You Are Your Workspace
The stuff on your desk affects the ideas you come up with, now more than ever
Every time I interview someone for a story, I spend half the interview not looking at their face. Instead, I look around them, surreptitiously collecting data from the objects in their workspace. I did this before Zoom, in real life, and now I do it through our little internet windows into each other’s homes. The office of a scientist has awards all over the floor, or a teddy bear on a shelf. A teenager works on a tablet with a purple detachable keyboard. A police administrator, for some reason, has a nametag written on notebook paper.
Inevitably, these items reveal facets of the interviewee’s life that you’d miss if you focused only on words or clothes. Awards all over the floor, for example, might convey that a person is so busy achieving excellence he doesn’t have time to enjoy the spoils. A teddy bear might indicate an emotional connection to a child (that particular interviewee was a doctor who treated young people with cancer). Desk items are never just there. A person put them there, and if you pay close enough attention, you might be able to figure out why.
Since the pandemic drove the majority of American white-collar workers from productivity-optimized offices into slapdash living room arrangements, our stress balls, fountain pens, concert posters, dolphin calendars, and rap-lyric needlepoints have gone the way of interoffice softball games — which is to say, away until at least 2021. So we’ve started reconstructing our desk nests at home, like birds plucking up whatever shiny beads and forked twigs remain after their homes have been dashed by bad weather.
Our new desks aren’t the same, but even a thrown-together approximation seems to be helpful. But why? Is decorating our desks just a weird habit? Or do we need personalized workspaces in order to operate at maximum effectiveness?
The answer, surprisingly, turns out to be the latter. A workspace does more than make a person comfortable while she writes reports and edits spreadsheets. There’s evidence that choosing certain items and arranging them in a thoughtful way can make us more productive, more creative, and more relaxed.
But figuring out how, exactly, to do this might get a little messy.
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The psychology of office stuff
An entire branch of psychology exists to explain the intersection between individuals and work. Industrial-organizational psychology (I/O psychology for short) focuses on individual and group behavior in working environments, with a subset of its experts spotlighting the environments themselves. For years, I/O cognoscenti held that there were three important functions served by office personalization: One, filling an office with your own preferred items told visitors who you were. Two, they marked territory, saying this space is mine, and not yours. Three, they were an indication of status — a gold pen or a university degree that said “I belong here.”
Greg Laurence, a professor of management at the University of Michigan, Flint, felt like there must be more to it than that. Humans are social, hierarchical animals. Our work fulfills psychological needs. The things we choose to surround ourselves with in workspaces must be shaped by these demands. In 2014 Laurence and his colleagues visited 20 offices to ask people why they had selected the decor they had. They found that there was almost no purpose a knickknack couldn’t serve. A family photo could support emotional regulation. A joint achievement award could communicate collective identity. A piece of work by a revered graphic designer could provide creative inspiration. A gift from a satisfied client could remind you that your work matters.
Laurence’s takeaway from the examples he saw was that personal expression at the office didn’t just express various concepts about the self to workers and their visitors. Some of it actually improved a person’s ability to perform work, by regulating their emotional and cognitive states. The doodads were as necessary as the right pen or keyboard or notepad. Without them, work was harder to do.
People understand this intuitively. For the most part, they don’t have to be told to outfit their workspaces as they like. Nurses and cops personalize their nonstandard work environments by keeping mementos in their lockers. Uniformed waiters do it with jewelry and nail polish and shoes.
But as the “flair” scene in the movie Office Space makes clear, the items have to be self-chosen in order to work. In a 2010 study, researchers at the University of Exeter offered people the opportunity to work in a bare-bones office, an office decorated by the researchers, an office the subjects decorated themselves, or an office they decorated themselves that the researchers later rearranged. The self-decoration condition was the most effective for productivity — people got a whopping 32% more done, without any additional errors, than those in the bare office condition. (The rearrangement condition, meanwhile, just pissed people off.)
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“I started thinking back to all the taxi cabs that I’ve been in and how one driver will have a bobblehead and another will have rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror or something like that,” Laurence says. “To me, that’s an indication of the universality and the power of it. Even in contexts where you don’t think of [personalizing a space] as being possible, people are still doing it.”
If that’s true, the longer we work in our home offices, the more we will need to alter them to fill the same niches our previous workspaces filled. We will need to outfit our new desks and walls and windows with things that make us work better. Only: Which things are those?
What every workspace needs
Lily Bernheimer is an environmental psychologist who investigates the ways external spaces affect human psychology, altering emotions, improving focus, and reducing stress. She runs a design consultancy called Space Works where she advises clients on the optimal setups for coworking spaces, homes, schools, and even prisons.
Bernheimer draws a distinction between items and environments that have a physical impact on a person’s ability to focus and concentrate, and those that fulfill more subtle needs.
Lighting that mimics sunlight, a sound environment that you can control, ergonomic seating, and a task lamp with a warm-light bulb all fall into the former category. So do plants and windows, which both increase concentration and decrease stress. “Workers with a view outside have been shown to perform 25% better in terms of mental function and memory recall, compared to those not working near a window,” she says.
What your workspace needs
It’s tougher to provide universal guidelines for the more idiosyncratic items that make a person happy at work, but there are some common patterns that can guide you on your search. Bernheimer cited work by Samuel Gosling, a social psychologist at the University of Texas, in which he and his colleagues visited people’s offices when they weren’t there. They tried to use the objects they found to predict their personalities according to the five-factor model of personality, which explains human nature along the five axes of extroversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
The major factors that relate to office decoration are extroversion, conscientiousness, and openness to new experience, Bernheimer says. “Extroverts tend to have things in their offices that help them engage with other people, such as a chair for guests or a candy jar.” People who are very open to new experiences had more stylish, distinctive offices, with books and magazines on a greater variety of topics — a psychologist wouldn’t just have materials on psychology, for example, but psychology, philosophy, history, and gardening. Conscientiousness, meanwhile, is a trait associated with being orderly, and preferring to follow routines and rules. This is where you see differences in cleanliness and orderliness of a workspace.
The big question in psychology, always, is the chicken-and-egg thing — does a particular personality factor bring about the decor choice, or can the decor choice affect your behavior? If you want to be more diligent in your work, can you simply maintain a cleaner desk?
It’s complicated (this is why it’s always the big question). But there is some evidence that — now that we’re all starting from scratch — you can choose items with the aim of being a better, or smarter, or more creative worker.
The benefits of controlled clutter
Bernheimer does have a prescription for how many things to place in and around your office. “One of the suggestions about why even just simple visual contact with the natural world has this really great impact on our well-being is that much of the natural world is defined by fractal geometry,” she says. In its simplest form, fractal geometry describes patterns that are made up of smaller versions of the overall form. In a tree, the template of branching you see in the whole tree is replicated in the bigger boughs and then again in the smaller shoots and sprigs. Similar patterns are common in lightning, clouds, and coastlines. Built environments are usually not like this: They tend to include more Euclidean straight lines and angular structures.
“One of the theories is that fractal geometry involves this specific balance between order and complexity, and so that’s something that we tend to find really delightful in the built environment or in design,” Bernheimer says.
One example of office decor whose fractal geometry delights people would be a bookshelf on which the books all face the same way, but vary in size, shape, and color. A bookshelf is just complicated enough to hold our attention while at the same time orderly enough to evoke a sense of calm. If you can strike this balance with your decor, by choosing different manifestations of a particular theme (sunflowers, fashion photos, antique candy machines, fonts, pictures of cars), or even just by piling your folders in a way that looks interesting, your brain will be in a better place.
The unique challenges of the at-home workspace
One unexpected outcome of being forced to work at home that both Laurence and Bernheimer spoke about was the unusual experience of needing to undecorate your office. Laurence calls this “institutionalizing,” as a way to express the opposite of personalizing. It’s the idea that your home may actually be “too you” to be conducive to work.
“There’s a theory about work that discusses needs for belonging, autonomy, and competence… It’s the competency need that is an interesting case [during Covid work-from-home conditions],” Laurence says. There are a lot of additional distractions at home that don’t exist at work. Other roles you play, such as parent or homemaker or hobbyist, and the things that go along with them, are all up in your face. “That’s where institutionalization, I think, ends up helping. If you can create a dedicated workspace that makes you feel like you’re at work, it’s easier to switch your mind over, which should help people to concentrate and get their work done more effectively.”
“I’m telling people, you may want to take some part of your house and take out remnants of other parts of your personality, like get your knitting things or your art supplies out of that room, so you can focus on being an effective lawyer or whatever it is you do,” Bernheimer says.
But, as with all things pandemic, there’s no need to get super fussy about it. You can do a lot from a couch. There are important objects in that environment, too.
Take it from Jerry Seinfeld, who talked about personalized workspaces in an episode of his eponymous sitcom that aired back in 1992. George Costanza is, as usual, worrying. He needs to find the perfect pen, the perfect setup, and the perfect seating arrangement to begin writing a sitcom pilot.
“It may seem outwardly that the pen and the paper and the chair play a large role,” Seinfeld says. “But they’re all somewhat incidental to the actual using of the brain.”
That said, Jerry Seinfeld may have a particularly productive brain. The rest of us might need a little decorative assistance to write one of the most incisive comedy series of all time. In my case, it’s a foot-tall wheeled llama wearing a cardboard bow tie and a tiny sombrero. Good luck figuring out what that means.