Fast Track: Chill out in the New Age office

No bosses, no juniors, just everyone sharing in the good running of the company. Too good to be true? For some it isn't. By Kate Hilpern
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Imagine working for a company in which there is no hierarchy. There would be none of the ranking systems ranging from the obvious (private offices with sofas for the bigwigs, open plan for everyone else) to the subtle (the people who get coffee made for them) that permeate almost every British organisation. Instead, you would spend your days in an environment where everybody has the same workspace, the same sense of responsibility and the same freedom over the hours they work.

Cloud cuckoo land? Not necessarily. Increasing numbers of business idealists are setting up various versions of the New Age office. The advertising agency St Luke's, is one such company. "Nobody here has a desk," explains the company's marketing and new business manager, Juliet Soskice. "We work in a bright, colourful range of rooms and you just work where you feel like working that day. It's a system that makes everyone feel equally valued, which makes employees mix with everyone else in the company, and that is fun. As a result, we're at our most creative," she says. In addition, St Luke's has policies on not having secretaries, on every employee being an equal shareholder, and on salaries being reviewed by people whom the employee can nominate.

And it is not just small companies that are catching on. "For a long time, I had a policy of saying my door was always open," the chief executive of Rank Xerox, the $5.6bn company, said in April. "Eventually, I realised that I didn't really need a door at all." So he introduced single-table managing. "It eliminates a great deal of the bureaucracy, so you can concentrate on the really important things," explained the finance director. And if you work for the Christian charity Pecan, you will even get the same wage, irrespective of whether you are a cleaner or the managing director.

So is this the answer for today's graduates? Soskice believes it is an attractive option.

"In many ways, it's like being at university when you're here. Strong friendships and bonds are formed all the time, which we feel is fundamental to our success. Also, we feel we've managed to bridge the gap between home and work by allowing staff to operate from home when they want and go home when they've had enough." Andrea Ramsey, of Pecan, agrees. "Graduates love it here. They aren't treated like `the new trainee'. They are treated like everyone else."

Indeed, Angela Edwards, of the Institute of Personnel and Development, claims that although many companies are not into "hot desking" or "same- wage policies", more and more are attempting to get rid of traditional notions of graduates as inferior to the rest of the staff. "Professional services and consultancy work, in particular, is quite formula-driven," she explains. "So there's no reason why graduates should not be more autonomous and respected than they have been in the past. For the companies that realise this, the conventional hierarchical views are disappearing."

But not everyone believes total equality in the workplace is the way forward for graduates. Ben Williams, an Edinburgh-based chartered psychologist, says, "Some people can't function without degrees of classification at work. These `hierarchical types' fit into two categories - those who like to be told what to do, and those who are rather bossy and feel that they are the captains of industry tomorrow. And both are prevalent among new graduates." After all, graduates are, in many ways, more familiar with ranking orders than people who have been in the workplace for some while. At university, there are the teachers and the taught, and you do not get much more hierarchical than that.

Graduates should also beware of a company or boss's hidden agenda, advises Stefan Stern, of the Industrial Society. "Graduates haven't had the experience to see through companies which say they are `equal' for no other reason than to look good. Then they can get themselves in real trouble. For instance, the boss may say to you on your first day: "You have a say in how this company is run, so always tell me the truth about what you feel and I'll never react badly." So you comply by pointing out what you perceive to be some errors in how the company is run - only to discover the boss didn't mean a word of it and sees you as completely arrogant." Look out for more indirect manifestations of hierarchy, suggests Stern, such as the way staff dress, the way in which lunch is brought to a favoured few, and the pecking order in important meetings.

Be especially sceptical if you are told that a business is so equal that there is no boss, warns Andrew West, a business psychologist with West Associates. "If you look at any human endeavour, somebody has to make the final decision, and that automatically means you get a hierarchy. Whether you call that decision-maker a boss or not, that is, in effect, what they are."

Bridget Hogg, an occupational psychologist, has another concern. "Hot- desking sounds good in theory, but if it's not an employee's choice to get rid of their desk, they may feel that they have no space to call their own, and suffer quite a severe loss. Without any territory to call their own, many people feel unstable and undervalued, especially in today's working climate."

Despite these criticisms, however, New Age companies are growing in number and success, with an extremely low turnover of staff. A non-hierarchical approach may work in certain types of company, says George Michaelides, of the media company Michaelides & Bednash. "Hierarchy is important if you've got a production process going on. But if you haven't, you need people to feel comfortable about exploring and sharing ideas. That means there's got to be no office politics whatsoever, and the only way to achieve that is to work in every sense as part of a team. Therefore, people who work here have the same chairs - rather than any degree of paddedness - and we even make sure there is the same amount of light coming from the windows on to our working-space."

Angela Edwards agrees. But before graduates in the creative industries start queueing up for these jobs, she stresses, it is essential that they really think about whether it will suit their personalities, their career prospects and their abilities to work. They also need to try and establish how genuine a company's stated ethos is. If they do not, what may seem like a dream job could very quickly turn out to be a nightmare.