three upper-level floors in a tower in the city’s central business district. Most of the office’s sit-to-stand desks are in an open workspace that provides clear visibility of other co-workers and the sweeping views outside. The private offices, which are unassigned and called “Offices for a Day”, are plated with glass and are available for any employee’s use through a reservation system. In the corner spaces, there aren’t desks at all, but areas designated for collaboration. No one has an assigned desk.
The space couldn’t be more different from the company’s previous location, which consisted of perimeter offices and workstations divided by high panels toward the centre of the floor, according to Lauren Brightwell, senior project manager at CBRE. The office got little natural light and overlooked a multi-storey car park. Even so, Brightwell says, some senior executives were reluctant to move.
Brightwell recalls some senior staff saying, “I've worked really hard to get a private office, and now you're telling me we're going to move to an environment where I really don't have an office. I don't have the same sense of stability.”
CBRE has been careful to appease these, and other concerns, about moving to a new way of working through a considered change management approach. In order to recognise individuals who once had the status of a private office, and to showcase their accomplishments, a prominently located media wall now displays employees’ awards and achievements.
These are effective ways to reinforce status without relying on traditional office design, Brower says. “The physical environment is only one set of factors to consider,” she adds. According to Brower, status can also be conferred holistically through managerial methods (such as providing mentoring and increased leadership opportunities), and access to updated technology, tools and resources.
With Living Office, Herman Miller aims to demonstrate that workers’ need for status can be met among a holistically considered set of fundamental human needs. For instance, CBRE’s new office design has led to more interactions among staff members who didn’t often see each other or even know each other before, promoting their sense of belonging and shared purpose.
Building employee relationships company-wide can be incredibly valuable to a business, according to Scott Doorley, creative director at the Stanford d.school and co-author with Scott Witthoft of Make Space, A Guide for Designing to Encourage Creativity. The pair recently helped an East Coast pharmaceutical development company move away from a hierarchical office design in which research scientists were separated from administrative and sales staff. The separation of departments meant that not everyone in the company fully understood the products they were producing.
'They had been struggling with saying, “We’re really excited about this product. How can we make everyone in the organisation more excited about that? ”,' Doorley says. “If we want everyone to be behind this product, everyone’s got to know what’s going on with the product. The admins need to see what the scientists are doing; the marketing people need to be able to communicate it.”
When the Macquarie Group, an investment bank, redesigned its headquarters in Sydney, Australia, it was driven by similar product concerns, according to Amanda Stanaway, a principal at architecture firm Woods Bagot, who was the lead interior designer on the project.
Macquarie’s offices had previously grouped its employees by department, creating what Woods Bagot terms “command and control silos”, where employees had assigned areas they were expected to work in during office hours under the watch of the team’s managers. But the bank was concerned that the rigid design, which kept employees in different divisions apart and placed managers in visible positions, hindered the speed at which the bank could bring products to market, Stanaway says. If, for example, the financial services team developed a product without ever collaborating with the tax experts, the product might easily have unforeseen tax implications and need to be reworked.
“Everyone is given freedom to work when they want, where they want in the environment.”
- Amanda Stanaway
In Macquarie’s new offices, no one has assigned desks or offices, and employees naturally group themselves based on the project they are working on at the time. Each employee has a locker and access to a variety of workstations that facilitate both individual and collaborative work. The result is a client-oriented office culture that also saves money by using space efficiently – a priority in Australia, where commercial office space is at a premium.
“Everyone is given freedom to work when they want, where they want in the environment,” Stanaway says. “You are managed by output rather than by presence. An old type of worker would come in at 8:30 and leave at 5:30, and God knows if they did any work. Ninety-nine per cent of people still come to the office, but they’re afforded the freedom to drop the kids at school, get there at 9:30 and leave at whatever hour they choose.” Through these kinds of practices, status is extended throughout the organisation, rather than conferred on a select few.
Even at Macquarie, however, those select few are still granted special dispensation. Although they aren’t given designated workspace, executives get priority when reserving certain spaces in the office, and they also have executive assistants, Stanaway says. Here resources, more than physical space, denote increased status.
But at the end of the day, status at Macquarie and at many new offices is conveyed through both organisational practices and actions. Organisations have many tools at their disposal to reinforce status, but according to Brower, status is most often conferred on individuals who are perceived to be making the most competent and selfless contributions to the group.
“It’s about behaviour,” Stanaway agrees. “You actually have to command respect rather than be given a title.”