Five Ways Your Office Tells Us Who You Are

What is your office communicating to other people about your status?

Posted Dec 01, 2015

Jack Frog/Shutterstock
Source: Jack Frog/Shutterstock

Walk into any office building and take a look at the employees.  Knowing nothing other than the workspaces that they inhabit, you will be able to guess with a fair degree of accuracy where each stands in the food chain of the organization.  The clues that you will rely on the most will be the trappings of the offices, however loosely that term might apply.

The importance of advertising rank through offices is so great that many organizations have written policies for the status symbols that are to be included in the workspaces of people of different ranks.  In other words, if you are at a certain level in the organization, you are required to have these things in your office in one form or another, and if you are lower on the organizational chart, you are forbidden from having these things.

Robert Sommer & Katherine Steiner conducted an interesting study of the politics behind office assignments and décor in the California State Capitol Building in the 1980s.  Conflicts over seemingly petty office features actually were tests of power and status since these perks were visible signs of the esteem that each legislator had in the eyes of the capitol leadership.  Office size in the building generally corresponded to seniority and responsibility and was accompanied by other desirable features such as a high-quality view and the freedom to personalize interior office space.  Losers of political battles in the legislature often received undesirable office assignments near bathrooms and in remote corners of the building far removed from the centers of visibility and power.  In the words of Sommer & Steiner (p. 551), for these politicians “the office is both a symbol of the self and an indication of how the self is regarded by others.”

Thus, offices can serve as both an incentive and as a compensation for job performance.

So, what is your office communicating to other people about your status?  As it turns out, status markers in office buildings are remarkably similar across settings.  Here are the things to look for:

How Easy are You to Reach?

If you walk through the front door of a large office building and see an individual working at a desk out in plain sight, it is a safe bet that he or she is a veritable nobody.  Typically, the higher a person’s status, the more privacy he or she has and the harder he or she is to reach.  High status employees tend to have offices on higher floors of the building and they have people who act as their gatekeepers.  Sometimes, the degree of controlled access can be almost entirely symbolic.  Individuals working in small wooden enclosures with an access gate, even though they are still completely visible, have more status than individuals sitting behind desks with no symbolic barriers.  Individuals enclosed in glass are even higher in status, but not as high as individuals enclosed in frosted glass that cannot be seen through.  In all cases, more privacy equals higher status.

How Large is Your Office?

Yep, bigger is better.  Not only do high status employees tend to have larger offices; the offices are also likely to be broken up into different interaction areas where executives can control the level of formality that they desire to have with visitors to their offices.  With one of my former deans, I could always tell what was about to happen based upon the location of our conversations in his office.  If I was in trouble, I was asked to sit in a different place than if he was about to ask me for a favor.

Where are You Located?

High status employees are more likely to have corner offices and offices with windows.  Also, the higher in status you are, the more likely you are to be geographically close to the real bigwigs.

How Expensive are Your Office Furnishings?

Higher status workers are more likely to have expensive carpeting, artwork, and other decorations.  They also have larger desks, and the desks will be made out of wood rather than out of metal or some other material. An office with a private bathroom is a signal of extremely high status.

How Do You Use Your Desk?

Desks are an especially effective way to regulate interaction and to advertize status.  For example, higher status office occupants tend to place desks between themselves and the door rather than against a side or back wall, and they tend to have more space behind their desks than individuals who are lower in status.  Studies show that college professors are more likely to sit sideways to their office doors while business people and government officials almost always sit facing their doors, preferring to interact with visitors across their desks.  Even within academia, higher status people tend to interact from behind a desk.  Administrators such as deans and presidents are more likely than faculty to sit behind a desk facing the door, and one study in the 1970s found that three-quarters of senior faculty but less than half of junior faculty placed their desks between themselves and their students.  In short, research in a variety of settings shows that high-status people use a desk to display dominance, and it is equally clear that their behavior has implications for the comfort of visitors to their offices.

All of what has been written above is based upon empirical research done by environmental psychologists over the past 40 years.  Some relevant references follow:

  • Haslam,  S. A., & Knight, C. (2010). Cubicle, sweet cubicle.  Scientific American Mind, September/October, 30-35.
  • Danielsson, C. B., & Bodin, L. (2009). Difference in satisfaction with office environment among employees in different office types.  Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 26, 241-257.
  • McAndrew, F. t. (1993). Environmental Psychology. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
  • Merleman, R. M. (1988). The political uses of territoriality. Environment and Behavior, 20, 576-600.
  • Sommer, R., & Steiner, K. (1988). Office politics in a state legislature. Environment and Behavior, 20, 550-575.
  • Sundstrom, E. (1987). Work environments: offices and factories.  In D. Stokols & I. Altman (Eds.), Handbook of environmental psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 733-782). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Zweigenhaft, R. (1976). Personal space in the faculty office – desk placement and the student-faculty interaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 61, 529-532.