Corporations Breaking Down Walls--Literally


The walls are tumbling down.

In parts of corporate America, private offices are becoming as scarce as typewriters, and cubicles are shrinking as companies increasingly rethink the traditional work space.

Gone are floor-to-ceiling walls, windows for executives and even elevators. Now workers--including CEOs--ride escalators to “neighborhoods” of small work spaces and meet in “teamwork” rooms and even kitchens.

The changes are aimed at dragging old offices into a new world of work--where rank has few privileges, teamwork rules and privacy is a rare commodity. Not incidentally, shrinking work spaces save money.


Yet taking down the walls is both liberating and painful. Many corporate citizens feel naked at first without hierarchies of space and closed doors. Communication between co-workers rises, but so do distractions.

“You can’t take someone who’s been in his office 30 years and just put him in the ‘new office.’ People will be dissatisfied at first,” said Scott Baker, a property manager at Xerox Corp. “We not only have to build the space, we have to educate people on how to use it.”

Baker knows. He’s been the point man for three years of experiments at Xerox Square, the headquarters in downtown Rochester, N.Y. The building’s state-of-the-art design changes are now being incorporated at Xerox offices nationwide.

Today whole floors of Xerox Square stand empty, awaiting wrecking crews, the expansive executive offices and high-walled, dimly lighted cubicles serving as monuments to workplaces of old.


“So much of conventional office design talks about top-down, divisive, mechanistic structures,” said Francis Duffy, chairman of the London-based architecture firm DEGW. “That’s exactly opposite to the new organization emerging, which is bottom-up, fluid, changing and nonbureaucratic.”

For Xerox, which recently announced 9,000 job cuts, saving money is a primary goal of the changes. The company expects to save $10 million annually--mostly due to smaller individual work spaces--when its new design is applied nationally. But at the same time, the company wants to usher in a new workplace that will help the company compete.

Some managers now sit in small, glass-walled, windowless offices that often are half the size of their old domains. Other managers work in brightly colored cubicles, surrounded by their staff. Meetings occur in “teaming” rooms or kitchen-like “common areas,” while phone booths are set up for personal calls.

As changes go, Xerox’s aren’t the most radical. Some ad agencies have added playrooms, and Carnegie Mellon University has built a $4-million showcase workplace where workers can manipulate lights and air conditioners or shuffle the furniture for better collaboration on long-term projects.

In Pittsburgh, Alcoa will abolish all private offices--even for its chief executive officer--in its new $60-million headquarters, opening in July.

Yet whether in big or small steps, companies are moving in the same direction--toward smaller and less private spaces.

More than 15% of senior managers now sit in open cubicles, compared with 11% four years ago, according to the International Facility Management Assn. Personal space has decreased to 333 square feet per employee today from 429 square feet in 1994.

Many employees find the changes invigorating.


Zsuzsanna Snow, an auditor, rarely used to go out of her private office at Xerox Square, instead scheduling meetings in her room. Now she steps in and out of her cubicle often to talk with co-workers--and talks least to the few who still have private offices.

“It would be lovely to have a penthouse suite with rosewood chairs, but it wouldn’t be as supportive to the work,” Snow said. “We’ve shifted more to a teamwork approach.”

Bill Hamilton, a spokesman for Toledo, Ohio-based Owens-Corning, also praises the company’s design changes that forced him out of his private manager’s office and into a cubicle.

“Now it’s so easy to get access to me,” he said. “Today I’m not at the end of a row of offices. I’m in the middle of the team.”

Nevertheless, some people are uncomfortable with the trends toward reducing work space and privacy. “For most people, your space is where you go to concentrate,” said Lucy Suchman, an anthropologist who studies space issues at Xerox.

“When you invert that--when you have to schedule a place for private conversation or quiet work--it’s a very significant change,” she said. “It has to be worth the kind of disruption it will create.”

James Nixon, head of real estate at Chicago-based Andersen Worldwide, admits that many employees balked at first at the company’s new headquarters, where space is no longer allotted according to rank and workstations have shrunk.

Many managers told Nixon, “I need my office. I need my door,” Nixon recalled. “There was a big fear factor.”


Egos have been bruised at Xerox as well. “For people who have long worked and counted on getting private space, it was particularly disturbing” to wind up in a cubicle, Snow said.

Andersen’s cooperative meeting spaces initially went unused because workers were reluctant to migrate from their desks. Some worried that they’d look like goof-offs if they used new informal sitting areas.

A year into the move, workers are adjusting, said Nixon, who believes that advances in technology--including the increased use of laptops and portable phones--will help free workers from their desks.

To limit distractions in the new work spaces, companies ban speaker phones except in meeting rooms, pipe in special white noise and issue protocols on keeping voices low in public spaces.

Yet with changes so new, no one is quite sure which problems are minor and which are true mistakes.

“Where we are now may be just a stopping point on the way to a better vision of how to organize space,” Alcoa Chairman Paul O’Neill said while surveying the open executive floor that has served for two years as the testing ground for the new headquarters. “This may not be the ultimate answer.”

But O’Neill is willing to bet which way the winds will blow. “If I thought it was positive to isolate people, I’d isolate them,” he said. “We’re an organization that’s trying to take down the walls.”