While C-level execs have traditionally assumed their spot in the corner office, new ways of working are leading to new ways of thinking about the workplace. The fact is that when it comes to corporate seating arrangements, location matters — particularly for the CEO.
A recent report from Steelcase Inc. identified “presence”— physical as well as virtual — as a key design principle in office ecosystems that support employee well-being. And since where the CEO sits has a major impact both on how approachable management seems and how employees experience a company’s culture, chief execs who decide against their traditional corner-office seating to be positioned among staff members can gain in business results what they lose in exclusivity and privacy.
SquareFoot CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum is one company head who realized this truth before most, back in 2011 when he cofounded a unique commercial real estate company that today features more than 300,000 office listings. “I learned early on in my career how important it is for the CEO to sit in the middle of the office, to be accessible and approachable,” Wasserstrum told Business Insider. “So even from the start, I’ve always put myself there.”
He learned this form of leadership from his time spent as an analyst at Jones Lang LaSalle. After seeing a senior manager at that company structure his seat this way, Wasserstrum made a mental note that he would do the same when he was in charge of his own company. “I was able to see firsthand how the team reacted to him being in the middle of the room,” Wasserstrum said. “It placed him on a more even footing to all employees in the team, boosted morale, and junior members of the team learned faster.”
Yet it’s clearly much easier for a small launching company to create this type of CEO seating arrangement than for a growing mid-size or larger enterprise. Wasserstrum explained that what was a snap at a startup of 10 people took more commitment as the company has expanded over the past few years to over 50 employees. That commitment was recently tested during SquareFoot’s office relocation this spring — but the chief exec held to his original vision.
“It was never something I had to reconsider because I know what kind of CEO I want to be. I live it every day,” explained Wasserstrum. “I made sure that the seating chart allowed me to continue to lead by example. It’s more challenging now, but everyone in my office is used to this setup by now, and the new employees seem to take to it quickly.”
Quality interactions with his team
What can a CEO gain by shedding the generally coveted trappings of the corner office? Wasserstrum had no trouble listing several ways that the unconventional practice has helped his business, including the opportunity to provide impromptu mentorship. “I have always been dedicated to help all employees with advice and guidance and have always found this easiest when located centrally,” he explained. “I feel it is important in creating the office culture that I envisioned for my business. One where people can openly ask questions, get feedback, and collaborate.”
As the Steelcase report illuminated, such layout efficiencies offer more than trivialities, but can lead to increased engagement and amplified performance that ultimately increase the bottom line. The research found that for better engagement, “Spaces should enable quality interactions with teams” — so it necessarily follows that by including the CEO as a central part of this information flow and communication loop, companies can gain a competitive advantage.
While Wasserstrum admits that there has not necessarily been one specific deal or initiative that has come about based on his physical placement in the room, it has led to countless indirect benefits for the business. “By sitting in the middle, I get to hear a ton of random comings and goings that I otherwise wouldn’t, and those tidbits are invaluable,” he said. “These can range from conversations about product development to feedback our inbound team is hearing on the front lines from clients.”
Not everyone in the company reacts the same way to seeing the company co-founder in the mix with more junior-level employees. Some team members prefer to reach out to Wasserstrum in more traditional ways for contacting executives — such as via calendar or email — while others stop by in person when they see him at his desk as part of the open floor plan.
“I haven’t surveyed the whole team, but based on the way that colleagues talk to me, give me honest feedback, and openly reach out to me, the reaction seems positive,” said Wasserstrum. “I am available for colleagues to drop by, but also for whenever someone is looking for me and some of my time, in whatever format that is.”
The downsides to sitting in the middle of the room
Wasserstrum also shares that his choice of desk space doesn’t come without some inconveniences. “On the cons side of the equation, occasionally I have to put my headphones on to focus on work at my desk,” he said. “And if I need to do deeper or more confidential work, I can book a conference room for an hour, just like anyone else. We all share the space the same way. That’s the point.”
He added that it can also sometimes be a challenge to make sure his staff knows he is approachable so that people don’t feel the need to act differently around him. To help avoid any awkwardness, Wasserstrum tries to ensure that he is accessible at company social events to network with the team.
Despite these minor obstacles, the CEO finds that the pros of central seating vastly outweigh the cons. For one thing, sitting with the group instills trust and builds relationships across the business.
“I have more, and also better, conversations with my team daily, even hourly, and I know that my team takes advantage of their proximity to me,” Wasserstrum said. “If I were in a corner office, even if I left the door open, I doubt anyone would seek me out and stop by. Instead, I have foot traffic drop by my desk whenever I’m there. I get to know my team and what they’re working on better this way than if I were huddled up somewhere else.”