How Elevators Reveal Office Pecking Order

Something new to think about the next time you press the “up” button.

How Elevators Reveal Office Pecking Order

Elevators are strange. They enabled skyscrapers and, in so doing, enabled the modern city. Yet we don’t know what to do in them, except pray that we don’t get stuck and wonder why Americans don’t call them lifts, which is clearly the superior term.


We can safely conclude that elevators themselves are awesome. It’s just the people who are in them who are weird–especially when you work with them.

The pitch

Being in a room flying up and down a building that closes its inhabitants in prompts some strange behavior. You get this fleeting communal awkwardness. It’s given us the elevator pitch, in which someone summates his or her preoccupation to another, hoping for some sense of mutual investment. You’ve got a captive audience, why not tell them about your hustle?

But when more people get on board, things get weirder–and by that I mean hierarchical.

The elevator pecking order

You walk into an elevator. Where do you stand? From the research done by Australian ethnographer Rebekah Rousi, it depends largely on the people already standing in the chamber. She recognized a “clear social order” emerge after repeatedly being a fly on the elevator wall:

  • Senior men stood near the back of cabins
  • Younger men stood in front of older dudes
  • And women stood in front of the guys

Strange, right? And maybe also a little predictable? We should note that Rousi did her research in Adelaide, Australia, a town that’s known to be relatively conservative. What would the elevator hierarchy maps be like in more liberal places around the world? And the hierarchy stuff probably varies industry to industry–and neighborhood to neighborhood–too. Maybe we need an office anthropologist on the case.

And how do you act?

From Rousi’s research, your actions depend on the social setting you’re briefly stuck in. A few of her observations:

  • Men watched TV monitors and checked themselves out in mirrors, regardless of who was with them
  • When women were with men, they would watch the TV monitors, but avoid eye contact with others, and not look into mirrors

Some implicit gender-normative stuff is afoot in the elevator, especially regarding the mirrors.

“It was only when the women travelled with other women, and just a few at that, that women elevator users would utilise the mirrors,” Rousi writes. “One interviewee even mentioned that she only looked in the mirrors when there was no one else in the elevator.”

What to do with entrenched elevator attitudes? It’s outside the purview of this article, but leaning in seems to be somehow related to getting to the next floor.

If you would like to hold the door open on elevator discussion (or puns), please do so in the comments.

An uplifting experience–adopting ethnography to study elevator user experience

[Image: Flickr user JD Hancock]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.