Is the whole notion of CEOs being tucked away in their own quarters surrounded by creature comforts somewhat behind the times? If MSC Software chief Paolo Guglielmini is anything to go by, that seems to be the case.
In an 8 January interview with BBC News thread CEO Secrets,  Guglielmini says that he prefers to hotdesk among his people, rather than have his own, dedicated office space. His firm – which designs simulation software for use in industrial tests – has 1,000 staff around the world, and no matter which branch of the company Guglielmini visits, he always works at a small desk in the same part of the office where his employees sit, within easy reach.
He explains: “I really don’t miss having an office. For me, it’s perfectly normal to have a desk that is minimum size. Speed is super-important – the speed at which you become aware of a situation, of an idea, [or receive] insights … and the speed at which you actually execute on it is decisive. And I find that the fact of being with our teams is actually motivating for everyone. It makes the work day more fun for me, and hopefully it makes the interaction a little more interesting for them, and more motivating for them.”
(In a separate interview of 10 January,  Guglielmini hints at why speed and agility is so important for his firm’s business model, saying that staff in some regions work hours designed to fit in with colleagues in other time zones. “It’s a way of building virtual teams that is very hard to do otherwise,” he notes.)
While Guglielmini may be rare in his decision to work entirely among his staff, he is by no means alone. In a 2017 interview with CNBC Make It,  Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat said that he abandoned the executive office for closer contact with employees as part of the firm’s open floor-plan policy. 
He explained: “In a day-to-day [environment] where people are tweeting, chatting and there’s a distance in those communications, I want to create, construct, what we call ‘constructive collisions’ in our people’s day. We felt, as a leadership team, we can’t ask people to give up their offices … until we do it. So we … moved to cubicles, and I would say that, while people were uncertain at the start, the team loves it.”
He noted: “Information flows, there’s no doors, we come and go from each other’s spaces, we hold meetings together, there’s a trust factor there in terms of communication, and I think it’s resonating in the rest of the firm.”
Do these sorts of arrangements constitute a better, more available form of leadership?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “There’s a real confidence about these CEOs who want to sit among their staff. They express that confidence in two, key ways. Firstly, through their conduct: all day, every day at work, they’re happy to be themselves. And secondly, through transparency: there’s an openness about how they relate to and deal with their employees – because if you’re in an open-plan office, your conversations with people, whether in person or over the phone, will inevitably be overheard by anyone within earshot.”
Cooper explains: “What we have is a distinct shrinkage of power distance between the CEOs who are cooped up in their corner offices and those who sit among their staff. That leads to greater informality – which, again, requires huge confidence on the part of CEOs if they are to be comfortable with more relaxed interpersonal conditions. But the real benefit for CEOs who take that risk is that they’ll get a better feel for what’s going on in their organisations. Not only will the workers around you be able to hear all of your conversations – you will be able to hear all of theirs, too. You’ll get a tangible sense of what’s occurring as it unfolds. By default, you’re likely to be 100% up to date most of the time.”
She adds: “This will be particularly useful from a strategic-insights perspective: you’ll see connections between what’s happening in various parts of the office that the people who are immediately involved won’t necessarily be able to see. So overall, sitting among staff is a difficult and challenging way to present yourself as a leader. But if you do it well, you can role-model values of transparency that will tell your employees a lot about how you want everyone to work in your company.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on communicating
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