On the Visibility of Power Relations: Spatial Reflections on Holacracy as the Latest Organisation Trend

By Hannah Mellow on 15 January 2014

2014 started off with a lot of talk around the decision of shoe retailer Zappos to remove its hierarchies and job titles and become a so called ‘Holacracy’ instead – an organisational culture centred on autonomous self-governing units (‘holons’) and therefore focusing on work rather than on people. WIRED suggested that companies might work better without bosses, while Quartz offered insights into how the process of going ‘holacratic’ might work at Zappos.

So is this the end of hierarchies? And if organisations are changing so profoundly, would this mean workspace design has to change, too, especially given the fact that organisational cultures and behaviours are reinforced by space?


First of all, hierarchies and power relations won’t disappear, as suggested by Stanford professor Bob Sutton in his piece on why hierarchy is good and essential. His main argument is that there will always be people with more formal and informal power than others in every human endeavour. Instead we should focus on building the best (and least bureaucratic) hierarchy we can. For this, power relations need to be visible, since research suggests that invisible power relations at work make people less productive and less committed to an organisation.


So what are the implications for workplace design? In many projects we have observed a very similar phenomenon: losing all visible signs of power relations in physical space is not always a good move.


Hierarchies and power relations are often very palpably mapped in space – as people rise in the organisation, they typically get allocated more space, nicer space (the corner office, the top floor) and a space of their own. In extreme cases, this can not only create tensions, but also contribute to a wasteful approach towards space as a resource. Why would managers get the best and largest spaces, when they spend much of their time out of the office or in meeting rooms anyway?


Still, completely eliminating all obvious and visible forms of hierarchies in space often does not work either. One of the companies we’ve worked with, a large publisher with 1000 staff, moved completely open plan and all senior management (apart from the CEO) were located amongst the rest of the staff. While senior management mostly enjoyed being able to oversee the business much more closely, staff found it disturbing and disorienting, especially those sitting close to their bosses (who felt observed and controlled) and those from other business units (who lacked cues on how to behave appropriately).


It seems that size is an important factor: smaller organisations can afford to be less hierarchical, and they can easily find office space big enough to enable a high degree of visibility to allow a very open and egalitarian feel. As people will know each other very well in smaller organisations, power relations do not need to be mapped in space as explicitly. Larger organisations, in contrast, may need to be more hierarchical to function well, which means that they would also need to make their power relations more obvious in space.


Another level of variation comes into play considering organisational cultures and key business processes, since the degree to which hierarchies need to be mapped in space needs to reflect organisational values – the open and fluid style of a hip advertising agency might not be suitable for a professional law firm. And what works for Virgin Management and a Richard Branson is not right for a market analyst like CRU.


Ultimately, whether hierarchies disappear or not may be irrelevant. Likewise, whether workspace design has to change to accommodate new operating structures a la Zappos might be irrelevant, too. Instead the real questions may be how an organisation organises both its processes and spaces, how much visibility of power relations is needed for a successful operation, and how this visibility of hierarchies is realised.

Topics: halocracy, power, relations, visibility