What makes a good office? Walls and a door, a window, and privacy? Or openness and easy proximity to colleagues, offering camaraderie and togetherness?
It is a question echoing through the corridors of corporate America these days as office planners reconsider traditional ideas about work space. From Silicon Valley to Manhattan, walls and partitions are tumbling down. Plush corner offices are biting the dust as once-privileged executives forsake their windowed, carpeted sanctuaries and adjust to what is being called a New Egalitarianism.
If business experts are correct, this "open approach" marks the quiet beginning of what they believe could be a revolution in the way work is done - a revolution also guaranteed to teach lessons in workplace democracy and humility.
Already, the chairman of Alcoa Inc., has placed his office - a 9-foot-by-9-foot cubicle with low partitions - in the middle of the room. And at BF Goodrich Co. headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., members of the executive team now spend their days in cookie-cutter offices, 15 feet by 15 feet.
How the workplace has changed in the decades since a carpet company created the popular advertising line, "A title on the door rates a Bigelow on the floor."
Part of the impetus for change in some companies is financial. As real estate skyrockets, accountants make a persuasive case for space-saving measures.
Then there are the practical considerations. These new configurations, corporate visionaries say, encourage an easier cross-fertilization of ideas among co-workers. Perhaps they also grow out of the informality that produced casual Friday, putting bosses on an equal sartorial footing with underlings by showing up in khakis and no tie.
Not surprisingly, this New Egalitarianism is not without its opponents, who complain about noise and a lack of privacy. Bring back the Old Stratification, they plead, and a measure of peace and quiet. In the best Greta Garbo tradition, they want to be alone.
Whatever the advantages or disadvantages, these revamped office spaces offer an opportunity to consider how personal space is defined in a variety of settings.
The exercise starts early. In day-care centers, small storage "cubbies" give even the youngest children a sense of "mine." Later, lockers and assigned desks at school stake out a student's territory. At camp, even a trunk and a shelf help to define "my space," while in college, a dorm room offers not only a retreat but a place to express individuality.
But even dorm rooms - once the college equivalent of a shared office - are going private as colleges build more singles. Students accustomed to their own room at home don't want to share living quarters at college.
Ironically, the office may be one of the last places where a measure of collegiality still exists. In an age of mobility, neighborhoods are often communities of strangers. And as houses grow larger, even family members find themselves isolated by separate television sets, computers, bedrooms, and baths. The pronoun "mine" looms large.
Helping skeptical employees convert the territoriality of "my space" into the collective "ours" will be the task of corporate space planners everywhere. And however workable the New Egalitarianism is in the office, it may still have its limits elsewhere. Anyone who spends much time in airports has witnessed the sight of business travelers pleading with a gate agent for an upgrade. The prospect of traveling in economy with the rest of us is apparently just too much to bear.
This workplace democracy in offices suggests other intriguing possibilities. What would happen, for instance, if lawmakers ensconced in paneled offices set up work space in storefronts in poor neighborhoods, giving them proximity to the voices and urgent needs of struggling constituents?
And what if airline executives worked in a cubicle in the middle of O'Hare on a day when delays and cancellations snarled air traffic? Similarly, department-store managers could learn by spending time in a cubicle in a retail department.
It has been more than 30 years since cubicles redefined office space, giving rise to endless jokes in "Dilbert" cartoons and even producing a new lingo: "cube farms," to describe multiple cubicles in an office, and "prairie dogs," workers who regularly pop their heads up over partitions to check the action.
In the same way that millions of workers adjusted to cubicles, they will now find ways to accommodate the new openness. However humble, these spaces will soon function as a daytime home away from home. Postcards and family photos will be tacked to low walls. A bud vase with a single rose from a new boyfriend will find space on even the smallest desk.
And "prairie dogs" won't even have to stand up to keep in touch.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society