Terry Morgan’s office has no door. There are no pictures on the wall, no comfortable armchairs and no bookcases stuffed with the usual corporate memorabilia.
Instead the chief executive of Tube Lines – the company responsible for three of London Underground’s lines – sits at a desk looking out across a large, open-plan office where hundreds of employees sit at desks identical to his.
“The only privilege I have is the best view,” jokes Mr Morgan as he points out of the windows at Tube Lines’ Canary Wharf headquarters.
Mr Morgan is one of a growing group of chief executives who are beginning to shun the comforts – and isolation – of the executive suite on the top floor. Instead, they are rolling up their sleeves and taking up residence many floors below among the company’s front-line troops.
At GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceuticals group, Andrew Witty, chief executive, moved top executives’ offices, including his own, from the 12th floor of the company’s London headquarters to the entrance level.
Similarly, Xavier Rolet, incoming chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, has started work on the second floor of headquarters in Paternoster Square, where most of the exchange’s key markets and supervision staff are housed.
The trend is driven by management theory that says being closer to employees helps break down the hierarchical structure of a company, demystify the role of chief executive and motivate employees.
That can only help at a time when recession is driving a need for greater productivity and raising office stress levels, experts say.
Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School, says: “We’re seeing it and we’ll see more of it. Organisations are moving to being more of networks. So sitting with your colleagues signals that you see it in a less hierarchical way. As much as anything else, it plays an important signalling role.”
Some chief executives have paid a price for sending the wrong signal – even unwittingly.
John Thain, on becoming chief executive of Merrill Lynch in early 2008, attracted criticism after he spent $1.2m on an office refit, including a $1,400 parchment rubbish bin and a “commode on legs”.
Mr Morgan’s office – if it can be called that – is decorated by a single plant. “How can you talk about the business valuing people not by status but by what they do if the CEO goes off into the most luxurious office you can imagine? I just find that inconsistent,” he says.
There are other more tangible business benefits. Sitting where he does has helped Mr Morgan improve employee workplace satisfaction levels, he says.
“I just think this environment makes communication that much easier. What it means for me is I have a highly motivated workforce,” Mr Morgan says.
But there is a flipside to being so open – employees tend to put chief executives on a pedestal.
Ms Gratton says this forces chief executives to strike a balance between being closer to employees and maintaining a sort of distance sometimes necessary in a job that involves making big, possibly unpopular, decisions on strategy and staffing levels.
However, Mr Morgan says he deals with this by “saying ‘I am Terry’. I just happen to be fortunate enough to be chief executive. I don’t want to be on a pedestal”.
Besides, he points out an added advantage to being close to his employees: “I can listen to the gossip.”
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