Has interest in offices ever been greater? In TV series like The Office and Mad Men the drama unfolds between Xerox machines and desk cabinets. But how do office cultures and hierarchies differ between different countries? Kinnarps takes a closer look at a changing world - and explains the concepts.
At face value, it seems most offices consist of the same mess of cables, clanking noises from printers, fluorescent lighting and cold cups of coffee.
But the physical environment is one thing. What is the actual culture in an office like and the more or less obvious hierarchies?
In the TV series Mad Men, we follow an advertising agency on Madison Avenue in New York from the 1960s, where men drink martinis at lunch and the women are subservient secretaries.
If this was the core of the American creative cluster 50 years ago, it has now moved to the West Coast and Silicon Valley in California.
Lennart Frantzell has worked there for 25 years as an IT architect for IBM.
“We work with start-ups and I see how hierarchies are relaxing more and more. People will listen to you if you are good at something. Then it makes no difference if you are the youngest, the oldest or who you are,” he says.
He thinks that a top-down working environment has become a meritocracy - knowledge means greater status than job titles.
The physical office environment has also changed, not least because the technology has made this possible.
“You share desks with others, work from home some days, or meet and work in local cafés that have a wireless connection. As long as one gets the job done and is contactable, you get to work almost where and when you want,” says Lennart Frantzell.
In Japan, however, clear hierarchies in offices still remains.
There are rules that clearly highlight what is right and what is wrong.
Jesper Edman, a researcher at the Stockholm School of Economics' Japan Institute and based at Hitotsubashi University, has lived in Japan for 22 years.
He has taken a three-week course in etiquette. Among other things, he learned that managers always go first down the stairs and last up.
“We also learned to bow properly. If you meet a manager your back has to be bowed 15 degrees. If you meet a customer, the angle has to be 30 degrees, and if you've made a mistake and want to apologise you have to bow at a 90 degree angle from the waist up,” he says.
Clothing is also an important part of Japanese office rules. At a given date in May everyone, regardless of the weather, changes from long-sleeved to short-sleeved shirts. In September, it's time to make the switch back.
Jesper Edman also tells of a meeting culture that differs from the Western one.
Nothing is decided on during a meeting, but always before or after. It is therefore not unusual that the top manager takes the opportunity to sleep during the meeting. The younger employees update him later on when any decisions are made.
There are no dividing walls or even screens in a traditional Japanese office.
“Managers sit closest to windows followed by second-in-line managers and so on down the line like a military column in descending order to the secretary,” says Jesper Edman.
The obvious Japanese hierarchies was also something the photographer Lars Tunbjörk became aware of when he worked with his book Office.
“If a manager had given me the green light to take a photograph, I could disturb the employees as much as I wanted. There were no limits to what I could do,” he says.
For years Lars Tunbjörk documented everyday life in offices in Tokyo, New York and Stockholm.
“In New York, I was struck by how stylish, designed and flashy receptions were, but behind the scenes everyone sat in small, grey booths. And in this case it was still one of New York's largest advertising agencies. It was incredibly disorderly in Japan. I've never seen so much rubbish. Everyone was focused on the job, on the bottom line, and the aesthetics meant nothing,” he says.
In other countries, the aesthetics take on a whole different meaning. Take Denmark for instance, a country that certainly has a reputation for having a true liberal attitude toward orderliness - but when it comes to design and architectural issues, this has been a top priority for very many companies. This is characterised by Denmark's long crafts tradition with a long line of designer celebrities.
The boat trip between Denmark and Sweden takes only 20 minutes, yet the differences between the neighbouring countries are clear. Organisations in Sweden are flatter.
And most Swedish companies advocate open-plan offices. Department managers sit side-by-side with their employees at identical desks and work modules, which is hardly the case in more hierarchical countries like Holland and Germany.
“The immediate economic benefits with open-plan offices are great. Decreased premises costs, lower power consumption, lower cleaning costs. There are studies that show that employees interact more, but are they only just talking shop? How productivity is affected is difficult to measure,” says Aram Seddigh, whose thesis deals with how different offices affect health and productivity levels.
An American study has shown that those working in open-plan offices are interrupted every eleven minutes, in other words more than 40 times a day. Research also shows that the brain's smartest part, the frontal lobe, is used to block out distractions instead of solving work-related assignments.
Stress and constant interruptions at work are not only just annoying, but can at worst lead to physical illness.
This is an issue that has created a concerned national debate in France all the way up to government level. A contributing factor to the problems is believed to be the change from a 40-hour work week to 35 hours in 2000 - which paradoxically increased stress as employees tried to get more done in less time. The pendulum is however beginning to swing in France and more and more companies realise that in order to remain competitive, one must invest in a better and healthier working environment.