A journalist colleague was pondering our imminent move to “activity-based working” recently and reflecting on the gradual decline in his status.
From a high point in the late 1990s when he commanded his own office and an assistant, he has been steadily “downsized” to an office sharing an assistant and then to a cubicle with no researcher. Soon he and the rest of my bureau will all be trading in our permanent desks for an “activity-based working” space, where we choose a desk for the day and lock our belongings away at night.
There are good reasons for ABW: reducing office rents and possibly boosting collaboration. But even supporters admit there can be a downside. Amanda Martin, a Melbourne Business School/Mt Eliza Executive Education organisational change specialist, says “there’s an enormous amount of sensitivity around status, so when you decant into an ABW environment, you are likely to get a lot of push-back.”
It’s not just the prestigious office that is an endangered species. In the ABW environment, you can’t permanently position yourself close to the top brass. There’s no room at your desk for trophies, certificates or flattering articles about your past work. Lots of pictures of the spouse and kids or scribbles by your talented young nephew also have to go.
Smart employers encourage personalisation of work spaces
Keti Malkoski, workplace research psychologist at interior management services company Schiavello, says 98 per cent of employees personalise their space at work and smart employers take it into account to foster belonging.
Employees who have been employed longer, and those whose jobs require them to spend more time in their workspaces, tend to personalise their workspace the most, she says.
She suggests putting teams in particular zones that are decorated to reflect the identity and achievements of the team.
Zones can include display areas for employees’ personal objects and team achievements, she suggests.
Ways to signal status
Infosys “future of work” expert Holly Benson agrees “companies can find ways to signal status without there being a corner office and a secretary”. She adds that in organisations with flatter hierarchies, status remains important, but is often less about job title than such things as achievements, access to the best technology and having the “juice” to attract and assemble the best people to complete a project.The US consultant says one oil company has a social club for high achievers only. And one engineering company offers gold identity lanyards for those who generated enough ideas to become members of a “super patent-generator club”, she says.
Personally, I’m not keen on lanyards of any colour. I’m not too worried about losing my status symbols either – my desk is only decorated with stacks of paper and a can of tomato soup.
Rachel Nickless is workspace editor at the Australian Financial Review where this article was first published.