Is the Corner Office a Dying Breed?

Summer 2015
CBT Architects transformed one division of Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research’s eight individual, enclosed offices into 20 open and collaborative work areas featuring abundant frosted glass and natural light. Photos by Anton Grassl/ESTO

The corporate office environment is undergoing a facelift that is threatening the future of the traditional workplace’s most sought after real estate: the corner office. 

AS THE NEEDS OF today’s workforce continue to evolve and adapt with the growing use of mobile technology and the blurring of lines between personal and work life, so has the mindset of forward-looking business leaders who want to attract the best new talent. 

These progressive decision makers are turning their attention to the physical workplace as a starting point to differentiate themselves from competitors and lure the next generation of skilled workers. And, increasingly, they are realizing that the more corner offices they have, the less approachable they may seem to these workers. 

interior meeting space

Two Examples

In Greater Boston, two innovative companies have eliminated the corner office, opting for more open and collaborative workspaces. 

Leaders at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) sought a design that would address more than a shift in their physical working style, one that would also express their office culture and means of communicating. They called on CBT Architects to transform the 2,000-square-foot corporate office for NIBR’s developmental and molecular pathways division, which consisted of eight individual, enclosed offices, into what is now 20 open and collaborative work areas featuring abundant frosted glass and natural light. The transformed workspace has received such positive fanfare internally that Novartis is considering implementing the concept throughout its entire global research headquarters in Cambridge. 

Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit advisor for mission-driven organizations and philanthropists, had the opportunity to move its corporate Boston office, which consisted of cubicles and private offices, into a new, 28,000-square-foot location on a single floor. Its leadership wanted to include every employee’s voice in the process of deciding what their new workspace would look like. CBT helped organize a three-day visioning session, at which various groups offered their input on different areas of the office space. Not surprisingly, the majority of Bridgespan’s employees wanted a radical change: a much more open and collaborative workspace. 

interior office space
interior office space

Bridgespan Group moved from traditional office space with cubicles and private offices to this open, single-floor layout with designated spaces for different types of work.

Today, Bridgespan’s new downtown Boston office features no corner offices and no assigned seating. Instead, all employees have lockers in which to store their personal belongings, and they can choose where they want to sit throughout the day. Additionally, instead of setting up desks by the windows, Bridgespan decided to turn these areas — which offer nice views and abundant natural light — into collaborative spaces, creating value for everyone. 

Defined Work Zones 

In order to ease the shift from traditional office space to new collaborative work environments, employers like Novartis and Bridgespan are creating different types of work zones. “Quiet,” “work” and “social” zones enable employees to choose the space most appropriate for the work they are doing. The quiet zone is like the quiet car in a train, where conversations and cellphones are prohibited. The work zone allows limited noise (quiet conversations), while the social zone is set up for full collaboration and group discussions. These zones allow staff to work wherever they feel they will be most productive, depending on the type of work they are doing — and to move from one zone to another as necessary. 

Today’s millennial workers are more often choosing jobs based on “the who” over “the what” — meaning they are more likely to buy into a workplace culture rather than the service or product a firm provides. There will always be exceptions to the rule, like the Apples, Googles and Facebooks, where the company culture and its services and/or products are entwined. But how do companies with less exciting products and services attract millennials?  

More business leaders need to embrace the changing dynamics of today’s workforce if they want to survive and remain competitive. They must invest in their company culture to attract and retain talent, and what better place to start than by looking at their own office environment and asking themselves: Do I really need a corner office?