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How Office Furniture is Killing Your Corporate Culture?

By Sander Biehn | Feb 15, 2015

It is 5.30pm and three of us exit the elevator on the 11th floor looking both ways like a group of spies who have just infiltrated the enemy’s headquarters at night. The security doors to our left and right are propped open with Steelcaes file drawers. Beyond them a dark and quiet office floor ominously waits. We stay together nervous that someone might be lingering behind a cube wall. We walk one aisle to the window. The cubes look ransacked. A random memo, photo or Arby’s coupon is still pinned up. Pens and staplers are sitting in empty black inbox holders that read “New business” and “Completed Calls”. Once we are convinced we are alone, we fan out looking for our booty: office furniture. I peer into a conference room. About 20 chairs are piled up as if they are ready to be set alight bonfire fashion. A yellow sheet of paper is taped to a upturned chair leg. It reads “20 chairs.” Will anyone really know or care it becomes 19? I think about the last time I was on this floor.

The company had just established a new sales team to go after large prospects who were working with our competitors. This new sales team had lower quotas and got bonuses for a successful lunch introduction to an executive at one of their accounts. The job seemed cushy compared to ours. What’s worse, we had to give up these high potential accounts from our base that this team would go after. We felt it limited our chances of making quota, which didn’t go down even after these accounts moved out. Adding insult to injury, we were called in to brief the new team on what we knew about the accounts. That was the last time I was in the conference room with the chairs. I gave away as little information as I could. It wasn’t my job to sell to these accounts anymore. The new team had best figure out as much as they could the way I did: by calling on them.

I found a few good chairs to choose from. All of them were superior to mine on the 7th floor. I sat in them one by one, and tested the recliners and tension levers and singled out the best one. .

Rendezvous-ing with my buddies in the elevator lobby, we loaded up the freight car, hit 7 and held our breath as the car descended, slowed and finally stopped. We were nervous we’d run into one of our managers and have to explain what we were doing rolling chairs around. One of the guys in our party was in particular peril. He had placed some new office supplies he scrounged in a handsome crate he found and rolled it on top of his chair. We all made it to our desks without being seen.

In this manner, our latest company perk, the improved comfort of our collective backsides, was achieved. Years after the smiles and high-fives that concluded that adventure, I found myself leading a sales team on the 7th floor. We were in trouble. We had just been through a layoff and another was imminent if we didn’t turn the ship. I had inherited half my team from another sales manager who had been laid off.

Annie stood at my door. She had a serious look on her face. She sat down and explained that she had been working here for over 5 years and was tired of sitting in the cube adjacent to the men’s restroom. Since the layoff had left a cube near the window open, she wondered if she could move into it. She felt it would help her concentrate and do better work. I relented. The next day another member of my team came by with a similar request. Pretty soon, anyone who did not have a cube near a window was on my case. I grew tired of it and told them this petty power brokering had to cease. “Easy for you to say, your office has a window and a door!” was their resounding reply.

Didn’t these people realize that having a nice cube was the least of our worries? None of us would be working here in 12 months if we did not find a way to work together and sell our products to the market. The cube wars were not creating better collaboration they were making it worse–regardless of the fairness of the meritocracy by which the improved real estate was being dolled out . Everyone seemed more engrossed by the score in the office games than their quotas. Miffed by being overlooked for a south facing window seat, team members not only stopped collaborating, they wouldn’t even speak to one another. Sales continued to slide.

Head in the palm of my hand I thought back to my 11th floor pillage all those years back. Was I really so different? Back then I was pleased to see the new sales organization fail upstairs and it was my moment of vindication taking my pick of their chairs. What I should have been wondering is how an empty floor of people and loss of productivity was going to enable the company to make our goals that year.

Corporate culture really belongs to all of us, but the situation is complicated. Creating hierarchy in the form of office real estate, chairs, mobile devices, etc can quickly take an employee’s focus away from the collective goals. When a worker feels she is being treated poorly, there is a 0% chance she will care about anything except the comfort of her own rear end.

Tearing down the hierarchy doesn’t mean an end to the command chain. Bosses can still be paid more for taking on more responsibility. It just means that job performance and meeting corporate goals becomes the measure of success….not the chair you sit in or the size of your cube.

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