What Your Office Reveals About You

An expert looks at the offices of nine successful Dallas executives and discovers some of the keys to their success.

To the average person for whom work is merely an unfortunate necessity, the place in which it is done is convenient or inconvenient, pleasant or unpleasant, but of no basic significance. To the person for whom work is the exercise of power, the place where it is done becomes the board on which power games are played, the central source from which power is derived.

For at least eight hours a day the office provides one with all the risks, opportunities, dangers, triumphs, defeats, and demands of the larger world outside. It has its own landscape and natural features, which must be approached as the hunter approaches his environment; its own trails and paths and watering places, where the inhabitants can move and congregate in comparative freedom from the attention of predators; places where the natural color is good, and other places where danger can be scented, where the threat of the predator is in the air. In every corner of even the most banal office there are signs of protective personal power, ritual objects with which people assert their own place of safety or power. The poster taped to the wall, the photographs of children or lovers or vacation spots, framed diplomas, stuffed animal toys, carefully calligraphed phrases or poems – the list is endless, but the instinct to mark one’s place is the same. We all feel the need to make our spot our own, even if it’s only a desk in the typists’ pool, and all attempts to impose a clean and uncluttered scheme of impersonal design ultimately fail for this reason. Even in modern banks, where the desks are exposed to public view by plate-glass windows and where the rules controlling the display of personal objects are fairly rigid, one can see the evidence of the need to leave some mark of ourselves. At night one can look through down-town and see the long rows of gleaming desks, each one identical, each one clean of scattered papers, but on every one an object that is meaningful to somebody – a homemade ceramic ashtray, a pink plastic rose, a Charlie Brown desk calendar. In offices hidden from the public’s sight, personality markers flourish to a much greater degree, usually growing more expensive and permanent in nature as the salary and size of the person’s office increase, but often leveling off at the $40,000-a-year mark, at which point a professional decorator may become responsible for the office’s appearance.

To survive the power game of daily life, it is important to develop an eye for power. You have to learn just why it is that people tend to gather in certain spots, while also learning how to secure your own power spot.

Generally speaking, offices are based upon a corner power system, rather than a central one, simply because the corner offices tend to be larger and more desirable. The closer one is to the physical center of an office layout, the less powerful one is. Offices in the middle of a row are less powerful than the ones at either end. Power, therefore, tends to communicate itself from corner to corner in an X-shaped pattern, leaving certain areas as dead space, in power terms, even though they may contain large, comfortable rooms with outside windows.

An “outside” office, however desirable it may be because of its windows, is in fact a less powerful place to be than an inside office closer to the lines of power, and it may well be better to stay inside the power area, forgoing a window until such time as one can acquire a corner office. People who move to “outside” offices in the middle of the row, in the power dead space, tend to stay there forever.

Anyone who has ever tried to reallocate office space can testify to the existence of certain ? fixed patterns which are almost impossible to disrupt – offices which people don’t want to abandon even for the lure of larger, lighter ones; secretaries who have acquired territorial rights so strong that they cannot be moved; pieces of furniture that have acquired totemic significance. Certain power spots are obvious. For example, executives always prefer to have their offices protected from easy access, while most secretaries, because they act as a lookout and a defense against unwanted intrusions, prefer to have an open view in as many directions as possible. Thus, an executive office that is out of the traffic mainstream is more powerful than one that isn’t, while a secretary, in contrast, is likely to prize a position that gives her a commanding view of one or many hallways, a position which naturally enough is available only in the corners of a conventional office building.

If view lines are important, so is proximity. In most cases, power diminishes with distance. Put someone’s assistant next to his superior’s office, and the assistant benefits from being close to the source of power. Promote the assistant to a larger office that is farther away, and his power is likely to decrease. Only if he is given a title and a job that allows him to create his own power base instantly can he benefit from moving. I have known at least one assistant to an aging senior executive resist every temptation to move to a better office, well meant as these suggestions were. Seated in a kind of cubbyhole beside the great man’s office, a dark, hot closet full of filing cabinets and coat racks, he fought like a tiger to protect his position of proximity until he had a title of his own. No secretary would have worked in that airless little cubicle, but my friend Sidney stayed on in it, and for many good reasons. It had a door that led into the executive’s office, thus giving Sidney a right of access without going past the executive’s secretary, and another door opening out onto the corridor, so that he could see everybody coming and going. Well-wishers told him that he was crazy – it was too noisy, it afforded no privacy, it was too close to the men’s room – but Sidney had the sense to realize that he was powerful because he was close to power.

“So long as I sat there, I had it made,” he recalled as we talked in his luxurious new office. “I got to know everyone who came in. If they had to wait, they came in and leaned on my desk, or used my phone to confirm lunch dates, and everybody assumed that I must know everything that was going on. I didn’t have to do anything, whereas if I’d moved down the hall to a real office, farther away, people would have passed by and asked themselves who the hell I was and what I was supposed to be doing. I’d have had to justify my existence. Sitting where I was, my position justified me. “

For the person who seeks power, the first step is to look at the place where one works in power terms, to study the office as a coherent landscape. In many large organizations, the center of power is on the lower of two floors, and this is usually a good sign. I know of one large investment bank which has two floors at the top of a skyscraper. The reception room and the working staff are on the higher of the two floors, which is connected by a narrow staircase to the offices of the senior executives downstairs. This arrangement, by no means uncommon, may be the result of an atavistic memory of World War II. If the building is going to be bombed, the more floors between you and the bombs, the better, and the more dispensable members of the organization therefore go on the upper stories of the building, the ultimate center of power being, of course – in theory – the cellar. In ordinary power terms, however, a business in which the senior executives have retreated to a floor below their working staff is usually one in which the same seniors have also abdicated direct responsibility for day-to-day operations, allowing a separate and more active hierarchy to flourish above them unsu-pervised. When the senior executives are on the floor above, they tend to exercise a tighter control over the organization, and the hierarchy is usually more rigid, especially in terms of promotion. This may be simply because it’s easier to walk downstairs than to climb upstairs – beyond a certain age, there’s nothing like climbing a flight of stairs to discourage interference – but the fact remains that anyone seeking power would do well to choose a company in which the president and his closest associates are on the floor below, rather than on the floor above.

Obviously to be avoided are “open plan” offices, those built with few, if any, walls and partitions.

It may well be that “an open office encourages openness in people,” but openness is not necessarily desirable, and the justifications for removing executives from their offices and placing them out in the open together are seldom convincing. After all, they’re not supposed to be communicating with one another on a free and open basis, even if that were possible, which is unlikely. Executives are supposed to be developing ideas, competing, running things, and making decisions. The rationale for an open office is democracy and sociability, but the fact is that chief executives who insist on open offices basically don’t trust their senior employees and want to keep each and every one of them under surveillance. This paranoid view of the world is frequently masked by talk about “productive intercommunication” or the “business sociability factor.”

Even in the most open offices, a closed space usually exists for delicate operations such as firing people, but the real problem is that employees in open spaces are not working for themselves or toward their specific tasks, but for an audience of fellow workers and superiors. It isn’t so much “sociability” that’s encouraged as the art of looking busy, and when the chief executive of a corporation wants to get out of his office and sit among his vice-presidents, it is more likely to be because he doesn’t trust them than because he longs to engage in open dialogue with them.

It is in precisely the places where power is valued and symbolized that power can best be sought. Places in which the management has tried to eliminate the signs and symbols of power, to encourage “openness,” are places in which the leadership is determined to retain all the power and to prevent the growth of any alternative centers of power below it.

Extreme architectural innovations are therefore to be avoided, since they are warning signs to the wary player, whatever their form. For someone who wants to rise swiftly, it is not encouraging to learn that the four partners of one investment-managing concern share a big circular desk in a single corner office (which they refer to rather threateningly as “the war room”); men who spend their working hours together as closely as this are unlikely to take much notice of the people who work for them – the whole game is being run, as it were, for their amusement.

A careful look at an office will thus reveal quite easily whether power is centralized or distributed in some pattern. If it shows signs of being absolutely and firmly centralized, it may be as well to go somewhere else. If it isn’t, then it’s necessary to study the pattern.

While the corners of an office are, as we have seen, the most powerful places, it is always important to see the extent to which each corner occupant has been able to extend his or her territorial rights, and in which direction. Most executives try to build up a buffer zone of subordinates on either side of them, intruding into the middle outer offices on both sides as far as they can, and also reaching out toward the center of the office along their line of power. Architectural features sometimes get in the way, but the impulse to reach out is very strong, and department heads are often anxious to secure some small beachhead a long way from their own domain in the hope of gradually taking over the space between their own power center and this isolated outpost. No matter how complicated the construction problems involved, they will then attempt to create a single corridor of access running the length of their territory, and to seal off its end in a kind of Berlin Wall, obliging the visitor to go back out into the hall to get to the next office in line. Failing this, they will attempt to take over portions of the hall itself, using bulletin boards, posters and wall decorations to lay claim to the portion of the common hallway that runs through or past their territory, so that a stranger walking down the hall immediately realizes that he has crossed an invisible frontier.

Color has its uses in marking areas of personal power. Just as there’s an irresistible need to mark the borders of one’s own power space, however small it is, there’s a need to establish a visual image for the space under one’s control. Color is the usual way to do this. An office in which there is a visible pattern of colors is always a better place for players of power games to be than one that is uniformly painted. I know an executive who has what might be called a “thing” for blue. She began by having a blue carpet installed in her office, then had the furniture re-covered in blue corduroy, then had the walls and even the Venetian blinds painted blue. Soon her secretary’s red chair was replaced with a blue one, and a blue IBM Selectric II typewriter with a blue ribbon appeared on her desk. Gradually, as her power increased, blue began to spread outward from her office, a tide of blue that touched filing cabinets, desks, floors, coffee mugs, and water coolers. Since the other executives had no comparable obsession with color, the growth of this one highly visible spot of color was all the more striking, and soon came to acquire a threatening force of its own. Blue had become a sign. The people who worked for her tended to wear blue, simply because it matched their surroundings, but what had begun as a joke or a habit before long became a badge of loyalty, and the heads of other departments trembled with fear when their secretaries turned up for work in blue dresses, as if they had unmasked themselves as the fifth column of an enemy army. Until one of them discovers a rival power color, the office will go on getting bluer every day.

In some offices, where decoration is in the hands of higher authority, the limits of the power area are established by such things as identical pen and pencil desk sets, cork wallboards, or magnetic wall charts. The main thing is to find something nobody else has, appropriate it as a symbol, and use it to announce territorial rights to a given space.

Certain ways of placing furniture can sometimes be used to establish such rights, if there is no other way, and in many offices all the desks in one department or power area can be seen to face the same way, usually toward the head of the department, as Muslims face toward Mecca when praying. Most larger offices also are divided into direct “confrontation” areas (desk chairs), and social “discussion” areas.

Generally speaking, people tend to stay away from power areas, as if dangerous radiation emanated from them. Conversely, areas in which a great many people congregate are seldom power areas, since people generally collect together for safety. In a lot of offices, you can see where these safety zones have been established by the wear and tear on the linoleum of the floor and the rub marks against the walls. By mutual consent, certain places become set aside where people can talk, drink coffee, and relax, without interference from management. A similar grouping inside a power area would almost certainly attract unfavorable attention.

Thus, secretaries of senior executives will leave the power area to drink a cup of coffee and chat, whereas people outside the power area can and do stay where they are. Some meeting areas are departmental, purely local areas of safety closed to people from other departments. Others are integrated, in the sense that people from every department can meet within their limits at ease. The most important safety areas are those near a power area, since they also tend to attract senior power-game players as well, who from time to time join the rank and file, largely to seek assurance that they still have power.

A careful analysis of any office will identify certain places in which even the most powerful people are able to mingle with their inferiors on a relatively equal basis. Sometimes it’s the reception area of a business office where, for a moment, people are equal as they struggle into their coats. A secretary may hesitate to speak to the chairman of the company in the hall, even though they’re both walking down it at the same pace, and may even drop behind deliberately so as to allow the chairman to go first and avoid initiating a conversation. Then, as they enter the reception area, even a secretary may well speak to a chairman. In power terms it’s a neutral area, not quite in the office, but still a part of it, so an exchange between them becomes not only possible, but mandatory. After they have negotiated the door and entered the elevator, conversation once more becomes impossible. They have now left the office, and have no connection with each other – in all likelihood, a cheery exchange in front of the receptionist’s desk will be followed by their standing in separate corners of the elevator, eyes fixed at the flashing numbers above the door so as to avoid further visual contact.

If the reception room is an area in which free communication between people at different power levels is – briefly – permissible, other areas in the office exist for the purpose of power displays. No powerful person likes to be sealed up in his office forever, however luxurious it is. The rituals of power must be completed in public, and the powerful are thus obliged to reaffirm their membersnip in the power structure at regular intervals and following an established pattern. Where people take their coffee breaks together, power players will usually emerge from their own offices and join the group, but will seldom become part of it, preferring to stand slightly to one side, and as far away from other power players as possible.

If these encounters take place in a hallway or corridor, as is frequently the case, the experienced power player will always try to get his back against the wall and will usually position himself near a doorway that leads to some open area. He is thus protected from the approach of people who might come up behind him, and able to move rapidly away from the group into the open area, and thence back to the safety of his own office. The important thing is to place oneself so that one can never be surprised or trapped, thus maintaining a control over people’s approach and preserving a quick escape route in case of need.

Certain corners of hallways and corridors thus acquire the social functions of a Middle Eastern bazaar or the main street of a Western town. And for good reasons: for it is important to remember that most people who have power need to have it reconfirmed from time to time. Within their own sphere they are subject to the pressures of rivalry and competition, in conflict with others who are determined either to strip them of power or to deny that they have any in the first place. Those who have power are in a sense dependent upon those who don’t to determine if they still have it, and it is from time to time vital for them to test their power quotient. This phenomenon, of extreme importance in playing power games, explains why office parties are necessary. It’s not so much a question of enjoyment as a ritual test of status that requires a full cast to be meaningful.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.