The nature of leadership has changed. In a more complex, unpredictable and connected world, executives have evolved, finding new ways to manage their responsibilities, navigate the risk and reward landscape and seize opportunities for growth. The old hierarchical structures of the past are no longer effective for leaders who must keep pace with a constantly shifting landscape. A new more responsive, inclusive and connected leadership style has emerged in its place.
Yet despite this evolution, one aspect of the workplace has remained stubbornly consistent - the spaces that leaders work in. A recent Steelcase-sponsored survey by the independent research firm IPSOS found that 58 per cent of leaders are still based in a traditional corner office, a hangover from the hierarchical approach of the past. But just like top-down power structures, the design feels out of date and constricting when considered against current executive challenges and ways of working.
A two-year, multinational study by Steelcase tracked the day-to-day activities and behaviours of top executives from more than 20 global companies. Taking a human-centred design approach, grounded in the social sciences and using ethnographic and anthropologic techniques, we analysed the new executive work styles and stresses, with a view to understanding how the workplace can better support the needs of the modern leader.
We discovered eight new challenges and expectations that leaders are facing today:
Infobesity: Executives are faced by an onslaught of information every day, but it is impossible digest and know everything in detail. Instead leaders rely heavily on a network of experts to keep them informed and up-to-date.
Rapid context shifting: The breadth of their work means leaders must rapidly change context at a moment’s notice, as they move from one meeting to another.
Protect brand influence: In a global workplace, with more internal and external relationships than ever, leaders are constantly managing and protecting their network and influence.
Extreme need for privacy: Executives also have a balancing act between dealing frequently with sensitive and confidential information, and remaining accessible for their staff and colleagues.
Highly fragmented schedules: Working at a fast pace, often spanning multiple time zones, leaders’ schedules have become so fragmented that they are losing connection with their staff and colleagues, leaving them in danger of working at cross-purposes.
Highly mobile: Leaders are spending more time out of the office in an effort to ease the flow of information. This highly nomadic approach is leaving them at risk of becoming cognitively overburdened, as they try to work longer and harder.
Dependence on assistants: With dynamic schedules and an overload of information, leaders are increasingly reliant on assistants to manage their workload and responsibilities.
Heightened level of stress: Higher performance expectations and greater demands on their time mean leaders are inevitably becoming more stressed in the process.
When considering these findings, it becomes clear that the corner office approach still favoured by so many executives, isn’t right for the modern workplace. At a time when they need to be more connected to their staff and colleagues, the corner office leaves them isolated and inaccessible, shut away from the rest of the organisation. It also reinforces the top-down power structure, which today’s leaders are moving away from, preventing them from devolving more responsibility and decision-making across the business. Space must work harder to facilitate these new ways of working.
Building on the insights provided by the research, Steelcase has developed three key design principles that should be considered when designing any leadership space:
Nurture the individual: Physical, mental and cognitive health are inextricably linked, which means a focus on wellbeing is imperative to ensure leaders can work at their best and minimise undue stress. The working environment has an important role to play in helping executives to manage the pressures of their work, through providing a combination of spaces, including private enclaves where they can rejuvenate their energy when required.
Space as a synapse: Maintaining relationships and connections with colleagues and information is one of the biggest challenges facing today’s leaders, particularly those working in globally integrated organisations. Leadership spaces need to make it as easy as possible for executives to stay in touch, facilitating connections naturally, both in the physical space and virtually, for those frequently on the move.
Enable transitions: The work space should also make it easier for leaders to transition from one context to the next - whether that’s a board meeting, brainstorming session or one-to-one - helping them to get into the flow, while also making the best use of the time available. An ecosystem of zones designed for defined activities can make these transitions more natural.
Steelcase has put these principles into practice in the design of its new Leadership Community at our global headquarters in Grand Rapids. It represents a significant departure from previous designs, with the executive team moved down to the main floor, where employees can walk through naturally. It means executives are more accessible and available for collaboration, impromptu conversations and important developments.
Instead of a private office, each executive has an open-plan workstation along with access to an ecosystem of spaces for different activities, including private areas when needed. With three zones available to them, the executive team has the freedom to curate their own environment based on their needs. As our leaders are highly mobile we’ve also reduced the community by two thirds to reflect this, while maximising the real estate available.
Time and again our studies have shown the role that physical space can play in encouraging the behaviours and outcomes organisations want to see in the workplace, including resiliency, agility, employee engagement and wellbeing. In this vein, leadership spaces can be used to send a message regarding how an organisation works and its values, while simultaneously helping executives to do their job in the best way possible. Leaders have changed, it’s time their offices changed with them.