Even bosses are losing their personal space and their executive furniture as designers reinvent the workplace
When British Airways moves into its new headquarters next year, there won't be a desk for Bob Ayling, the chief executive. He can't remember the last time he spent more than five minutes behind a desk, he says, so he's doing away with it: "The desk has gone and the space will be smaller and I will have a place to listen and talk to people without the formality of a conventional office."

Soon after he became chief executive of BA he had posters put on the walls of the airline's headquarters declaring "Heroes don't have diaries". The posters, featuring the crew of Apollo 13 asking Houston for help and being told "I think there is a window next Tuesday", were designed to exhort his managers not to be bureaucratic. "We are encouraging people to be brave, not reckless," he said. "It's not always necessary for people to be in meetings and Apollo 13 wouldn't have made much headway in that environment."

BA's new premises will be "the biggest friendly building in the world," says the Norwegian architect Niels Torp. The complex, near Heathrow, is designed on the principle of a village with a central glazed street linking 12 buildings he describes as houses rather than offices, and a park as big as Kensington Gardens. "Transparency and openness is the theme," says Torp. "There will be no place to hide away." His design embodies the philosophy of office life which Ayling is trying to form: or, as he puts it, "establishing the habitat of the chief executive of the 21st century."

BA is not alone. In the most innovative firms in Britain, the United States and Europe new ways of working are developing. Four walls and a desk are out. Members of staff enjoy "clubbing", "quiet rooms", "lagoons" and "breaking out".

For the past 15 years most people in this country have assumed that the service economy will continue to provide the new jobs. By the start of this decade, more than 60 per cent of the working population was in white- collar employment, with most using computers. The 19th-century office of rows of penpushing clerks was long gone.

Now the service economy is itself changing dramatically. Maximising efficiency for some firms, such as financial companies running 24-hour telephone banking, means different shift workers using the same desks.

Thanks to the fax, the laptop and the modem, executives may work on trains, in airport lounges and in hotel rooms. Or they may telework from home before and after the school run.

Other firms - consultancies, advertisers, accountants - are going further, reinventing working practices and premises to match. They are realising that much of the work they do doesn't need to be done behind a desk. Instead they want spaces for conversation, contemplation, and rooms for interaction.

This way of working will particularly benefit highly skilled, articulate, educated workers, adept at creative thinking and technologically fluent. In the US they have a name for them: gold-collar workers. The blue-collar worker is increasingly redundant and the white-collar worker is no longer top of the pay and skills leagues. Today, it's the gold-collar worker who matters most to the corporate employer, and has a salary to match.

John Worthington, a professor of architecture at York University and a leading expert on future workplace design for architects DEGW, says the traditional office is dying. "The nine to five routine is just about finished. That was fine for processing organisations years ago, but today the successful business adds intelligence to information.

"People might spend many hours in the office, but they also spend hours out of it. So let's share desks, and if we spend a lot of time in meetings, let's design meeting rooms.

"Do people really think well perched behind a desk? Unlikely. Let's give them space to think and time to think."

John Worthington himself thinks in a calm, quiet, room with a view, and talks to others at a round table that does not encourage a hierarchical structure. Not everyone can cope with the changing culture.

"There's a resistance to change," said Linda Jones of British Airways. "We are trying to reassure people, because they can be possessive about their space and their status. But if we want people to work in teams and at speed, we need to break down the conventional barriers.

"We believe people work more effectively if they can use their initiative and hierarchies are broken down."

In Paris, Andersen Consulting used to occupy conventional offices in La Defense, the modernistic office city north of the Arc de Triomphe. Today it is based in an historic building just off the Champs Elysees. From the outside, its headquarters is a fine Parisian stone structure, but the interior is unconventional. There is no front desk; visitors are greeted by two women dressed by Balenciaga, as if checking into a smart country house.

Andersen staff log in using their smart cards, and are given electronic information as to where they will be working that day. They are given a list of who else is working where. The consultant then discovers that he might be working in a "lagoon", an outward facing group working together, or in a "break-out space", where people chat casually. There are no filing cabinets. Instead staff have their own trolleys which are wheeled to where they are working that day.

How have the staff reacted? According to Francois Jaquenoud, who was responsible for the new building: "The people who reacted against it were the people at the top. They lost their offices, and they didn't like it. It is disturbing losing status; I found it difficult. I used to have my own office with a big thick carpet; now I use the space that's available."

At the advertising agency Howell Henry Chaldicott Lury in Soho, London, nurturing staff is a high priority. There is little evidence of hierarchies; staff hop from desk to desk and from free space to free space, from a sofa to a bean bag where they can think, chat, or meet clients. Ann Harris, the firm's business development director, admits that joining from a more traditional employer can be a shock. "Before I came here, I had a very large office with beautiful pictures of my choice on the walls. Giving that up would not suit everyone. You need to be a pretty confident person to enjoy this sort of atmosphere where you sit next to someone different every day."

The more unconventional areas of their building are for what HHCL's staff call "romping" - talking, gathering and interacting. Each has a mobile phone; laptops give them freedom to roam around.

Rooms are brightly coloured, there are baskets of fruit, vases of cut flowers, and fridges stocked with healthy drinks.

This sort of work environment is not cheap. Francois Jaquenoud of Andersen Consulting says: "Employers who want change because they think it will save money are in for a shock. One way not to succeed is to make cutting costs your priority. It might do so, but the imperative has to be to enhance quality. Spending on technology is likely to be very high, but you should get a better return because of the improved efficiency. We moved from La Defense to the much more expensive centre of Paris, but the building we have now is better quality and gives us a better image."

Back in London, the consultants and accountants Coopers and Lybrand did consider costs when the firm examined its office space. It introduced flexible working for its 1,200 consultants, which involved spending money on sophisticated technology, but also enabled the company to relinquish 100,000 square feet of offices elsewhere.

It had already introduced hot desking but like HHCL went further. Roger Reeves, the partner in charge of property and facilities management, said: "We recognised at the outset that we could be shaking the glue that held the team together."

Coopers and Lybrand armed its staff with mobile phones, laptops, fax cards and home business lines. A sophisticated phone system was introduced so that calls could be rerouted to staff wherever they were. The office space was divided into areas for six groups of 200, each with large workstations for long term work, small desks for short-term work and airport lounge- style space for conversational work. Some of the meeting rooms were made bigger and more home-like with sofas and table lamps; these rooms are now booked solid. The traditional link between an individual person and personal space had been broken.

Some staff may feel threatened but others thrive. Recruiting the latter is important. "We interview five or six times for any job, be it a creative job or a receptionist," said Ann Harris. "It takes a particular type of person to feel happy with this environment."

This then is a world for an elite: the lateral, creative thinker, technologically adept, able to interact. It is akin to a primary school classroom decorated in primary colours, with low, circular tables for team-based project work, rather than rows of desks for rote learning. And just as the diffident, slow-thinker might be the most lost in such a classroom, so the less educated, plodding employee could be trampled in the rush to the free- thinking, brave new world of the wall-less office and the vanishing boardroom.

Nor is there much good news for those who would prefer the solitary life of the outworker linked by modem. Telecommuting - long identified as the future - has yet to be a significant form of employment. Distance workers still need to interact with the office, says Francois Jaquenoud of Andersen Consulting, so they will need space in headquarters as well.

That's good news for those who like the rough and tumble of crowded cities. As Professor Volker Hartkopf puts it: "Imaginative, creative people needs others to spark off ideas. Where do you find that? In every city in the world. You don't do that if you move to live next to a potato field in Idaho."

A glossary for the gold-collar worker

Gold-collar workers: the most highly skilled, articulate, educated workers, adept at creative thinking and technologically fluent.

Lagoon: an outward facing group of people working together.

Break-out space: where people chat.

Romping: talking, gathering and interacting.

Clubbing: where peripatetic workers from many companies, even competing companies, gather every day to work in space providing private workstations, cafes and meeting rooms, in a club-like environment

Hotelling: turning up and booking a space in a building which isn't your own, with hotel standard service.

Convivial carrels: enclosed cubicles spaces for team working.

Cockpit: a small enclosed individual room.

Wearable office: portable office equipment, such as the mobile phone and the modem.

Workchurch: the corporate headquarters, as much of a symbolic statement as a medieval cathedral.

Worktent: temporary, or movable office space.

Wireless networks: this is the technology that will not need cabling, and will thus transform older buildings which were unsuitable for the raised floors and suspended ceilings of the modern computerised cabled office.