The New Workplace Power Symbols

In the latter half of the 20th century, the corner office was a powerful symbol of corporate success. These spacious offices with large windows not only offered panoramic city views and ample sunlight but also provided a level of privacy that was highly coveted. Occupying a corner office was seen as a sign of having 'made it' in the business world. 

Fast forward to the present, and the iconic corner office is becoming increasingly rare. According to CBRE, a real estate company, the proportion of private offices situated along a building's perimeter, including corner offices, has decreased by about 50% since 2021. The shift in workspace design extends beyond just the corner office; traditional assigned desks and private offices now make up only 45% of the average office space, down from 56% in 2021. This transformation is noticeable in various sectors, including law firms, oil companies, biotech industries, and railway operators, which are now opting for more communal spaces like coffee areas and conference rooms, as noted by Janet Pogue, the global director of workplace research at Gensler.

Despite the reduction in physical barriers like private offices, the workplace hasn’t necessarily become more egalitarian. Executives might no longer have a permanent, secluded corner office, but they continue to command the prime spots in shared spaces, lead team meetings, and enjoy subtle privileges that indicate their dominance. They may use shared spaces to their advantage, subtly influencing the actions of others within the office. 

The concept of power dynamics within office structures has evolved over the years. Historically, as explained by Dale Bradley, a professor at Brock University, there was a time when executives were centrally located to be constantly visible, such as in the Larkin Building designed in 1904. This trend later shifted as executives sought more seclusion, leading to the popularization of corner offices as we know them, which became a significant aspect of corporate architecture and culture.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated changes in office design, with more companies downsizing office space by about 20% compared to pre-pandemic sizes, and increasing communal areas to accommodate more employees in less space. Corporate leaders, even without traditional offices, maintain their status through other means such as having multiple monitors, larger desks, or established places in the office, illustrating that hierarchical structures persist despite changes in office layouts.

Even if they don’t have traditional offices, many executives still commandeer spaces like conference rooms attached to smaller offices or other functional areas tied to their work, such as broadcast or recording studios and labs. These spaces often become their domains, where they can oversee and direct collaboration under their terms. It has even been noted that the number of conference rooms in some companies matches the number of executives, subtly transforming these rooms into new symbols of power and status, similar to the old corner offices.

Despite the ostensible shift towards a more open and shared workspace, the dynamics of power and control remain evident, showing that higher-ups will always find ways to manifest their influence. This enduring truth suggests that some organizations might even revert to older, more explicit hierarchical layouts, like the recent instance of a bank reintroducing corner offices to encourage senior leaders to return to the physical workspace. Thus, while office design continues to evolve, the essence of corporate power structures endures.  

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