May 13, 2019
There was a time, not so long ago, that one of the most important factors to consider when designing an office was the corporate hierarchy. The office was once the embodiment of the corporate structure. In Joanna Eley and Alexi Marmot’s 1995 book Understanding Offices, quite a lot of space is dedicated to the idea of the ‘space pyramid’, which means simply that the higher up the organisation you were, the more space you were allocated. Even then, the idea of office design as a signifier of dominance was starting to wear thin, as the authors acknowledge. Ostentatious displays of status were already seen as somewhat gauche, but they were to be fatally undermined by the technological advances to come.
In particular the way new technologies meant the flattening and removal of those layers of the hierarchy responsible for collating and communicating information. Changes in culture and technology combined to eradicate the past, not for the first or last time.
Displays of status weren’t confined to layouts, of course. The sorts of office furniture products people adopted also said something about how they wanted to be seen. Executive desks, dark wood veneers and high-backed leather chairs were some of the ways people of status displayed their position to those sat on fabric task chairs at oak veneered workstations. A perspective famously mocked in the 1970s sitcom The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.
This sort of mockery ensured the writing was on the wall for blatant executive preening and the traditional command and control hierarchy. CJ’s refrain of ‘One Two Three Four, Make Them Wait Outside the Door’ isn’t possible when the door has been removed.
Yet displays of status are still part of the way people think and always have been. In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ in his work The Theory of the Leisure Class to describe how people would use silver cutlery and other objects to convey their status and social standing.
This sort of behaviour and the attitudes that underlie it are hardwired to some extent, which means that we now adopt a different approach to identifying status.
A change of trappings
Of course such change invariably sweeps away the trappings of what has gone before. In this case, the two principle casualties of this change in terms of office design have been the dark wood desk and the private office. Dark woods are not only somewhat unfashionable at the moment, but they are also seen – sometimes unfairly – as unsustainable materials.
Zuckerberg is the polar opposite of Reggie Perrin’s boss in terms of how he displays status, but he displays it all the same
As for the private office, it’s telling that Mark Zuckerberg famously works in a large open plan office at the company’s new headquarters. Combined with his dress down style, there is nothing at first glance to set him apart from his colleagues. Yet, what he understands is that his status comes from his position within the group, rather than the physical manifestations of success. This ensures he remains part of the workplace group, rather than setting him apart. He is the polar opposite of Reggie Perrin’s boss in terms of how he displays status, but he displays it all the same.
Traditional workplaces emphasised the differences between workers. In a modern office design without assigned workstations to the same extent, status is no longer attached so much to the physical workspace, but to an individual’s role within the group, which encourages more interaction between people at different levels of the organisation and from different disciplines.
This peer-to-peer conception of status is encapsulated in the ideas of Brian Robertson expressed in his 2009 book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World. Holacracy is a term that seeks to encapsulate the idea of a new form of management structure based on transparency, accountability and organisational agility. Authority is distributed among teams in a non-bureaucratic form to empower everybody to take leadership roles and make decisions.
These ideas are now a core part of the modern business landscape even though many people may never have heard of Robertson’s terminology. And, just as the traditional hierarchy was embodied in the office ‘space pyramid’ so too are these ideas reflected in the design of physical space. A democratised, collaborative workplace is now an essential part of a client’s brief in the vast majority of cases, often hand in hand with the creation of cross-disciplinary and multi-layered teams.
Such new ideas are also reflected in the design of individual elements and their finishes. There is far more use of light woods and the sorts of materials and finishes we commonly see in hotels and homes. The use of an ornate, mahogany desk and exec chair would be jarring in this context (although it may actually work in another).
This is not merely an issue of fashion. It is proof that the best office designs are those that embody organisational structures and attitudes. The physical workspace should align with the objectives and character of the organisation if it is to serve it and the people who work for it.