The Influence of Organizational Culture and Power on Status: How it is Manifested in the Open Office

Presented by: Lori A. Anthony, Benyamin Schwarz

Just as there is little, if any, mention of the physical work environment in the psychology and management literatures, there is little reference to power theory in the design literature. The interplay between power, the physical workplace, and organizational culture, presents a unique lens for redefining status at work. Organizational hierarchies are morphing from vertical to horizontal and as such, transforming cultures are shifting the focus from individualistic centrality to team performance and recognition. Status demarcation is blurred as employees struggle to define self-efficacy and establish identity within the organization. The purpose of this qualitative multi-case study was to understand the manifestation of employees’ perceptions of power and culture on status as evidenced in the allocation and assignment of office workspaces. As early as 1532, theorists such as Machiavelli, Marx, Weber, Foucault, Dahl, and Lukes postulated on power from various perspectives. Most germane for this research were the theories put forth from Weber, Foucault, and Lukes. Power, according to Weber (1968), suggests that an individual in a social relationship can maintain free will despite the opposition of others whereas Foucault, as reported by Heynen and Wright (2012), “explained how expert knowledge affects the social workings of power, and thus how certain architectural configurations can play a role in disciplining people’s minds and bodies.” (p. 42). Further, Steven Lukes’s fundamental premise in defining power is that “A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interest” (2005, p.37). This definition is grounded in his idea that power is weighted heavily on values and is not always observable. The physical work environment is used as a medium by corporations to communicate intrinsic values (directly and indirectly influenced by the role of power) through design (Schein, 2004). Choices related to layout, spatial concepts, and organization reinforce a company’s culture and communicates employees’ roles within the corporate structure. The complexity and diversity of titles, positions, and roles combined with the temporary nature of organizational structures directly relate to the social symbolic properties (i.e. status) manifested in the physical work environment (Moleski & Lang in Wineman, 1986). This multi-site case study assumed a constructivist stance, building rich theory from employees’ perceptions of where and how they work. The first site, a large manufacturing company employs approximately 10,000 workers and the second is a customer service provider employing 19,500 people. Guided by a grounded theory methodology, data collection was triangulated across 96 interviews, observations captured through photographs and memos, and document review of floor plans and websites. Francis Duffy’s organizational structure of hive, den, cell, and club assessed across autonomy and interaction was the conceptual framework for this research. Data was transcribed and coded based on similarities, resulting in emergent themes with categories across methods combined and filtered through the lens of status, culture, and power. The emerging themes of a changing organizational landscape, the quintessential workplace, hierarchy and status, the collaborative workspace, and power/space purport that spatial decisions are shrouded in latent power and perpetuated by organizational culture. Many organizations, including those studied in this research, are aspiring to a more open, collaborative work environment. The resulting theoretical supposition generated from an analysis of the emergent themes across the constructs of autonomy and interaction illustrates that collaborative work cultures must instill high autonomy and interaction among employees and in so doing, must mitigate the notion of ‘power over’ as manifested by hierarchy and surveillance.


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