Democracy by design

Can a man's or woman's worth be measured in square feet of office space? Major corporations are turning from office sizes graded by status to equal-sized offices for all professional employees with an upturn in morale.

Reprinted by permission from the March, Science 86. Copyright by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. John Pfeiffer is a contributing editor.

Because Jesus said, "You are all brothers" (Matt. 23:8, MV), the church has a semblance of wage parity, and some leaders are urging full parity. How about office space equality? Should the principles of equality inherent in His words be acknowledged in building General Conference, union, and local conference/mission administrative offices? Should the same principles be practiced in designing offices in worship edifices, educational institutions, publishing houses, and hospitals?

If secular organizations strive to reduce "the intensity of the struggle for status," should the church's Christian perspective lead it to make the same effort? The following article, although not religiously oriented, contains principles that Christian leaders and building committees would do well to consider and practice.—Editors.

In this decade for the first time, white-collar workers comprise more than half of all adult employees. They now make up 53 percent of the work force a figure expected to rise to 90 percent by the year 2000. The sheer numbers of new professionals have forced planners to come up with new designsespecially for those big rooms at the top.

Four years ago Union Carbide joined the effort to deal with the revolution in the composition of the work force. The company moved its headquarters from a soaring fifty-two-story Manhattan tower on Park Avenue to a low-slung $100 million structure in Danbury, Connecticut, that looks like a mammoth space station ready for takeoff. A mere four stories high, the building spreads over eighteen acres of woodlands. Consisting of a rectangular central area with fifteen outlying sections, it is designed to provide all professional employees with equal-sized officesand, as far as possible, with equally pleasant and attractive views of the pastoral surroundings.

Life on Park Avenue had become hopelessly complicated. It was impossible within the vertical dimensions of a skyscraper to dole out the appropriate level of benefits to some two thousand professionals as they climbed the managerial ladder. Office size posed an especially tricky problem. The chief executive officer had a palatial 875 square feet all to himself on the top floor, roughly equivalent to a two-bedroom apartment. Depending on rank, lesser workers toiled on lower floors within areas of 375, 300, 225, 150, or 100 square feet.

The system had already begun to crumble when a decision to break the expanding seven-hundred-employee Chemical and Plastic Division into eight product divisions produced a frenzy of status-seeking. The change immediately created seven brand-new division presidents, all of whom expected appropriately larger and higher-story offices for themselvesand, of course, special offices close by for their new vice presidents and so on down the line. No amount of space-shuffling could ever have satisfied the forty-odd executives involved.

Puzzles like this one inspired Union Carbide's top management to forge ahead with plans to move into new quarters in Connecticutand to take a hard look at offices from the standpoint of function rather than prestige. The architectural firm of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates held hour-long interviews with 184 employees at all levels to confront the key question: How much space does an individual really need? How much space does one person require for a desk and working surface, ample storage, and table and chairs for informal meetings?

Karl Gruen, then Union Carbide's assistant director of the new headquarters project, worked closely with the architects to plan down to the last detail: "We made full-scale cardboard mockups of furniture arranged in various positions, chalked out areas on the floor, and allowed room for circulation. A total area of 13.5 by 13.5 feet182.25 square feet seemed to meet all requirements." Environmental psychologist Franklin Becker of Cornell University speculates that this figure may represent some sort of magic number. Many designers, he says, confirm that the 175- to 200- square-foot range nicely accommodates all the typical jobs that professionals perform.

Still some perks

Utter equality at Union Carbide has not been attained. Although the fifteen highest-ranking officers no longer enjoy such Park Avenue superbennies as private bathrooms, they do have an extra 13.5- by 13.5-foot modulebut for meetings, not for private work space. Furthermore, for all the innovative architecture, some locations are more desirable than others, offering panoramic outlooks over the woodlands rather than internal courtyard viewsand top-floor offices are still most prestigious.

But in Danbury the conspicuous trap pings of status are absent. In Manhattan, top executives displayed their original art and marble-top desks. With the move, every professional could choose from thirty different sets of furniture representing traditional, Scandinavian, and modern stylesall equal in value and each featuring one show piece. (Gruen, for example, has a mahogany desk with roll-top compartments at either end.) Artwork in eleven styles was also available no originals, but two or three fine prints for each office. The result: variety, a wide range of tastes, and no status markers.

To learn how Union Carbiders are doing in their status-free building, Becker's former graduate student Cynthia Froggatt, now associated with a New York architectural and design firm, studied employees' reactions. Froggatt conducted an extensive study based on a one hundred-item questionnaire given to 264 professionals. Her most significant finding: The big-man-big-space tradition, dating back to the pharaohs and beyond, could be scrapped without arousing massive resistance. In fact, the response is solidly positive. The overall satisfaction rate with individual work space turns out to be 4-3 on a l-to-5 scale, unusually high for such surveys. In 1982, a similar survey of 1,500 employees from companies with traditional work-space policies came up with a 3.38 rating for managers.

Union Carbide is the largest but not the only American company to go equal. Austeel, a small steel mill in Auburn, New York, has identical offices for all, measuring about twelve by fifteen feet. When Arnold and Porter, a 200-lawyer Washington, D.C., law firm, moved into a new building several years ago, it offered senior partners first choice of the larger offices. But all the associates' offices are about the same size. According to Gruen, Conoco's recently completed Houston headquarters was designed by the firm that did Union Carbide and with the same principles in mind.

Europe leads the way

These American companies, represent what is becoming established practice in Europe. Becker, who has visited more than two hundred office buildings here and abroad during the course of his research, points to Swedish designs as perhaps the most progressive. By law, all employees must have access to natural daylight, which makes for long, narrow Pullman-car buildings with offices on the periphery and file cases and coffee machines along internal corridors. Although upper management in Sweden gets extra space, all other employees, including typists and file clerks, get equal space. Going one better, IBM recently designed a new building just outside Stockholm with identical-sized offices for all.

According to Becker, Germany rates several notches below Sweden on the office-democracy scale. A typical bank in Mannheim, for example, has an upper floor featuring posh offices for a dozen senior managers. Department heads and supervisors have small offices, while their subordinates sit outside in open "bullpen" areas. But Germany too has daylight-access laws, and union representatives are consulted about office space and regularly sit in on top management meetings. Becker rates British companies rather more status-conscious than their German counterparts, with a series of office sizes expressing stronger hierarchical values. But Americans, he says, are the most flagrantly status-rid den. Becker considers U. S. designs the "most autocratic and elitist of all. "

Japan represents an entirely different attitude toward work and work space. In some ways it resembles the German pattern of open bullpen areas for most workers and privacy for a select few. But as a rule, employees do not attach special importance to their particular locations, at least not the way Western workers do. Privileged executives regard the offices they occupy as the company's, not their own, and certainly not as symbols of personal prestige. This reflects a tendency in Japanese organizations to think more in group than in individual terms.

"Equal office space looks to be the next step," Becker says. But he hastens to add that these egalitarian notions adopted from the Europeans are not motivated by purely democratic instincts. Techniques that reduce the intensity of the struggle for status can be expected to boost morale and, probably, productivity. "They work better," he says, "and make managing easier."


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Reprinted by permission from the March, Science 86. Copyright by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. John Pfeiffer is a contributing editor.

June 1986

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