The Evolution of Executive Offices: Adapting to Modern Work Culture

Today’s workplace looks dramatically different than the office spaces of decades gone by, which is of little surprise given the evolution that work culture has experienced during the past century. While we expect workplace design and function to continue shifting in response to the changing needs of the workforce, it’s also useful to reflect on the past to see how far things have come. 

Executive offices have long played a significant role in the workplace. From the earliest days when the idea of a CEO first gained a foothold in the American business landscape until today, the form and function of the executive office has changed remarkably. Once thought of as the absolute authority, the CEO’s office reflected the power and prestige of the title, typically bestowed on a singular person who ran things with the assistance of a small team.

Today, executives take a collaborative, team approach, with the entire C-suite working together for the good of the organization. Although CEOs still have the ultimate say, they work shoulder to shoulder with chief financial officers (CFOs), chief technical officers (CTOs), chief operating officers (COOs), and chief human resources officer (CHROs), with heavy influence from stakeholders, such as the board of directors, employees, and shareholders. 

This shift can be seen in the design of the executive office, which has transformed from a symbol of exclusivity to a collaborative hub that’s accessible to everyone. In this blog post, we will explore the fascinating journey of executive offices, understanding why they were initially created, the purposes they served, and how they have evolved over time in response to shifting work cultures and technological advancements.

Historical Context: Why Were Executive Offices Created?

As the role of the executive gained traction, having a centralized hub for decision-making and hierarchical structure became increasingly important. Executive roles, including that of CEO, emerged at the same time the modern corporation was born, about 100 years ago. The leadership structure required executives to run business units, with the CEO literally and figuratively sitting above them all. In towering office buildings, the executives would have offices on upper-level floors, with the CEO taking the highest office, typically with expansive views.

The executive office provided a symbol of the power associated with the role. It also offered privacy for meetings, space for critical decision-making, and the ability for executives — CEOs in particular — to establish authority. Design elements, which included closed doors and high walls, emphasized that power dynamic by creating physical and visual separation between lower-level employees and the executives. 

In the 1950s, for example, workers spent their time on the floor while executives had private offices. Large desks provided an imposing focal point for meetings and projected power, with the number of windows in the office often reflecting the executive’s status. The design was geared toward projecting appearances and providing space for individual work. 

During the 1960s, government regulations and legislation surrounding affirmative action and consumer rights required CEOs to spend increasing amounts of time traveling and globalization began reshaping the marketplace. The CEO remained top dog but other top leaders in sales, operations, planning, and finance began filling the executive suite. The design of executive offices remained largely unchanged for many decades thereafter. 

Shifting Dynamics: The Causes of Change

In the 2010s a group of global CEOs across all industries met in Davos, Switzerland, all running companies sporting hierarchies notably flatter than organizations from decades prior. The CEOs were all facing fresh challenges, including an increasing adoption of technology, and agility began dominating the conversation. The need to adapt to changes shifted demands quickly on executives, requiring leaders to value company culture,  embrace sensitivity and employee engagement, and provide all employees with a sense of meaning and purpose to compete in the race to attract and retain talent.

The evolution of work culture necessitated the flattening of the hierarchical structure, increasing collaboration creating clearer communication and faster decision-making. Several catalysts sparked the shift, beginning with leaders recognizing the importance of approachability and inclusivity in creating the type of culture where employees would want to work. Additionally, technological advancements and the rise of remote work demanded improved connectivity and accessibility. Together with the evolution of leadership styles, these factors drove the evolution of executive offices. 

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and organizations’ plans for returning to the office, many companies chose to do away with executive offices altogether as they redesigned the office footprint. Recognizing that top-down leadership styles and systems that didn’t treat employees equally lacked agility forced many companies to adopt cultures with less hierarchy. During the pandemic, leaders were often on video calls in their home offices, changing the need for executives to emphasize their status with a corner office and accelerating the changes that were already transpiring before the pandemic’s disruption. 

Not only does a flatter organizational structure offer improved agility, but it also gives the company a more approachable feel. There’s more space for collaboration and teamwork. CEOs are working in open areas or more accessible offices, sending a clear message to employees and directly reflecting the shifting dynamics in the workplace. 

Evolution of Executive Offices

By the 2010s, millennials had largely taken the reins. Startup culture and the technology boom shifted workplace attitudes, with many employees demanding increased flexibility in their schedules and many valuing the opportunity to work remotely. Office culture centered around equality and collaboration, with everyone working together to help the company grow and succeed.

In the post-pandemic 2020s, the workplace underwent dramatic changes again as organizations puzzled through the disruption and seismic shifts like the Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting. Today’s office recognizes that there’s simply no one-size-fits-all approach to work. To succeed in the new marketplace, companies must adopt flexible office arrangements that meet employees’ needs. Office design provides different environments to suit different work styles and provides a more residential aesthetic for comfort and to make it worth workers’ commute from their home offices.

Modern executive offices offer an open-door policy, with many organizations forgoing them altogether in favor of having executives sit next to interns and lower-level employees or in centralized, accessible spots. Doing so helps everyone not only feel more seen but also provides opportunities for spontaneous interactions and conversation. Technology allows everyone from the C-suite on down to remain connected no matter where they’re located and a renewed focus on wellness has driven the adoption of ergonomic furniture, adjustable lighting, and natural elements that can help support productivity and stress relief. 

Impact of the Shift on Work Culture and Leadership

These changes haven’t only affected the C-suite and executive offices. As executive offices evolve, the shifting dynamics have a lasting impact on work culture and leadership as a whole. Embracing openness and accessibility makes communication easier, supports healthy collaboration, and breaks down many of the barriers that made the office a rigid, sterile place to work in the past. Today, you might find an executive brainstorming on the couch next to an intern or working in shared spaces. These changes create a positive dynamic, increasing approachability and making honest, open conversations possible for improved company culture, stronger workplace relationships, and enhanced employee satisfaction.

Redesigning executive offices may seem like a daunting task. However, CORT Permanently Flexible™ Solutions, which include 4SITE By CORT Technology and CORT Furniture-as-a-Service (FaaS)™, helps make light work of it, with valuable support for seamless adoption of collaborative spaces and elements like modular furniture. 

Organizations can opt for renting furniture pieces that are inviting and collaborative, such as Brody Sofa and Dorian Coffee Table or the Julia Round Table and the Eames Chair. With 4SITE technology, companies can assess how efficiently executive offices are utilized for collaboration and CORT Permanently Flexible allows for fast, easy modification of furniture and arrangements for increased design agility and flexibility that’s so essential to the modern workplace. 

How Will You Keep Up With the Evolving Office?

The executive office has come a long way from its early days as the ultimate symbol of status and power to today’s approachable, collaborative space. This evolution echoes the changing nature of work culture as a whole and reflects the growing need for flexible, adaptable spaces in the workplace. Modern executive offices are increasingly redesigned to better meet the needs and demands of the modern workforce. Organizations are embracing openness and approachability, valuing flexibility, integrating more technology, and prioritizing employee well-being to empower everyone from the C-suite to lower-level employees. In doing so, organizations don’t empower their leaders to thrive but empower the entire workforce while creating a dynamic office and culture that can evolve and shift along with the business landscape. 

To help you keep up, CORT Permanently Flexible Solutions provides much-needed support for everything from determining the optimal office design and layout for executives and employees to providing quality furniture options. We also have the technology needed to drive data-based decisions surrounding the effectiveness of the redesign of executive offices and other workspaces.

Learn more about how CORT can help your organization keep up with its evolving needs by visiting today.