The Company Man Has Left (But His Building Hasn’t)

When Today’s Workers Look at the Midcentury Office, They See a Symbol of Exclusion

September 3, 2014

Partner / Chairman of the Board, NBBJ

In designing workplaces for companies around the world, I’ve met a lot of people — my own colleagues included — who say, “We don’t want to be in one of those corporate-feeling office buildings.” I’ve thought it’s largely because we have a new kind of corporate client, the tech startup, which has experienced explosive growth for quite a while, compared to the flat or negative growth of many traditional industries. In some ways, tech firms are driving the conversation around workplace design.

But why don’t companies want to be in a “bank-looking” high-rise? There are the obvious reasons, the character and authenticity of the work environment, but it’s not that corporate work has transformed from banking, law and accounting offices into the hip incubators of the tech sector. Rather, there’s been a change in the nature of corporate workers themselves — we’ve moved from a Mad Men workforce to a much more diverse one.

Work in the United States, in the mid-20th century when we invented the modern office building, was all about white men: in the 1950s [PDF], more than 70% of the workforce was male. And although the Bureau of Labor Statistics didn’t track ethnicity until the latter part of the century, it’s safe to assume the workforce was less ethnically diverse in the ’50s than in 1980, when fully 87% of workers were white.

Today, however, we have a more gender-diverse, ethnicity-diverse and age-diverse workforce than ever before. Women now comprise nearly half — 47% [PDF] — of the workforce; ethnically, we’ve gone from a 13% minority workforce in 1980, to 20% today. Although we’re still far from fully equal representation, we will get closer over time.

And those office buildings symbolized and supported a systems-based approach to human endeavor. Each worker was just another module in a larger corporate structure, an easily swapped-out cog in the white-collar machine. Now, however, young workers in particular want workplaces that offer flexibility and a chance for personal growth [PDF]. To say nothing of environmental sensitivity – those midcentury buildings are notoriously energy-inefficient.

So is it any surprise that more than half of today’s workforce looks at a midcentury-modern office building, that corporate symbol, and sees a symbol of their exclusion? Who would want to work in such an environment?

We need to redefine the symbol of work away from symbols of exclusion and white, male workforces. What does that look like? What does it say? How does it talk to people? Can we retrofit midcentury office building to be more open and democratic? Or is its hierarchical history too strong to overcome? Is there even a model for what the new workplace looks like, or will it be different for each organization? These are some of the questions I’m excited to face as we move into this new world of work.

Of course, it’s not enough to simply build new symbols of inclusion. We have to build inclusive workforces too. Even progressive technology companies are overwhelmingly male, if a little more diverse than the working population at large. If we dislike what the office high-rise symbolizes, perhaps that’s because it provides an uncomfortable reminder of just how far we have to go.

Image courtesy of mark sebastian/Flickr.

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