Status and Physical Space
How COVID redefined markers of status as work became virtual.
TL; DR (The Summary)
Manifesting personal status and identifying our own status relative to others is a critical element of social existence.
We signal status to others through goods (things we own and associate ourselves with) and credentials/symbols.
In the pre-COVID modern workplace, physical space was a critical way to identify and separate those with higher status from those with lower status.
COVID, by forcing a disconnection between work and physical space, has rendered many common status markers (at least temporarily) obsolete.
This physical change will lead to social changes, which will be significant.
I present my playbook for cultivating status when I find myself (quite frequently) in the lower status position.
The word “status” has two primary definitions in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
1a: position or rank in relation to others
1b: relative rank in a hierarchy of prestige
Until recently, I was not fully conscious of how much the pursuit of status and prestige had been ingrained into me through my upbringing (family), social institutions (schools/university, jobs etc.) and the media. I wondered why I wanted certain things - fine clothing, a luxury car, a nice house with a yard etc. etc.
Learning about Rene Girard, a French writer and philosopher whose teachings had a big influence on Peter Thiel, and his writings on the mimetic (imitative) nature of desire opened my eyes.
Luke Burgis, who has written extensively on mimetic desire, explains the theory as follows. “The value of objects is not objective—it’s subjective. And that subjective value is determined mimetically, based on our relationship with others…. we assign value to things (and therefore desire them) according to what other people want.”
All this to say that what we desire (and thus pursue) is heavily determined by our surroundings (people and environment, both physical and digital.)
Signaling: The Use of ‘Markers’ to Communicate Status
In every situation where we interact with others, particularly when there is something new about the people or the surroundings, we instinctively try to figure out the status of all the parties. This happens subconsciously. Sometimes we don’t always know the relative status of everyone in a group setting (i.e., it is an information problem). Then we rely on signaling, interpreting the behavior, reactions, branding and position of members in a group to understand where people stand in the hierarchy.
Kevin Simler has written extensively on this phenomenon, about how we do things with what we tell ourselves are positive intentions, but which have other, self-interested motivations. His book, with co-author Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life is a great deep dive into this topic.
For example, all the elements in the image above, particularly the stickers on the computer, provide us with information (i.e., signals) to help form an opinion of the individual.
Signaling Status in the Workplace
There are three common ways we signal status in life and in the workplace.
(i) Goods. A key element in the workplace is apparel (luxury, branded clothing) and related accessories (jewelry and bags). In non-traditional environments, members of a ‘gang’ may sport a particular tattoo, their version of a fashion accessory. Sometimes the goods may be displayed in the surroundings such as art objects or furniture within an office environment.
(ii) Credentials or Symbols. These include items such as professional certifications, degrees from certain universities (with their known colors and logos), and titles of professional roles.
(iii) Physical Space. Generally speaking, bigger is better. However, it is far more nuanced than that.
The importance of physical space is the topic I wish to explore in more depth, because it has been so heavily “disrupted” by the transition to remote work post COVID. Somehow, while we have discussed the practical changes in depth, the status implications have not been covered a lot.
Status and Physical Space
We refer to the process of career advancement as “climbing the ladder.” The meaning is clear - as we get higher up the rungs of the metaphorical ladder, we are gaining status and becoming more successful.
For generations, the tallest building in most towns and villages was the top of the local sacred space - church, temple, mosque or equivalent. And the person chosen to deliver the message from God, typically occupied a space above the congregants. Physical space was an important signal of status and prestige.
For a little over a century, the office tower or skyscraper has replaced the religious structure as the tallest building in a city. This trend started in New York and Chicago and has since spread to all cities across the world. Often these buildings are tourist attractions. People pay to go to the top (or near the top) for an opportunity to look down on the breadth of the city below them.
Physical Space as a Status Marker in the Workplace
I had the opportunity to work for many years in the early 2000s in one of these “hallowed” skyscrapers — 767 Fifth Avenue — the tall office tower to the southeast of Central Park with alternating white and black vertical stripes.
There are myriad ways physical space is used to indicate relative status.
● Office Size: Larger indicates more status.
● Office Location (within a building): A corner, particularly on a high floor indicates more status.
● Office Location (within a company): Working in the corporate headquarters or primary office was considered more prestigious and a better path to advancement as one can be “seen” by those in positions of power and leadership.
● Office Location (physical address): Having offices in “Tier 1” cities (New York, London, Tokyo etc.) were important, and the actual street address (Madison Avenue, Park Avenue or Sand Hill Road) had a lot of signaling value.
● Office View: Windows are preferred (the larger the better) and particularly when the view is beautiful.
● Office Type (private with a door): Even as open plans flourished, many companies retained a few offices for those with higher status who could close the door for privacy.
● Conference Room (Seating Arrangement): The head of the table or the middle of the table is typically where the person with most status is seated. It is clear where the attention should be focused during a meeting.
● Conference / Meeting Room (Physical Layout): The person who has the spotlight is at the front, often on a slightly raised platform, above those listening to the presentation. Those with the next highest status are in the first few rows in the center (this happens at award ceremonies, marriages, and funerals as well as with business meetings.)
● Meeting Location (who visits and who hosts): The person of higher status typically hosts at their location, which requires the people of lower status to travel (at a cost of time and money) to get the audience.
● Physical Amenities (Parking Spots): Having a company-paid parking spot, close to the elevator or office entrance was another perk reflecting status.
● Physical Amenities (Executive Dining Rooms): Getting an invitation for a breakfast or lunch at the executive dining room was something to be appreciated. While less common today, this still exists at more “prestigious” larger firms, especially in financial services.
How Remote Work Has Removed Many Common Status Markers
The typical day of remote work involves multiple video calls, ranging from calls with team members, all company presentations, selling to prospects and serving clients.
So many traditional markers of status have been lost. In many ways, COVID has been a ‘great leveler’ of status.
● The online world does not yet replicate the grandeur of large physical spaces. The typical phone or laptop camera doesn’t take in as much as the human eye, nor can it adequately represent the power associated with grand physical office spaces. Perhaps with all the AR/VR innovations to come that will change in time.
● Shared experiences are absent, and our sense of a common reality is weakened. There is no common physical location to create some shared experiences. Virtual backgrounds allow each of us to be anywhere and make our surroundings look however we would like to present it to others.
● Physical proximity has lost much of its value. No one is obviously sitting next to the leader or in the front row or even in the same office building. The concept of the host (more powerful) and the visitor (lower status) has been mostly lost, albeit the higher status person has greater latitude in being late or canceling a meeting on short notice.
● No clear single human point of focus. The leader of a meeting is no longer obvious unless they are speaking and/or they have named themselves as the “leader.”
● Body language has lessened in importance. The waning of attention is easier to hide. It has become much harder to discern if the people on the other end of the conversation have lost interest. In a virtual world, it is totally acceptable to turn away or even turn off the screen at least temporarily.
● The field of view has been narrowed and become less clear. Brands, which signal status, are much harder to see, be it clothing, jewelry or other status symbols. Sometimes (more often than we would like) images freeze, due to latency and connection strength issues.
● Trappings of prestige are much less evident. The executive assistant who makes a specialty espresso drink or brings in a catered meal is no longer clearly present as they would have been in an in-person get together.
Seemingly Small Ripples Will Have Big Impacts
The last few centuries have taught us that large scale physical change leads to social change. The railroad replacing the canal system for commerce transport increased the importance of certain cities and decreased those of others. The proliferation of affordable air-conditioning led to massive population increases in the Sunbelt and Southwestern parts of the United States.
Suggestions to Build Status
Status is domain dependent. It is not linked directly to age. Experience only matters within a particular field. All of us are faced with situations where we need to cultivate our status.
As I build my business, there are myriad situations where I am in the lower status position looking up at those around me for help and input. The playbook I am following includes the following: (btw, I could not resist using a cute dog photo.)
● Express Gratitude Openly. I learn from a lot of people who publish content on the internet that are not ‘celebrities’ with huge Instagram or TikTok followings. I believe in telling them they’ve had a positive impact on me. The more specific the better, so that it seems clearly genuine.
● Give Before You Ask. This is standard maxim in sales training. And yet we don’t do it enough. When people (especially those selling something, which we all are at points in our work lives) share something of value, it builds trust. The giving will eventually have a positive impact on your life. It might take a while. And if it doesn’t come back, then the act of giving is a reward in itself.
● Voice and Language Matters More Than Ever. Body language cues matter a lot less in our current virtual world. Voice has gained in importance - both what one says, and the tone including the ability to laugh out loud naturally (which we immediately interpret as a signal of friendliness and likeability.) Build up others. Say the unsaid in an online conversation when someone else makes a strong point. Again, being genuine matters.
● Writing Skill Rises in Importance. So much more of our interaction is now both written and asynchronous (or close to that) via SMS, Slack, Chat within video calls etc. Knowing how to best use GIFs, emojis and other ways to signal emotions and cultural awareness is more critical than ever.
● Above All Remain Humble.