The New Workplace Power Symbols

If you walked into an office building during the second half of the 20th century, you could probably figure out who had power with a single glance: Just look for the person in the corner office. The corner offices of yore were big, with large windows offering city views and constant streams of light, plus unbeatable levels of privacy. Everyone wanted them, but only those at the top got them. Land in one, and you’d know you’d made it.

Fast-forward to today, and that emblem of corporate success is dying off. The number of private offices along the side of a building, a category that includes those in the corner, has shrunk by about half since 2021, according to the real-estate company CBRE. But today’s workplace transformation goes beyond the corner. All assigned desks and offices are on the decline, comprising only 45 percent of the average office, compared with 56 percent in 2021. Employers of many kinds—law firms, oil companies, biotech businesses, railway operators—are doing without them. They’re being replaced with coffee areas, conference rooms, and other collaborative spaces, Janet Pogue, the global director of workplace research at Gensler, a design firm, told me. In 2023, communal areas constituted 20 percent of the average office floor, up from 14 percent in 2021, CBRE found.

Some take this shift as evidence of a revolution in egalitarianism. But tearing down the walls of the corner office hasn’t exactly made the workplace more democratic. Executives still claim many of the new shared spaces as their own, take the lead during team meetings, and enjoy other subtle privileges. They may no longer occupy a seat of such visible power, but they still exert sway over the rest of the office, using spaces as they please and influencing what others can do in them.

The relationship between office geography and power has always been in flux. The earliest workplaces displayed a “total inversion of our image of the traditional office-space hierarchy,” Dale Bradley, a professor at Brock University who has researched the history of the office, told me. Take the Larkin Building, which was designed in 1904 for a soap company. There, executives sat in the center of the first floor. “These guys are on display all the time,” Bradley said. Lower-level employees, meanwhile, were pushed to the edges of the building.

But as the years passed, bosses decided they’d rather not be so visible. Shortly before World War II, they started moving into the corners, where they could easily block themselves off, and the symbol of corporate power that we know today took root. By mid-century, developers were bragging about how many corner offices they could cram onto each floor. In 1966, The New York Times wrote about a Philadelphia office building that had eight corners—“twice the normal supply.” Toronto’s Scotia Plaza did even better, with as many as 22 on some floors. This influence seeped into literature too. Books with titles such as Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and Winners Dream: A Journey From Corner Store to Corner Office made clear that attaining the corner office was the apex of capitalist triumph.

Then, about two decades ago, office designers began phasing them out. Google’s open-plan office redesign in 2005 was one of the earlier and most high-profile signs of changing attitudes: Modern workplaces were emphasizing collaboration, and corner offices were seen as too siloed. In 2020, the office came under attack again. Especially during the early pandemic, fewer executives were showing up to work in person, and their palatial corner offices were going to waste. “Nobody else really feels comfortable going into somebody else’s space and sitting there,” Kay Sargent, a director at the design firm HOK, told me. Now new office leases are about 20 percent smaller than they were before COVID, and companies are reconfiguring their floor plans to include more communal areas so that more employees fit into less space.

Without the corner office, status is conveyed in new ways. No matter the setup, “human beings will still find a way of creating hierarchy,” Lenny Beaudoin, CBRE’s global head of workplace design, explained. Bosses might have more computer monitors, bigger desks, or even just a permanent spot rather than a rotating one, Matthew Davis, a business professor at Leeds University Business School, told me. Power also manifests intangibly—for instance, only a select few might be able to not check Slack or come and go from the office without explanation. It’s the same benefit of having a far-flung corner office, re-created digitally: You know you’re important if you can escape surveillance.

And even if they’re not in the corner, a lot of executives do still have offices. Those have largely slimmed down, but many are connected to conference rooms or other collaborative spaces, such as broadcast rooms in finance firms, recording studios at media companies, and labs in the life sciences. Many higher-ups essentially seize these for themselves whenever they come in, Pogue, at Gensler, told me. From there, they can shape any collaboration that takes place, ensuring it plays out in their space and under their supervision. Many modern companies “have as many conference rooms as there are executives,” Sargent said, and it’s become a “dirty little secret” that conference rooms are the new corner offices.

A collaborative space doesn’t need to be directly attached to a boss’s office for this dynamic to play out. When a high-ranking executive parks themselves in a big conference room or spreads their stuff across the long table in the office coffee shop, no one is going to tell them to leave. The communal spaces are free to use only if the boss isn’t there.

Across all iterations of the workplace, higher-ups have always found ways to get what they want. We may one day return to an older layout of explicit hierarchy: Beaudoin, the CBRE designer, told me that he recently worked with a bank that decided to reinstall corner offices for a group of senior leaders, hoping it would bring them back to the office. But even if recent changes prove lasting, with space designed to be up for grabs, there won’t be any illusions about who has the power to grab it.

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