Are private offices status symbols? And what happens if we take them away?

Many organizations are in the throes of supporting people as they transition from current ways of working to new ways of working. For many people the new ways of working are radically different. Among other changes they are moving from

  • Own desk/office space that is assigned to them to shared space, perhaps desk sharing or hoteling
  • Roaming or teleworking from the assigned space to roaming or teleworking from unassigned space
  • People having private offices based on position in hierarchy to people having enclosed work space based on job function.
  • Traditional one-for-one space assignment to neighborhoods or zones with fluid boundaries

In making this cultural and working practices shift people tend to concentrate on space planning and work practices and processes. But there is another factor around the cultural change that is worth investigating.

Some research by Professor Halevy of Stanford University, and others, suggests in his article Power Corrupts, Particularly When it Lacks Status that if symbols of status are removed there are consequences in the way power is used (and misused). He and his research team predicted that when people have a role that gives them power but lacks status – and the respect that comes with that status – then it can lead to demeaning behaviors. They tested this prediction and found it to be true – albeit in laboratory rather than a real world situation. Nevertheless it is an interesting finding because if it is generalizable into the world of work there may be the unforeseen consequence of negative behavior change if symbols of status i.e. private offices are removed and there are no replacement status symbols.

I asked whether the research had touched on offices as status symbols and Halevy replied: "We haven't looked at the effects of taking away status symbols on the behavior of power holders, although I suspect that, in the absence of alternative ways to signal status, taking away these status symbols might lead power holders to try to dominate others in their environment to re-establish a clear hierarchy. Thus, devising alternative, less costly ways for people to signal their status might be necessary to avoid these outcomes".

If people either consciously or unconsciously regard 'their own' private office as a status symbol (regardless of whether they say it is an essential for them to work effectively), and have an emotional attachment to this 'entitlement', what are the effects of any drive towards a working environment that has many fewer private offices and encourages people to hot-desk, desk share, 'hotel', and telework? Will power without status corrupt absolutely as the Economist article commenting on Halvey's research suggests.

In my own work I have heard people say that they would like their managers to have offices. I was a little perplexed by this but then read another article, The fluency of social hierarchy: The ease with which hierarchical relationships are seen, remembered, learned, and liked, that suggested "that relationships with more hierarchical organization are easier to see, understand, learn, and remember. This cognitive fluency of hierarchies could be one mechanism through which hierarchies persist and are enjoyed even though people often claim to want to avoid them" – it seems plausible then that private offices signal the comfort of hierarchy.

In fact, Halevy's more recent research in fact shows that power without status, while perhaps not corrupting absolutely, does breed dysfunctional relationship conflict in organizations.

So it would be interesting to do specific power/status research project on the power and status implications of moving from traditional to new ways of working. People in the following situations could be invited to participate in the research:

• Those who currently have private offices and who have not been asked to give them up
• Those who currently have private offices and might be asked to give them up
• Those who have had private offices in the past and have already given them up private offices,

The research may extend to consider other things that might qualify as status symbols such as car parking spaces or 'territory' like their own floor plate for their organization.

The findings from any such study might help with

• Mitigating some of the risks around impacting people's feelings about status
• Capturing ways in which employees may self-affirm to compensate for lost status symbols
• Identifying 'compensating' status elements if these are required for effective performance
• Determining whether there is any link between power use and status symbols in an organization that affects for good or ill workplace performance
• Developing a change plan that recognizes the power/status relationship

What's your view – are offices the status symbols of power? Will the exercise of power change for the worse if the status symbols are removed?