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The layout at the new headquarters is minimalist and more egalitarian. Because most desks aren’t assigned, employees must lock up their family photos and personal tchotchkes each night. Everyone gets a window view—but no one gets complete privacy.
Mr. Corbat, who started his career on the cacophonous Salomon Brothers trading floor in 1983, pushed for the new design even though he knows it won’t be universally popular among the staff.
“There probably is the occasional person who says, ‘I’ve spent most of my career in an office and I don’t want to change that now,’ ” said Mr. Corbat. “But weighing that against the benefits to the rest of the organization, that’s a risk we’re comfortable taking.”
While researchers disagree about whether open offices foster communication or encourage distraction, Mr. Corbat is in the former camp. He says he was inspired by another Salomon alumnus— Michael Bloomberg, who as New York City mayor worked from a desk in the middle of City Hall.
The wall-less workspace is meant to flatten hierarchies, something banks have traditionally been built on. Former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill had a fireplace in his office when he ran Shearson Loeb Rhoades from atop the World Trade Center. Mr. Corbat’s current Park Avenue office, at more than 600 square feet, is larger than many Manhattan apartments.
Mr. Corbat said he wants to encourage communication among employees who typically might not talk to one another, and is particularly excited about a “town square” area on the ground floor.
“You’re going to be forced to bump into people,” Mr. Corbat said. “I want people interacting around our business and ideas.”
Mr. Corbat’s new workspace, which measures about 360 square feet, won’t have walls or a door. Instead it features glass dividers, about 7 feet tall, to provide what the bank calls “seated privacy.” Other executives get semiprivate spaces of about 180 square feet.
When Mr. Corbat announced his plans, he made an offer that most workers considered rhetorical: Anyone who has a problem with the design can come talk to me. Ray McGuire, who runs the firm’s corporate and investment bank and its army of highly paid deal makers, actually took him up on it. Mr. McGuire says he feared his staff would be uncomfortable in the new setup, and that could affect how they serve clients.
“When you are in an industry that is reluctant to change, and you manage a group of people who have been successful, a new idea can be difficult to adopt,” Mr. McGuire said. He said Mr. Corbat helped convince him that the new setup will help the bank best serve clients, by fostering collaboration and attracting young talent. Besides, Mr. McGuire added, “A lot of people are out meeting with clients anyway.”
Other financial firms have adopted elements of modern design, but even banks that have incorporated some open spaces have kept private offices for almost all of their senior executives. As part of its research, Citigroup toured the New York offices of rivals such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc., as well as Facebook Inc. in Silicon Valley.
Only the top three floors at Citigroup’s Tribeca headquarters will be fully renovated when the executives move in next month. Changes to the rest of the building will be rolled out over roughly the next four years. When complete, the skyscraper will have capacity for about 12,500 employees, up from the current 9,000.
The bank says it carefully considered its employees’ concerns. The design—from white-noise generators to walls and ceilings that absorb sound—is meant to minimize the distraction of nearby conversations. Each floor will have multiple conference rooms and small phone rooms for private conversations. The bank is considering “instant fog” for some of those glass-walled rooms. Employees have been told that they’ll adapt by wearing headphones and talking more quietly.
“If you look at the history of trading floors there is an extremely high level of productivity,” said Don Callahan, who runs Citigroup’s operations and technology and is overseeing the renovation. “If we can adapt that to a nontrading floor environment, we’re going to be in great shape.”
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