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Execs Without Offices Find Communication Is Easier

June 16, 1998|From Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — Paul O'Neill looks around the huge office--replete with private bathroom, seven armchairs, couch and massive desk--that he gave up for a cubicle.

"I couldn't wait to get out of here," Alcoa's chairman says. "It was like living inside a mahogany box."

Plush corner suites remain the norm for most corporate chieftains, but a few are coming out of their wood-paneled boxes--and loving it. They like bumping into employees informally or popping their heads over cubicle walls for quick chats--all the impromptu doings of business that people leave behind as they ascend the ranks.

"I would never go back to a private office," says Mark Serrianne, chief executive officer of Northlich Stolley LaWarre, a Cincinnati-based advertising and public relations agency that took out all walls 15 months ago.

Now Serrianne talks with a handful of people just on his way to the bathroom. "The whole floor is my office," he says. "I think personally I'm more spontaneous."

Of course, even CEOs in a cubicle will get more coddling than the average employee. Just for starters, they'll get pestered across the cubicle wall less often than most workers will.

Their great praise for the change may also partly be due to boosterism, since most leaders who abandoned offices do so as part of the growing number of design changes sweeping Corporate America.

Still, interviews with half a dozen company chiefs reveal an enthusiasm for the changes that seems to go far beyond public relations. They seem genuinely liberated.

"I'm delighted to come to work. I can't imagine a space that would be more creative," said O'Neill, who moved Alcoa's executives to a new floor two years ago to test an open-plan design to be used in the company's new headquarters opening in July.

Bounding the few steps from his desk to the chief financial officer's, he demonstrates how he hand-delivered a paper that morning that in previous times he would have tossed in the internal mail.

Still, while more executives are giving up their closed doors, they remain a tiny minority. Only 5% of upper management work in open-plan offices, up from 3% in 1994, according to the International Facility Management Assn.

When Toledo, Ohio-based Owens Corning moved in 1996 to a new headquarters where few walls exist, Chief Executive Officer Glen Hiner switched to a glass-walled office in the center of the building.

But for now he still values his ability to close the door. "There are certain situations where accommodating privacy is a necessity," he said.

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