12/01/2011 01:43 pm ET | Updated Jan 31, 2012

About Leadership: Offices

We all have an image of the office of the chief executive. Big, plush carpet, dark wooden furniture. Some rich, dark red drapes. Besides the big desk, on which there is not very much paper, an area with a sofa and a couple of chairs. Or perhaps a small table in a rich oak or mahogany around which several people can sit for a mini meeting. Antiques are usually part of the vision.

Where in the headquarters building is this beautiful office located? Usually around the top floor or just below, in a secure setting, where you have to get past a guard, then a receptionist, then past his or her secretary. It is a place designed to inspire awe in the junior staff member who may occasionally visit this domain. It gives an impression of importance to external visitors. Perhaps it is also designed to say, this is a rich and prosperous company, just look around you.

Now there are many problems with this vision in practice. Besides inspiring awe in the organization, it also sets a standard and an aspiration. If the CEO has 700 square feet and a private bathroom, original expensive art, antiques and plush carpet, then what must his business leaders have? Something about 80% of that? And if he is rather remote and hard to get to, shouldn't they be as well?

I remember taking over management of a division when I first came to the UK, and the man I was succeeding told me that the secretary was excellent, because she did a great job of keeping the staff away from the office.

As BP underwent cultural change in the early 1990s, it made many innovations in offices. Imagine a transition from a headquarters of 35 stories to one of only 8 stories, of which one is the medical centre, and one is the cafeteria. Then have the CEO and his direct reports sit on the 4th floor, rather than up at the top, and allow people, unless they are pretty suspicious looking, to just walk right in.

The offices themselves are pretty modest, light colored wood -- this is significant, think of the image -- simple carpeting throughout.

Lots of glass walls for the executives who have offices, and most people working in open plan.

One idea, even for most of the fairly senior executives (say not the top six, but the next 30), is to have very small offices (3 x 3 meters) just a desk, workstation, a few shelves, and then have lots of shared meeting rooms of all sizes, places where anything from 4 to 24 people can sit comfortably. Some with sofas, some with small tables. Simple, modern art on the walls. All the walls of glass.

There is a great deal to be said for open plan -- doing away with cellular offices altogether. The popularity of open plan waxes and wanes, but it has much to recommend it. Sure, it's frustrating to be working on something that requires concentration and have to hear the person next to you talking to their young daughter about her school trip to the farm. But I think this frustration is mainly worth it for the upside, which is an open interaction with those in the team. A different kind of question, of request for help and advice, comes in open plan. No need to get past a secretary, few appointments with your own team, rather a lot of informal contact.

And people can and do learn an etiquette appropriate to open plan offices. They learn who can be interrupted and why.

Open plan can be made much more attractive than it usually is. It works best if there is space, so people are not crowded on top of each other, though for certain teams' productivity comes from overhearing others' conversations. Remember Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All the President's Men? The newsroom is a model we could all think about in our own office design.

Lighting and furniture are important. If it is Corporate Headquarters it should not look like the back office of a third rate insurance company. If it is possible to light areas over desks, and leave corridors a bit dimmer, it creates the feeling of a special space for people.

Above all, offices require thought, and at the highest levels of the Corporation. I often come into Corporations and think: This CEO and other Board members got the headquarters that an interior designer told them they want, rather than that they told an interior designer what office they wanted. Don't miss the opportunity that offices offer to make statements to everyone in the organisation about what is important.

About Leadership: About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?