CEOs are known for sitting in the corner office and at the head of the table. But ditching those conventions – or just tweaking them – can help shift a company’s culture.
“In some organizations there’s a disconnect between the words [leaders] use to communicate their desired culture and the message that their space is sending,” according to a Steelcase report on global workspaces.
Working out in the open
Giving up a private office altogether and sitting at a desk among other employees works for some top executives – especially at smaller companies.
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It sends the message “I’m approachable,” said Jonathan Wasserstrum, CEO of commercial real estate and office design firm SquareFoot, which has fewer than 100 employees. “When we do onboarding I use this as a talking point. I tell new hires, ‘If you ever have any questions or concerns, come find me.’”
The setup works for Wasserstrum in other ways, too. He sits near his marketing and sales teams, which he said lets him keep his ear to the ground on company business.
“I like to have my direct reports right next to me,” he said. “It cuts down on time setting up conversations.”
When he needs privacy to deal with confidential issues, he’ll book a conference room, work from home or go to a coffee shop. When he needs to concentrate, he’ll put on a pair of headphones.
That work style, though, is tougher to swing for CEOs at large corporations. They simply can’t be personally accessible to thousands of employees. And they often need privacy for negotiations and high-level discussions, or just to take a minute since being CEO means being “on” all the time.
“It’s emotional labor and they need to get away,” said James Bailey, a professor of management at George Washington University.
But even in a larger organization, a leader can still demonstrate how they want company culture to change by where they sit. One CEO featured in Steelcase’s report chose to give up his large executive office for a smaller one on a lower floor to demonstrate his directive to “break down the hierarchy” and stop decision-making from being so top-down.
CEOs who want to keep their own office but still signal their desire for a more collaborative and informal culture could also have a desk in the open-plan area where they regularly do some work and interact with employees.
Ideally, that work will focus on something that the CEO is trying to implement, such as a more innovative culture, said Dustin York, a communications professor at Maryville University and an expert in how the use of space and design transmits nonverbal cues and affects behavior.
“If you get leaders inside the group, living and breathing that culture shift, it’s more likely to take root,” York said.
It can be effective, for instance, if the CEO is seen trying out a new piece of hardware or software that the company plans to adopt.
There’s also the benefit of making employees feel seen, which can boost engagement. Having the CEO work in the same room signals to them “I’m with you,” Bailey said.
So, too, can the informal exchanges that happen by being in close proximity. “Those conversations are always the most valuable for building an esprit de corps,” he said.
A word of caution: CEOs who are not socially adroit might end up making employees feel awkward or watched over, so attempts to embed with rank-n-file might backfire.
Where to sit in meeting
The one thing top executives do more than anything else, of course, is have meetings.
When the meetings are with their direct reports or a broader swath of employees, the aim of the gathering determines where it’s best for the top person to sit, according to York.
For collaborative meetings, in which the CEO is effectively the moderator, round tables are best, he said. But if a rectangular or oval table is the only option, York recommends removing the seats at both ends of the table so there is no head seat.
But if the point of a meeting is, say, conflict resolution, and the CEO is expected to be arbiter, it would be more comfortable for everyone involved if the boss sat at the head of the table.
“People want to see the leader show up in that situation,” York said.