How workplace design shapes and reflects organisational hierarchies

The roots of the open plan office can be traced back to the 1960s when post-capitalism was beginning to emerge as a political and intellectual movement. The social and political upheaval that followed World War Two and the emphasis on the autonomous, motivated and engaged worker combined to inspire designers and architects to develop a new and more “modern” way of working. A mode of work characterised by an increased emphasis on social relations and flattened hierarchies. The open plan office was heralded as the ‘office of the future’; a progressive, transformative and near utopian design concept which would enable its occupants to thrive and succeed in a more socialist world. Yet the proponents of the open plan do not appear to have been fulfilled in large corporate businesses in the UK. I’d like to suggest that this failure is not a design fault but rather a problem caused by a clash of ideologies. Upon closer inspection, it appears that these larger corporations have not fully been able to shift into the social-democratic model of collaborative, open working styles.

The open plan office is based on the premise that all employees should have greater control and accountability. This is physically demonstrated by the removal of any private, corner-offices and through dismantling the silos and secrecy of 19th Century workplaces. It aims to be an egalitarian office structure where management is treated the same as employees, with a departure from the hierarchical layout of the past. The move to open plan, co-work style offices was meant to reinforce a culture of trust and remove the negative effects associated with hierarchical management. Heightened creativity and increased collaboration were amongst the desired and predicted outcomes of this change in office layout…

Architectural historians generally agree that by controlling the arrangement of furniture and the implementation of barriers, companies were able to manage employee behaviour and interactions. Looking at office designs of this era clearly reflect the internal organisational culture. The placement of key pieces such as the printer or the water cooler in the post-war period provided places where exchanges between colleagues could be monitored and controlled. Design manuals of the time instructed architects and designers to use more expensive and glamorous materials in the management teams private offices than in the space dedicated to less superior employees. Space also functioned as a means of control. Those at the top of the ladder were given roomier, more comfortable offices, in a way space reflected corporate success. When employees moved up the career ladder, they expected the size and quality of their working space to similarly improve. The interior of an office in the 1940s served as a metaphor for order, control and surveillance. It became a manifestation of organisational culture and hierarchy.

The reaction against this rather regimented and unnatural division of space prompted the open plan office boom. Echoing the post-capitalist movement which was founded on the shift away from economics and a move towards social relations, dedicated offices were removed (and in some cases, dedicated seats too). Though open plan was seen as less controlling than separate cubicles, the lack of privacy actually served to do the opposite. Total transparency between not just employees but managers and even CEOs becomes invasive and even inhibiting – ultimately affecting people’s productivity.

The workplace has and always will undergo profound change, often prompted along by changes in technology, economics, politics and social relations. In the world of workplace, we need to recognise that alongside these fluctuations, we must also understand working culture. It seems that amongst all the open plan furor and excitement, we have diluted and filtered the meanings of authority and leadership. Essentially, we have attempted to fit a socialist model of work (exemplified by those in Northern countries such as Sweden) into a capitalist structure that can be seen in many of the large corporate business here in the UK. To managers naturally inclined towards structure and hierarchy, a drastic change in the way people work poses a threat and causes added pressure and stress. Giving people the power to control how and when they work feels to some managers like a loss of face which can result in a less effective workforce. A culture change program accompanying the physical move seems like the logical way forward.

The open plan is more than just an office design; it is a representation of a certain ideology, married to a specific time and place in history. It is naive to ignore that hierarchy does indeed thrive in many large organisations; such structures are entrenched not only through, but also in, our human need to establish dynamics and connections between people. As the role of the physical office changes, we should understand that a mix of both privacy and collaboration is necessary for a successful 21st century business.


Angela Love is a director with Active FM