Ah, the coveted corner office. Before the pandemic turned our way of working upside-down, the corner office was the classic beacon of success, a synonym for upper management. For years, corner offices were the most desirable real estate in the workplace, with more privacy and grander windows that provide the best views the space had to offer. They also sent a clear message about the commanding status of the person whose name was embossed on the door. But now that hybrid work has taken over, the glimmering status symbol is rapidly losing its luster.
Not only did the onset of the COVID-19 virus dramatically alter how millions of workers perform their jobs, it also put a noticeable dent in employees’ attitudes about work. The pandemic proved once and for all that meandering meetings could be communicated just as effectively in a succinct email, that dress codes can be loosened without sacrificing professionalism, and that millions of employees didn’t need to come into the office every single day to adequately do their jobs. And the status quo within the office changed with it.
It isn’t that the power of status has diminished. “The need for status is considered a fundamental motive,” said the University of California, Berkeley Professor Cameron Anderson in his 2015 dissertation. In it, Anderson and two other Ph.D. candidates unpacked the human desire for status and found ample evidence that people prefer environments that afforded them higher status. “One important property of status is that it is contextual, defined with reference to a particular relationship or group.” For decades in an office context, the corner office provided instrumental social value. The symbolic significance of the corner office denoted distinction and importance; the corner office’s occupant was usually where the “big boss” sat. Meanwhile, the rest of the staff working in a cubicle or an open office area can look to the corner office as their personal goalpost as they visualized themselves sitting inside that exact space one day.
But in a hybrid office, what greats status has changed? Now, flexibility has created its own hierarchy. The ability to work from home or from any location in the office has become an important perk for many employees. Companies are investing time and resources into workspaces that people can reserve with smart building technology, putting less emphasis on differentiating individual status and more emphasis on democratizing space.
In a competitive market where employees have more leverage than ever, companies know that they need to keep their employees engaged in order to keep them around. “Companies with the most engaged workforces have a collaborative and equitable office vibe,” said Mahesh Vidyasagar, Global Vice President of Enterprise Real Estate and Workplace at Robert Half, a California-based staffing and recruiting firm. “The future questions employees will have are not ‘why can’t I work from home today,’ but ‘why should I come into the office today?’” That worker sentiment has become so universal that office landlords are beginning to understand, if they haven’t already, that more egalitarian spaces will attract tenants and yield higher rents.
In the old way of working, corner offices represented an upward career trajectory as they were typically reserved for the most senior employees. Not only that, the corner offices were usually the largest ones available. I asked Vidyasagar for a more precise estimate on that front. He told me that it varied depending on the industry, but for service-related industries like law, finance, consulting, or brokerage, corner offices could take up anywhere from 10-25 percent of the total office space.
Corner offices could inhabit quite a chunk of the occupier’s real estate footprint in a building, so it’s not surprising that they were up on the chopping block as companies began to cut back on space. Companies are eliminating private offices and redesigning their office spaces to give conference rooms and lounge spaces more of the coveted window space.
Hybrid work means fewer people coming into the office every day, so occupiers are faced with hundreds if not thousands of square feet of excess space that the occupier is on the hook for paying to rent and maintain. The cost of supporting underutilized office space is beginning to outweigh the value-add that corner office occupiers give to the organization as a whole, especially when wayward inflation is prompting a substantial amount of corporate tenants to consolidate their total office footprint.
Last spring, commercial real estate firm CBRE surveyed 185 corporate real estate executives with U.S. office portfolios. Fifty-two percent of respondents said that they plan to contract the size of their office spaces. With so many shrinkages planned, office spaces are becoming more multi-functional, which means that spaces dedicated to a single individual can be put to better use. Vidyasagar has seen this phenomenon firsthand. “I have seen several successful corner offices retrofitted into collaborative meeting rooms, libraries, or game rooms to foster in-person experiences largely missing during the pandemic,” he explained.
Obsolete or out of fashion?
While attitudes towards corner offices have cooled, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to disappear entirely. Vidyasagar pointed out that other industries that are thriving, like the manufacturing sector, still denote where the “boss” sits with corner offices. “There is also still a healthy demographic that is driven by the aspirational components entangled within the confines of the corner office,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that it is obsolete just yet—but certainly on its way out of fashion.”
Corner offices remain in certain sectors, but in the industries where they’re no longer en vogue, what’s superseding them? Vidyasagar can’t predict with certainty what that would be, but he does know what it won’t be. “The new corner office won’t be physical. It will be virtual.”
Vidyasagar thinks that the new corner office will manifest itself in some way in the metaverse, although he can’t quite picture what that is just yet.
Anderson, the professor from UC Berkeley who specializes in the psychology of power and status, has an idea of how influence can be conveyed in a virtual space, and it’s as simple as being the one running the Zoom meeting. “If you need to influence people, [hosting] Zoom, Skype, or whatever video chat you want to use is the best way to go,” he said. Hosting a video chat is not nearly as ritzy as having prime real estate to your name five days a week, but influence over an organization is still conveyed.
It’s not all doom and gloom for C-suite executives, as plenty of amenities have survived the ghastly pandemic. Designated parking spots, company cars, and even private jet trips can be fundamental motives in and of themselves. But it seems like, at least for now, the corner office is falling out of favor when it comes to a status symbol for top performers and upper management.