Leadership + Culture

An Evolution of Leadership Spaces

Since someone first hung a sign outside of their door, leaders have been inside shaping how work gets done. As the business climate changed over time, so did the ways leaders needed to lead their organizations. Today, traditional hierarchy-based management practices that may have guaranteed success in the past, may no longer work and that in turn, requires a different approach to the workplace.

From the Industrial Revolution to today’s mobile and global economic climate, the place leaders go to get their work done looks very different. Steelcase has been at the forefront of this progression from the start. The roll-top executive desk was first designed with leaders in mind and focused on information security and efficiency. Today’s leader navigates a far more complex business landscape and must rethink how to lead and create a robust, agile organization. This requires a very different kind of leadership environment.

For decades, Steelcase has experimented on itself with new environments to support employees and leaders. This includes its experimentation with the WorkCafé, innovation center and workspaces addressing the need for privacy. Right now, it’s in the midst of evaluating a new space for its senior executive team. The Steelcase Global Design Team has created a next evolutionary step in leadership spaces — a radically different leadership environment designed to put leadership literally in the middle of and fully open to the organization. The idea is to use space as a tool to better support the individual, create connections and improve performance.

To illustrate how much business and its leaders have progressed over time, Steelcase dug through its archives to unearth photos from decades past.


1915-1940: The Executive Desk

Business has always been personal. But, when an entire business encompases the owner, a bookkeeper and a few factory workers, as was the case for many new companies in the Industrial Era, the personality of the leader became the leadership style for the company.

As organizations grew, so did the front office. Businesses transitioned from a craft economy to a capital economy, and we began to see new philosophies around organizational structure and leadership. Scientific management, also known as Taylorism, blossomed during the the 1910s championing time motion efficiency.

Leaders’ desks which symbolized success and status also allowed for a more efficient workflow. As organizations grew, they began to specialize, and in the 1920s and ‘30s, we observed a shift to creative work. Businesses were no longer just making things faster and cheaper. They were developing new things and the next big idea. Desks had to support this new creative process.

The Executive Desk

This roll-top executive desk launched in 1915 and reflected the status of the user. Steelcase founders, Peter M. Wege and Walter D. Idema both worked at mahogany wood-grain roll-top desks. The only other color choice at the time was olive green.

The Executive Desk

Another executive desk that communicated the leader’s position of power launched in 1928. It was made to look like wood. Other color options included hand-painted wood grain finishes in green, mahogany, walnut and oak.

The Executive Desk

This executive desk launched in 1939 was the first skid based desk and the forerunner of the island base.


1950-1989: Efficiency to Effectiveness

In the 1950s, the executive’s space clearly denoted status. Most leaders operated within a hierarchical system. The amount of filing space, number of seats at a conference table and window views were just a few of the things that helped communicate the owner’s prestige.

Peter Drucker, considered by many the founder of modern management, coined the term “knowledge worker” in 1959. During the coming decades, Drucker’s philosophies spoke to leaders in an increasingly complex world. He identified a move from efficiency to effectiveness. It became important not just to solve the problem right, for example by building a better mousetrap. But, it was critical to solve the right problem. It didn’t matter if you built the best buggy whip, for example, if Henry Ford made buggies obsolete. This put leaders on a path to foster creativity.

Toward the end of this era, it became clear that the ways people were working were evolving. Work was no longer done primarily alone at someone’s desk. In order to be creative and innovative, employees had to work cross functionally, on multidisciplinary teams. They began to move around more to be with the people required to get the job done. While direction for-the-most-part still came from the top, by the 1970s and 1980s you would find engineering, marketing and finance, for example, all working together to solve big problems.

Leaders looked for ways to increase the speed of organizational change. The top-down structure so many businesses were accustomed to just didn’t allow companies to change direction fast enough. Over time, the value and importance of the culture of an organization began to rise. If companies had the right culture, they had a better chance of being agile. The leadership environment adjusted as well adding more shared, collaboration spaces.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

The Multiple-15 desk paired with Easyrest posture chairs combined space economy with work efficiency in the 1950s. The desk was designed to support side-by-side collaboration.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

Described as “Operation Efficiency,” this 1957 advertisement said the executive could keep his office neat and tidy by putting everything in it’s proper place in a matter of minutes.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

The styling of this 1956 Flight Line desk was said to be indicative of the limitless horizons of tomorrow.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

The executive’s office in 1958 showcased a variety of settings to accommodate the need for group meetings within the leader’s walls.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

This 1960 photo shows Steelcase manager, Sam Corl, using the dictaphone in his office with his secretary nearby. Before his retirement, this same office housed one of Steelcase's founders.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

This advertisement from 1961 shows a multi-zoned, owned space. While still within the walls of a traditional executive office, the leadership environment supported traditional, casual and team configurations.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

This executive office photo from Steelcase was taken in 1968. The Deluxe 4200 series desk is from the Chromattecs line. The matching wall-to-wall storage cabinets behind the desk included a communications center with a telephone panel, pull-out dictating machine and vertical letter file to free up desk space.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

The same 1968 office also included a more casual sitting area within the executive’s walls.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

In the 1980s, designers began to take advantage of the space surrounding executives’ offices. This Steelcase leadership environment included common areas for collaboration and social spaces for the entire senior team.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

Steelcase Chairman Bob Pew worked in this office space in 1983. Offices were seen as brand channels - representations and extensions of the executive who worked there.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

Executive offices like this one occupied by Steelcase’s David D. Hunting Jr. in the 1980s included a variety of seating configurations to support collaboration.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

Steelcase Chief Executvie Frank Merlotti found a way to bring the outdoors in with a covered solarium in the 1980s.

Efficiency to Effectiveness

Near the end of the 1980s, leaders were starting to move out into the open to be more tightly connected with what was going on. Leadership became more social. The Steelcase Corporate Development Center was designed to increase collaboration and included curvilinear Context furniture.


1990-2010: Embracing Networks

In the 1990s, the flow of information accelerated and the speed of business sped up as well. Organizations began to see themselves in terms of social networks and cultures, as much as structures. Relationships powered the generation of ideas within complex organizations. Social interactions and the space that supported them became more important.

Steelcase prototyped a new groundbreaking approach for creating leadership spaces in the mid-1990s. In the new Leadership Community, leaders moved out of private offices and away from leadership silos. Space changed from owned offices and conference rooms assigned by status and rank to a variety of shared spaces designed to strengthen networks.

The Leadership Community evolved to encompass everything between the walls of the leadership floor, not just leaders’ primary work environments. The purpose was to strengthen social capital as people would see each other more informally over the course of the day.

Embracing Networks

This model of Steelcase’s 1996 Leadership Community included a central gathering place with embedded technology designed to create an intentional space for innovation.

Embracing Networks

This photo from the 1990s shows CEO Jim Hackett and ideo head David Kelley working with his leadership team in a central space designed for collaboration

Embracing Networks

In 2007, the Leadership Community continued to be redesigned and included social spaces to take advantage of unplanned collaborative moments.

Embracing Networks

In the 2000s, the Leadership Community evolved to showcase the value technology could bring to the collaboration process.

Embracing Networks

Open spaces broke down barriers and opened up the creative process. (Photo 2007)


Now: A New Leadership Prototype

In 2016, Steelcase researchers and designers began working on the next evolution of leadership spaces. The new leadership environment is an iconic symbol of the cultural change happening in leadership. The new home celebrates openness and interconnectedness across the entire organization.

Steelcase is in the early stages of testing this prototype, a new community space on the first floor in the heart of Steelcase’s Grand Rapids, Mich. campus. Unlike the previous Leadership Community which was a destination, the new space is on the traffic path of the company, making senior leadership more accessible and more visible while still able to access private areas when needed.

Thresholds to and from the space are minimized. Leaders have placed themselves in the midst of the flow of ideas and people. The invitation to the rest of organization is clear. Anyone can work anywhere no matter what their title or status may be. The leadership prototype is no longer a destination. It’s a thoroughfare opening up and strengthening relationships.

A New Leadership Prototype

Steelcase’s new leadership community includes private rooms, semi-private enclaves and conference rooms built to connect a global workforce. (Photo 2016)

A New Leadership Prototype

Instead of a private office, each resident executive has an open-plan workstation and shares access to enclosed private settings as needed. (Photo 2016)

A New Leadership Prototype

Conference rooms within the leadership community are accessible to anyone companywide. They can be pre-booked using an electronic system and encourage more people to use the leadership community space. (Photo 2016)

A New Leadership Prototype

In addition to collaboration spaces, leaders also desire a place for focus and rejuvenation. Enclaves are available throughout the leadership community to support this basic human need. (Photo 2016)

A New Leadership Prototype

Previously paired with the executive he or she supports, senior executive assistants now work in spaces next to one another. By sitting next to each other, communication and coordination are simplified. (Photo 2016)


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