What if your company is mandating a return to the office but that office separates the C-suite executives into their own, private area?
That’s the reality for some. We spoke to design experts last week who said the CEO’s corner office may be back in fashion. Some firms are taking it a step further and custom-designing entire areas for the sole use of C-suite execs.
One insurance firm, which is working with architecture and interior design firm Spectorgroup, is setting aside around 4,000 square feet out of the 50,000-square-foot building for its executive suite that will include an office and private dining area. “For them, they need privacy in this area for them to operate best as leaders,” said Scott Spector, principal of Spectorgroup, last week, without naming the insurance firm.
But, what about everyone else? While it’s not necessarily a trend, it is a reminder of just how different the office dynamics can be, when the senior leadership is entirely separate — more reminiscent of the days when top-down hierarchal structures were the dominant organizational model, instead of the flatter structures that have become trendy over the last five years or so.
Most leaders are calling for a return to the office because they want more in-person communication and collaboration. But shouldn’t they also lead by example? If senior execs are permanently behind closed doors, it might be more difficult, to encourage a collaborative culture with a senior leadership team who are accessible and approachable.
Separate offices affects how employees show up and feel, said Marly Franke, founder of executive coaching and leadership development firm Leadership Leverage Group. “I would feel shut out,” said Franke.
And a separate C-Suite office introduces many social questions, including whether employees can — or should — pop in or knock if they have a question. “It’s making sure that the C-suite knows that people are really aware of their impact on company culture,” said Franke. “It’s asking if your behaviors are conducive to creating psychological safety.”
A glass wall on that office could make a difference, noted Anna Squires Levine, chief commercial officer at co-working and private office space provider Industrious. “It’s hyper important to be extra visible, extra present, perhaps than it ever was before,” said Squires Levine.
It also explores the idea of psychological safety. If an office doesn’t have a sense of openness and honesty, which can come from office design itself, it might be difficult for employees to know when they can speak up and if they should feel comfortable talking to those in the C-suite.
Or why a mandated return to the office makes sense.
Being in the office years ago when her boss wasn’t was always a sticking point for Taryn Langer, co-founder of Moxie Communications Group, who said the feeling “can breed resentment.” Especially when being in the office has its perks.
“I think the most valuable lessons I learned in my career were not specifically taught to me, it was through osmosis,” said Langer, who designed Moxie’s hybrid office to have an open floor plan. “It’s things like how to have difficult conversations with clients and team members, body language, how people react, how they stay calm but can show importance of a conversation, and tone of voice. There are critical elements of communication that aren’t always verbal.”
At the same time, it’s not to say that everyone in a corner office will be aloof to their company culture. “If you have a CEO or anybody in the C-suite who says ‘hey, I have an open door,’ and tend to have more visibility with people, they walk around a lot, check-in, they can still have the office in the corner, but their behaviors are giving a very different message,” said Franke. “They’re being inclusive, showing connection with people.”
Activity-based working solutions might be the answer for folks who would like to have a mix of everything. In this office design layout, there can still be an area for C-suite executives to go when they need privacy or to do deep work, but then they can also return to other more collaborative areas of the office.
“What we observe at Industrious is a leader of a team will bop around the space and use a place that fits their activity at hand,” said Squires Levine. “If I need to do something confidential, there is a phone booth. If I need to sit and think alone, there is a quiet library corner.”