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The curious language of tables and chairs (and why you should never learn it)

No one cares about your corporate message when it’s drowned out by noise. Good comms speaks with one voice, and that means reaching out and making friends in other functions.

Photo: __________office

"What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

A company’s communications is never more eloquent than in its choice of office furniture. When I first arrived for work in Manulife in 2011 my immediate sense of the place was of confused randomness. There was no apparent pattern to the workspace arrangement. Every desk seemed different to the next, each surrounded by dizzying formations of chairs and gadgets. It seemed the result of 10,000 decisions by individual office holders over the years, or some kind of esoteric order to which I’d not yet been admitted. As with so much else, I was wrong.

As I went on to learn, every part of this office arrangement was a deliberate and purposeful expression of the company’s culture. And it could be deciphered with a single word: status. The blinkers fell from my eyes on my first promotion. Arriving on my first day in the new role, I sat down at my usual desk and began my day. Later that morning my boss called me to her office.

“Is there a problem?”, she asked. “Why are you sitting at your old desk? You’re a director now. You can have the director’s desk.” “Oh, no need for that,” I replied naively, “I’m fine where I am. It has all I need and I’m already settled”. She put on a smile and explained that I was nevertheless expected to move across to my new space, preferably by day’s end.

My new desk was about five feet away from my old one, part of the same section of open plan. There was no advantage in location, view or function. There were only two observable differences. First, my furniture was of slightly higher grade: I now had a faux-mahogany desk instead of grey plastic, my phone was a more recent model, my monitor held in place by a space-saving clamp rather than a desk-stand. Second, I now had an extra couple of square feet of space, entitling me to two guest chairs instead of one.

None of this made me any more productive or effective in any way. I realised quickly it wasn’t meant to. Its sole real-world purpose was to signal to teammates and passersby that “Here sitteth a director!”. The tables and chairs had a language all their own, one we were forcing aspiring colleagues to learn. This much understood, I looked again around the wider office. The same status-driven arrangement was now obvious:

  • administrators had the least space (despite handling the most paperwork and thus needing more);

  • managers had the same setup as admins but with slightly larger desks;

  • senior managers went one better, having a guest chair;

  • directors had two guest chairs;

  • AVPs had the same as directors but within an office instead of open plan;

  • VPs enjoyed a larger office, with four guest chairs and a small table;

  • SVPs had a corner office with a small sofa;

  • at the top of the house (literally, the highest floor of the building), the CEO had the biggest office, with a harbour view, two sofas and a coffee table.

All this, I emphasise, was a long time ago. By the time I left in 2021 the company’s workspace was transformed. A new recruit would find the workspace ordered, light and attractive, held together by an overall, coherent design. Everyone, up to and including the CEO, was open plan, and had access to the same office facilities and desk kit. Even more impressive, offices looked recognisably “Manulife” no matter the location. Whether one visited Shanghai, Manila, Ho Chi Mihn or Toronto, you felt instantly and comfortably at home. If there was any sense of status involved in the planning, it was to elevate one’s pride in being part of the same, global team.

The lesson of all this for communicators? Comms isn’t just what we say or write. It’s what people feel as a result of interacting with the company. The message is key, but so is ensuring it’s not drowned out by all the other signals being sent by other means. This doesn’t mean comms should try to do too much. It means establishing good relationships with the likes of Real Estate, Design, and IT, as well as our more traditional partners like HR. Doing so doesn’t just help ensure a better experience for employees. It also raises the chance that when you issue that official CEO or company message, people just might read it - and even believe it.

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