In a somewhat desperate attempt at levelling the playing field between bossing and bossed, several businesses have recently announced that they will strip their top people of private office accommodation and make them sit at hot desks like everyone else. Avoiding wasting expensive office space is an admirable target. Levelling down is not. We educate to level up. We develop robotics to remove repetitive drudge from workers. The resulting job loss is to be dealt with, not to be lauded.
Management and the decline of authority
There are two issues at loggerheads in where you make people sit and what, if any, privilege you afford to seniors. The first is management. To hear some advocates of modern business control, you might think that management was a thing of the past. Quite the contrary, management is a greater skill today than when brutal foremen lashed the backs of slaves to induce them to work harder. We have discovered, albeit slowly and painfully – and not yet completely – that fear is a powerful motivator but a totally unacceptable one.
Coincident with this enlightenment, authority has been losing its clout. The process of levelling up has contributed to that. Education has demonstrated that, regardless of all the new tools of measurement and all the analytics now readily available, managers’ judgments are often biased and full of flaws. Covid put another seal on this, confirming the difficulties of exploring the unknown and showing guesses as mercurial, but inevitable, aspects of leadership. It may not always be so, but it remains the Achilles heel of control in today’s management world. It applies particularly at the top. Dealings with the outside world, especially government and regulators, creates a difficult path to navigate.
Evolution of the employer
So the issue of how desirable, effective and practical hotdesking is remains one of effectiveness, not politics. Would you agree that the effectiveness of an organisation is recognised today as significantly dependent on its culture? The discussion about whether hotdesking should apply to all employees regardless of position has, therefore, as much to do with the reasons for advancing it as it has to do with the administrative effort involved in making it happen. The United States is heavily committed to egalitarianism at work, less uncomfortable with widely differing displays of wealth outside business.
Management today is leadership, since markets are moving faster than ever before. Organising available talent when the pace was slower made sense. Today talent needs spotting, developing, motivating, training and, most importantly, securing, to take advantage of the technologies becoming available and keep the business progressively competitive. Leaders must therefore have plenty of access to their employees. The CEO’s private office has become a symbol of an ivory tower, remote, secret and inviolable. This is clearly not a good way for the boss to be seen.
What is space for?
What is an organisation’s space and presence for? A bank needs to reassure customers that their money is safe and is being looked after by experts who know what they are doing. Hence the strong symbols of security and confidence used to make the bank’s image. A food factory must demonstrate quality of ingredients, hygiene and appetising appearance of output. Hence the notices about cleanliness. Different offices have different purposes. But all offices today need to show efficiency, good use of space, competence and reliability and above all a good work culture. The changes in the need for this during – and possibly as a result of – the pandemic are greater than anyone imagined possible. Why is this?
Working at home was, for many, a double edged sword. Going to work in the office had been “a change of place for a change of pace”. Demands and resources were completely different. ‘The company involves refreshing intellectual exchanges’ – was how some saw it. Others were relieved not to have to make the unpleasant journey to and from work. Commuting is fine if you are comfortable, hell if you are not. Those who saved commuting time and who were happy to work from home enjoyed a bonus in lockdown. Those who weren’t, were penalised.
The key of culture
Culture is demonstrated by an atmosphere of cooperation, by cheerful and relaxed employees and by an efficiency that is not process-imposed but is accepted as the way to behave with both company and contacts. ‘Trustworthiness’ describes what any office needs to exude today. An organisation that is not fundamentally trustworthy is heading for, or already in, trouble. That does not imply softness in the way it is run. Tough standards are set and met in trustworthy businesses – more often by the employees themselves than by the top management. Is your organization’s culture something you think about? If so, do you think your culture is trustworthy and fits today’s employees?
How do the seating and office arrangements contribute to the culture of a business? Clearly the less comfort distinction between the bosses and the middle managers, the better. Equally clearly the bosses need to be seen as the bosses. They will require more times of privacy for dealing with sensitive issues than their middle manager employees. To get a realistic view of workplace, office and even factory attendance, you have to look at the development of analytics, the opportunities and threats posed by second and tertiary level AI, the paradox of new software and the dangers it poses to security, the future of trust and how it will fit into relationships at work and beyond. There are more considerations and I ask you to consider “What are your additions to this list?” I’m sure they are very relevant.
Between hot desk and glass cage
There’s more to contemplate there than the distinction between a hotdesk and a glass enclosed office. The needs shout flexibility, so very few fixed walls, even glass. They demand some of the features of the existing office structure. Privacy is not only listening but watching. Gossip arises more quickly from perception than from the spoken word.
How will you organise your office space to take account of all these new challenges?
The answer will be part of the key to a successful business culture.