The lavish corner office was once the ultimate perk but today walls are being traded for transparency
by Adrienne Gaffney | March 16, 2017 12:00 pm
When Jack Welch ruled over General Electric, he did it from up high. His 53rd-floor office offered expansive views of Central Park and Roosevelt Island, and left no question who was steering the ship. But these days, the workspaces of executives are often indistinguishable from those of their staff. Take Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who leads from a simple, no-frills desk surrounded by lesser-titled colleagues. While the ability to toil alongside the proletariat has a made a massive industry out of co-working, it begs the question: Whatever happened to the corner office?
Ted Turner, now 78, perhaps epitomized the notion of office as manifestation of executive ego. His space in CNN’s Atlanta headquarters was handsomely decorated with ornate wood furniture. Less typical were the endless cabinets and shelves (designed to hold his hundreds of sailing trophies), walls covered with dozens of framed magazine covers bearing his photo, and multiple trinkets displaying his mantra, “Either Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way.” (A level of personal comfort may have been necessary—during the network’s launch, Turner virtually lived in the space, sleeping on a Murphy bed and wandering the halls in his bathrobe, before eventually upgrading to a small apartment a level above his office.) When Barry Diller tasked Frank Gehry with designing IAC’s New York HQ, he wanted the ultimate perk: A straight-on view of the Statue of Liberty. Gehry may not have come through on that, but the office’s private waterview terrace was an appeasing consolation prize.
While women in the corner office may have been fewer and farther between, after iconic magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown got the top gig at Cosmopolitan, in 1965, her customized office decor became as legendary as the editor herself. The walls were papered in a floral print that matched the upholstered sofa, the rug was leopard, and the furniture antique. Topping it off were a collection of porcelain dolls and needlepoint pillows that featured bon mots like “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere” and “I love champagne, caviar, and cash.”
In today’s modern workplace, a reorganization of seating hierarchy may have been inevitable, it’s likely that a rash of recession-era scandals served as a death knell. In 2009, departing Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain was publicly excoriated when the details of his $1.2 million office renovation came to light. Overseen by celebrity designer Michael S. Smith (a favorite of the Obama family), the redesign included expenditures like a $68,000 antique credenza and an $87,000 area rug. Coinciding as it did with the global financial crisis that took the bank down, the uproar among shareholders and the public alike was unsurprising. Former Citigroup head Todd Thomson’s 2007 departure was also, in part, attributed to his wild spending. With a jumbo fish tank, ornate chandelier, and fireplace, his office’s aesthetic was described as “Swiss chalet,” earning it the geographically inconsistent nickname “Todd Mahal.” (Thomson also had the run of a deluxe marble-floored Citigroup boardroom.)
Though some predicted the demise of the corner office as early as the 1980s, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2001 decision not to move into the stately City Hall space occupied by his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, but instead to fashion a bullpen-style work area he shared with his aides (much as he did when running Bloomberg LP), broke the mold. “I’ve never understood why anyone would want to seal himself off from the rest of the organization. In the bullpen, there are no walls, no gatekeepers, and no communication barriers,” the then-mayor told New York magazine in 2007.
Many other companies came around to Bloomberg’s philosophy, even if their staffs did not. In 2009, Goldman Sachs moved its headquarters from 85 Broad Street to a new building on nearby West Street, leaving behind a litany of empty suites. While partners were still able to snag coveted windowed offices, managing directors were bumped to interior-facing spaces and VPs were shifted even further, to open-plan benched seats. For many, the transition was rocky, proving just how much seating plans reflected hierarchy and status. “If I had been at a bench my whole life, it would be fine, but I used to have an office,” one VP complained at the time to the Wall Street Journal.
Goldman grumblers might have a point. Several surveys have indicated that the noise and stress of an open office takes a big toll on employee productivity and satisfaction. A 2014 study by Ipsos and office-furniture manufacturer Steelcase’s Workspace Futures Team showed open-plan workers lose 86 minutes a day to distractions, and 31 percent of respondents said they often have to leave to concentrate and get things done. They’re also taking way more sick days—up to 70 percent more, according to a study by a Canadian insurance company. (Likely a result of germs running rampant in common spaces. Don’t touch the door handles!)
The open-plan revolution even trickled down to the magazine industry, long known for extravagantly appointed chambers (like Gurley Brown’s). When Condé Nast—where top editors once enjoyed private bathrooms and even showers, and nearly all mid-level employees were granted their own offices—relocated their headquarters from Times Square to 1 World Trade Center, in 2014, private spaces were all but a memory for everyone except those at the very top. Time Inc. (publisher of Time, People, and others) made a similar southern migration, leaving Midtown’s famed Time-Life building in 2015 for a cramped space on Liberty Street. Unlike in the company’s golden days, there’s no 4:00 pm bar cart making the rounds. There are also precious few offices, with even veterans like then-Fortune editor Alan Murray rumored to have been relocated to cubicles.
Many argue that sharing space is more of a blessing than a curse. “Having an open floor-plan facilitates people sharing and communicating what they’re doing, which enables better collaboration, which is key to building the best services for our community,” Zuckerberg said in a 2015 video posted to Facebook—a statement that many in the tech community agree with.
In fact, for many millennials, much of the corner office’s appeal feels dated and obscene. “There’s definitely been a shift away from hierarchy in general. A lot of companies are finding that a flatter organization seems to help boost morale in a lot of ways,” says Natalie Engels, an architect with Gensler, the firm behind the office redesigns at Instagram, Adobe, and Etsy. “It seems counter-intuitive because you’re taking away an office, but it lets the senior management really know what’s happening with their business versus just hearing about what you want to hear about in meetings.”
When Gensler was brought in to redesign Adobe’s San Jose headquarters, the campus consisted almost entirely of private offices. “Most people didn’t have windows and it was really sad. How do you get people to talk to each other when they just go in and close their door?” Engels asks. Gensler’s transformation added multiple common-use areas and incorporated outdoor space, taking advantage of the city’s enviable weather. Employees are welcome to work from any spot on campus, which includes conference rooms, phone spaces, a library, and a cafe. Engels sees the approach as more philosophical than logistical. “Everyone has embraced the idea that you need to get out and have a place to come together. We’re becoming more digital; our entire world is going to be so automated. We’re very much social creatures by nature: We need to have this communal aspect,” she explains.
When Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, the co-founders of media company theSkimm, designed their new headquarters in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, community and a sense of individuality were major priorities for a business started on a couch in the pair’s shared apartment. (Conferences rooms were named after their favorite characters from “Law and Order: SVU.”) “When you walk into our office, you don’t see any traditional conference rooms or tables, but you see a lot of couches. We wanted a space that felt like a living room, which goes back to how we started,” Zakin says. The lack of traditional corner suites at theSkimm reflects a humility inherent in the company’s values, but also the logistics of its co-founders’ work habits. “Honestly, I never even sit at my desk. I’m always sitting on a couch with someone, or sitting on the floor,” admits Weisberg. “We don’t hew to a preconceived notion of what an office should look like. Companies have the power to design offices that reflect their culture and values.”
The radical new approach to collaboration is epitomized by the massive popularity of co-working spaces like WeWork. Since the 2010 opening of its first location in post-recession New York, the chain (the largest in a now-crowded field) has helped turn a niche business into a phenomenon. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of co-working companies around the world skyrocketed from 300 to 5,900, according to Deskmag.com. Last year, WeWork was valued at approximately $16 billion. The major companies try to distinguish themselves through an ever-increasing slate of amenities and programming options. The corner office may have been replaced by the open-plan, but there are still high-end perks to be found.
At Alley, which has four locations in New York, CEO Jason Saltzman believes the key is making the space intrinsic to its members’ lives, an all-purpose solution to the vexing geographic complexities of daily tasks. He offers a nursing room, a barbershop, and legal office hours, all of which free up time for workers to spend, well, working. NeueHouse, which has spaces in New York and Los Angeles, cultivates a clientele of creative professionals and offers evening film screenings, book launches, and political discussions with luminaries like Hillary Clinton and the New Yorker’s David Remnick. “It’s a platform to inspire progressive thinking and foster meaningful connections. Both of which were lacking in the traditional corner office model,” says CEO Karl Finegan.
More important to many customers, however, is the sense of workplace camaraderie that thrives in close proximity. Brittney Hart, WeWork’s head of interior design, developed the company’s 125 locations around the idea that, properly synergized, each enterprise could inspire the others. “If you go into a typical law firm or hedge fund, the classic floor plan—and the hierarchy—still exist. But a large portion of the workplace has flattened,” says Hart. “There’s a desire to learn from your peers. Just because you may be a little older, or have a little more experience, doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from the intern.”
Perhaps generously, Alley’s Saltzman sees this approach as indicative of a generational shift, away from pre-recession excess and towards a more entrepreneurial and philanthropic way of life. “That corner office is gaudy. It’s cliché, it’s gross. In my world, which is the new-economy world, people don’t care about status. They care about intelligence and about connecting,” he says. “It’s a give-first world, and the corner office is a symbol of that old-school culture of greed.” The sign you’ve arrived, then, is no longer your own private piece of office real estate, your windows, or your view. It’s being able to thrive in a classless society, and distinguish yourself without the trappings of power. It’s easy to be a boss from the 53rd floor. Now try doing it from a beanbag chair.
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