I think it is safe to say that we are truly a status conscious species. We are probably also somewhat obsessive and we seem to like shiny things. Where we live, what cars we drive, etc to one level or another are important to us. It is how we differentiate ourselves from each other, but it is also what makes us all the same on a larger level. So how do we differentiate ourselves in the far more homogeneous business environment? Since we all strive for some sense of individuality, how do we distinguish who is who in an office environment where the focus is usually far more on the collective than the individual?
Office environments seem to be designed with the twin objectives of both minimizing the differences between those of the same level and formalizing the differences between those of different levels. The differences are removed from the system through the use of standardized office constructions. Based on their relative position in the office hierarchy like levels get like office sizes, colors and furniture. Office component colors and furniture are standardized to the point where the days of the mythical executive reserve known as “Mahogany Row” where huge offices and plush office appointments have all but receded into the mists of time.
Now a days there are still many office differences denoting relative professional rank, but they are all somewhat less apparent. The first of several formal office differentiators is office size. The workspace naming nomenclature also reflects this size disparity. No one has an eight foot by eight foot office. They have a “cube”. And regardless of how much square footage they have for work space they will continue to be considered in a “cube” until the second major work space status differentiator is taken into account: that being the height of the walls around a work space. If there is any space between the top of the office walls and the office ceiling, it is a cube, despite any arguments to the contrary.
The best barometer of work space status is the height of the walls around the work space. A good rule of thumb is that if you can see into the work space over the walls surrounding the work space that the occupant is of the most junior of levels. Chances are that they will have the least floor space as well. The only way that these “low wall” denizens can differentiate themselves from other junior cubicle dwellers is by the type and amount of stuff that they jam into their cube. We have all seen it. The over abundance of pictures, knick-knacks, plants, college memorabilia, you name it, that is used to individualize what is an otherwise small, nondescript work space.
As responsibility, prestige and status grow, normally so do the height of the walls surrounding the work space and the area contained within those walls. Surprisingly enough as the walls get higher; the amount of individualizing “stuff” within those walls also seems to decrease. Perhaps it is only those without such office adornments that are selected for higher walls. I think further study on this relationship may be required. It doesn’t matter how high the walls get or how much room there is within them, if the walls do not reach the ceiling of the work area, as I have already said, it will still always be considered a “cube”.
At some point in time the normal progression of wall height and work space size will hit a nominal limit, one of which is the afore mentioned ceiling. Not some sort of metaphorical glass ceiling. The physical acoustic tiled one within the office work area. Once the walls hit the ceiling the area they contain is no longer considered a “cube”. It is now an “Office”. These constructs normally come with a real door that can actually be closed. A nominal amount of privacy is now possible since office doors do not usually contain a window.
Once the threshold has been crossed from cube to office, you might think that the opportunity for status differentiation would be limited. If you thought this you would probably be wrong. There is still the opportunity to differentiate offices by size and location. There is a point of diminishing returns with respect to office size so for the most part I will deal with the aspect of office differentiation based on location, or more importantly, the number of windows that it does or does not have.
Offices that are constructed on the internal walls and passage ways of the work area allow the external sun light to enter the windows and illuminate the entire work area. This allows the people with low walls to at least enjoy the sunlight. This sort of office structure usually indicates one of two possible scenarios: either that the company is truly work environmentally conscious and wants everyone to enjoy the sun light, or that the people inhabiting those offices still haven’t quite made it to the big leagues.
I have only worked in one company in one location where all the offices were intentionally placed internally away from the windows. Needless to say, this is a rare event. On the other hand I have also worked in several locations where you could not actually tell if the building had external windows, or if the sun was actually shining outside unless the doors to the external wall offices were open and the sun was shining through the open door. Chances are if there are internal offices and you are in a multi-story building, you have just not gone to a high enough floor to find the external wall offices.
But even window offices are subject to a status arrangement. The two status guides here are the number of windows that the office has and whether or not it has a “Corner”. This is where the phrase “Corner Office” came from. If you have an entire wall of a four sided office covered in windows, the only way you can get more windows is to have windows on a second wall of your office. According most accepted theories of geometry the most efficient way to achieve this phenomenon is to put your four sided office in a corner of the building so that two of the office sides have windows.
The corner office is generally accepted as the apex of the office status pyramid. If you have one of these you are generally regarded as someone to be reckoned with.
Corner offices are usually reserved for only those who reside within the “Executive Suite”. If you want to see more on the “Executive Suite” please see my May 8, 2014 article on this topic.
I think one of the most spectacular examples of the need and desire for corner offices can be seen in the United States military. Most buildings are build with four corners, which naturally limits the number of corner office opportunities. The US military built the Pentagon, which as we all know has five corners instead of just for. This increases the number of available corner offices by twenty five percent. I guess they had to find an appropriate way to office all the Generals, Admirals, etc that they had.
But now here comes a new office status disruptive technology; the home office. With all the new communication technologies that are available, many former inhabitants of the cube farm are now opting to work at home and cyber-commute to their work. Now it is possible for everyone to have their own office, that can be as big as they want, with as many windows as they want and decorated however they want, and no one will ever know the difference or be able to assess their relative rank in the office hierarchy.
As this work at home technology proliferates we will have to revert to the old tried and true methods of assessing your office status, namely: what city or neighborhood you live in, how big is your house, what kind of car you drive and how many shiny things have you accumulated.
Oscar Wilde once said “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” He may actually be correct. However now it appears that we are entering an age where work may be imitating life far more that life is imitating work. I wonder what Oscar Wilde might think of that since he actually worked at home as well.