We still display status in office design, but in new and subtle ways

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.

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.