The Corner Office May Be Dead, But Workplace Hierarchy is Going Nowhere

The Corner Office May Be Dead, But Workplace Hierarchy is Going Nowhere


Facility costs rank among most company’s largest expenses, yet they often get the least amount of attention. In today’s dynamic office market, leaders are stressed and uncertain about the form and function of the office of the future. Finding new space, once a perfunctory task delegated to mid-level managers, is now a strategic initiative with huge ramifications.

I remember when I was at Trammell Crow, and we just completed the Hearst Tower. A distinctive 47-story tower, it ranked as one of the most expensive buildings constructed in the US in 2000. The building was unique in many ways and remains my favorite building in Charlotte, hands down.

Especially unique is the building’s  cantilevered design, with the floors getting larger as the building gets higher. If you leaned against the glass in my corner office on the 42 floor, you literally leaned 12 feet over the street below. I loved going to that office. Every day we’d bring visitors up to walk the Bank of America trading floors and ride the Italian marble-clad elevators that were the fastest in the world at the time.

Working as an executive in a first class building makes you feel bold, proud, standing on top of the world. The privilege of stepping into an elegantly designed space with top-notch amenities doesn’t just elevate your work experience—it elevates your mindset. 

Every morning, walking through those impressive revolving doors, I felt an unparalleled sense of pride and confidence. Such a prestigious environment reinforces the feeling that your work is valued and important. It motivates you to set higher goals and push the boundaries of what you can achieve. Spectacular views and luxurious surroundings instill a sense of accomplishment, creating an atmosphere where visionary thinking and high performance naturally thrive.

When it was time for Cardinal to hatch, though, it was just me. And every penny counted. So I made my nest in the back of my pal Clay Grubb’s office and was happy as a clam. 

But I never forgot how the Hearst Tower office made me feel.

If you read the headlines of today’s news, you know that COVID changed everything in the office market. And you know that companies are working hard to change their offices to entice workers who have become well-accustomed to working from home. 

As a result, “the office” is now a hub of collaboration, shared workspaces and design elements that reflect little of the old hierarchical structures. Identifying the power players in yesterday’s office towers was straightforward: just find the corner office. These coveted spaces were large, boasted expansive windows with impressive city views, and offered unmatched privacy.

Today’s office design trends steer clear of these visible reinforcements of power structure in favor of a flexible, open and inclusive workspace that promotes collaboration and transparency. Shared desks, communal areas, and versatile environments encourage team interaction without the pecking order of traditional office settings. Corner offices and cube farms are giving way to reservation-based workstations and meeting pods. This shift fosters a sense of equality among employees, highlighting contribution and collaboration over status and rank, thus creating a more dynamic and innovative workplace culture.

Seasoned senior managers may dismiss these changes as another fad, but our local furniture expert assures us that this new approach is not just about aesthetics or following trends; it’s about creating an environment conducive to productivity, creativity, and employee satisfaction. Breaking down physical barriers allows companies to foster better communication and collaboration, which are key to innovation and success. Additionally, flexible and adaptive office furniture can cater to a range of needs and preferences, making the workspace both more efficient and more inclusive and accommodating for everyone.

So, is the era of the trophy office really coming to an end? Not necessarily.

For over 25 years, we have turned to our buddy Thom Klingman and the team at CBI Workplace Solutions for office furniture and design expertise. Thom said the last 12 months have been the busiest in his career designing furniture plans for offices that people love to return to. His clients care about their people and their brand and, contrary to the new conventional wisdom about the office, Thom is seeing more private offices ‘on the glass.’ “Someone who used to be in a cube is being attracted back to the office with the lure of a private office with glass, a door, and well-designed furniture.” Instead of a dedicated workstation, a junior associate might just check into a 10 x 12 office.  

“Look, people are people, and they want privacy to get their work done – so give it to them.” – Thom Klingman, CBI Workplace Solutions

In this way, it seems that tenants and landlords are taking design cues from co-working spaces, where shared space is the norm and private space is available to anyone…for a premium. According to the real-estate firm CBRE, communal areas accounted for 20 percent of the average office floor space in 2023, up from 14 percent in 2021. And the number of dedicated private offices along a building’s perimeter, including corner offices, has diminished by approximately half since 2021. And it’s not just corner offices—assigned desks and personal offices are also becoming less common, now making up only 45 percent of the typical office, down from 56 percent in 2021. 

As CBRE puts it, it’s less “me” space and more “we” space.

Diverse industries, ranging from law firms to biotech companies and oil corporations, are moving away from traditional setups and toward coffee lounges, conference rooms, and space for collaboration. Janet Pogue McLaurin, Global Director of Workplace Research at Gensler, a design firm, notes these design decisions reflect a shift in thinking from real estate occupancy to people-centric performance – think office design that accounts for how and where we actually work. Gensler research, for example, highlights that time working alone is now almost equal to that spent working with others, resulting in equal priority for both collaborative and private space.


Thom Klingman also affirms another aspect of this shift to people-centric performance: an intense focus on culture. He said that his clients believe that when they are in the thick of things, everyone needs to see leadership doing what they say and setting a strong example. They know this cements loyalty and gets people back into the office and engaged with the company mission.

But no matter the setup, human beings will still find a way of expressing hierarchy. Without the corner office, status will be conveyed in new ways. Bosses might have more computer monitors, bigger desks, or even just a permanent spot rather than a rotating one. Power also manifests intangibly—for instance, a select few might be excused from constant Slack check-ins or may come and go from the office without explanation. It’s the digital equivalent of a far-flung corner office: You know you’re important if you can escape surveillance.

Whether or not these design changes herald a new era of egalitarian office space, the boss and the rainmakers will get their perks. Looking at recently completed office towers and corporate headquarters, like ExxonMobile’s mammoth new 385 acre HQ campus in Spring TX, you’ll see that executives are rarely sequestered in expansive corner offices of splendid isolation. But they do have exclusive access to executive floors, private elevator banks, offices with bathrooms, secure parking spaces and even bulletproof glass (in Texas).

As we reimagine the future of the workplace, it’s clear that a balanced approach combining collaboration and individual needs is paramount. Empowering employees with flexible, well-designed spaces that accommodate both private work and communal interaction is the key to fostering a productive and innovative environment. At Cardinal Partners, we act as your in-house real estate department, leveraging our expertise and partnerships with top designers and furniture experts to create tailored office solutions. By prioritizing comfort, functionality, and inclusivity, leaders can confidently design spaces that attract top talent and support existing leadership in their roles. Reach out today to begin building a workspace that meets the evolving demands of the modern workforce and propels your company to a successful future.

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