How Design is Helping Our Workplaces Become More Egalitarian

Once upon a time, the architects and interior designers working on office spaces were guided as much by company hierarchy as by aesthetics and innovation. The central idea here was the so-called space pyramid which dictated that the higher up the pyramid (or corporate food-chain) you were, the more space you had.

By the end of the 20th century, people were feeling fed up with slogging away in cramped cubicles while management napped behind mahogany desks that were twice the size of their garrets and it was all starting to look a bit ostentatious and naff. The big office with the ever-closed door was on the way out, helped in part by changes and advances in tech that levelled out the playing field.

Business team discussing

Furniture was also used to display status within a company – those offices to let in Teddington had the big oak desks, the high-backed swivelling chairs and the Newton’s Cradle. All these elements combined to separate the drones from their betters, until everyone started to see it for the illusion it all was.

Status still exists, but it’s undergone a sea-change

Status is still with us, it’s a primal thing, but we signal it and approach it in different ways now. In many ways, status is now something you do rather than something you have – you have to earn it, be seen to earn it and be seen to keep earning it.

The biggest physical sign of this change when it comes to work spaces is the open-plan office. The head honchos mingle with everyone else and their status comes from what they do rather than what they have; they’re not set apart from their employees like they were in the past. This means they’re not just more approachable to workers of different levels and different departments, but they have nowhere to hide when they make mistakes like all humans do.

No more hierarchy, it’s all about holocracy

Holocracy is a new type of managerial structure that is transparent and accountable and lets everyone within the system move around between levels and roles. Everyone shares authority and can transfer it around so everyone gets a chance to make decisions and lead teams.

This new philosophy has a physical manifestation – the open-plan office, the shared meeting spaces and even the hot-desking culture. Everything is democratised and collaborative, with different disciplines and authority levels weaving in and out as their briefs demand.

Business meeting in a conference room

There’s also much more use of lighter-coloured woods and finishes so that workplaces look more like hotels or even homes. A hulking great mahogany desk would look totally out of place in an environment like this, even if it actually has somewhere to go. The changes in the floor layouts has also undergone a transformation, with more open space on the floor and workstations arranged in rounds so no-one is at the head of a table anywhere.

These changes aren’t just a matter of interior design trends, they’re proof of the changes in corporate organisation and attitudes towards hierarchy. Our workspaces have to be in tune with our new philosophies if we’re to show the world what we mean.