Reader James Hough's desk: "I work at a liberal publishing firm. Can you tell?"
Forget clearing clutter in the office. Decorating your desk is good for you - and good for your boss, according to a set of workplace experiments.
By Alex Haslam and Craig Knight
Ever come back from holiday and been acutely aware of the fact that someone else has been working at your desk? The computer screen is at the wrong angle, the mouse is on the wrong side of the keyboard, your pens have been put in the top drawer together with the photograph of your cat.
What's the first thing you do? Put them all back. Why? Because this is your space and the way it's arranged says something important about who you are - both to yourself and to other people.
This article is illustrated with photos sent in by our readers.
Office design is continually evolving and improving. Despite this, employees have remarkably little say in how their place of work looks and feels. They may be able to personalise their desk, but their input will not be sought on the structure and feel of the place as a whole.
Mostly, this is simply taken for granted - employees have little input into the design of their workspace because it isn't their responsibility: it is the manager's right to manage and the designer's right to design.
This was beautifully illustrated this week when civil servants working in Revenue and Customs were told not to personalise their desks. Family photographs, souvenirs, lunch boxes - unwanted clutter to be banished from sight. In short, personal identity was forced to give way to corporate identity.
An extreme example, but lesser policies are widespread and pervasive. But what are the effects - and unintended consequences? We set out to find out just that. Our research suggests that simply telling employees how their workplace will look is bad for business.
Sick building syndrome
In particular, a survey of UK office workers suggests that a lack of control over workspace design is associated with high levels of stress, job dissatisfaction, absenteeism and staff turnover.
Those with little input take on average nearly twice as many sick days. One reason is that a lack of control reduces employees' identification with their managers and the organisation as a whole.
Intrigued, we tried out different scenarios to test the impact on well-being and performance.
This involved changing things like seating arrangement, wall decoration and the placement of plants, and - more importantly - who made these changes.
Those in offices decorated with plants and pictures work faster and feel far more comfortable than those in undecorated space. Performance and well-being are improved even further if employees are given the opportunity to design their own space.
But if workers' own spatial arrangements are over-ridden (like the staff at Revenue and Customs), productivity and well-being fall sharply. And they are 80% more likely to experience "sick office syndrome", believing that the office air is contaminated and complaining of headaches.
This suggests that when workspaces are enriched by decoration - particularly if employees have input into this process - we see increases in workers' identification with those in authority and with the organisation they represent.
This makes sense because the way space is managed communicates important information about shared group membership. It tells an employee whether they are "one of us" or "one of them". In this way, executive washrooms (like preferential parking spots) clearly do much more than provide a better place to wash (or park).
If you are given input into the design of space this demonstrates quite powerfully that you are respected and valued and that you matter. If you are not, it is a salient physical reminder that you do not matter and are not in the same boat as the managers. If you're not in the same boat, you won't be pulling on the same oars.
We are not so naive as to think that, on its own, a change in design philosophy will radically transform the workplace. Giving people the opportunity to place personal photographs on their desk is hardly an organisational cure-all.
But we are continually astounded to discover how naive many people are in assuming that these things do not matter at all.
Alex Haslam is a professor of psychology at Exeter University. Craig Knight is a PhD student. To take part in their research, click here for a quick questionnaire.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
It works the other way round as well. A few years ago I was the target of workplace bullying. I deliberately took down all my personal decorations to remind myself that I was not part of the organisation and that my presence there was only temporary. It worked - it kept me focused on the alienation imposed on me and I left the company with a very large compensation "package".
Ken Dixon, working in London
In a job a couple of years ago I used to visit the HQ of a high-profile UK company to work with staff there. The building is visually stunning but an extremely unpleasant place to be. There's a clear-desk policy and they can't even have a drink of water at their desks. I was always keen for the meeting to end so that I could rejoin humanity. My own desk doesn't have photos on it, because I don't work that way, but I do have drinks, snacks, spare jumper etc. But surely what's more important is that I'm good at my job and the work always gets done well and on time.
Did anyone see David Cameron's "office" on last night's party political broadcast? Everything was so tidy and colour coordinated, If it is indicative of his personality, then he needs to get out more.
Often personal items on someone's desk give you something to chat about with people you otherwise wouldn't. How many times have you had someone come over to your desk and comment on something, which leads to a conversation about how or where you got it etc. I think it improves employee relations, and gives you an idea of what people might like if you just so happen to get them in the office Secret Santa.
I've just moved from a job where I hot-desked, and was allowed the barest minimum of personal effects around my desk, into a job where I have my own office I share with one other person. I argued for a long time in my old job that we should be allowed personal effects and have "personal space", but looking at my desk now, I've just realised I have nothing personal around me, and that I don't miss having personal things in the office. I can concentrate better without them, and therefore leave work earlier in the evening than I used to. I personally think being allowed personal effects isn't that important. However having the option to have them, if you would like is. Everyone is different and everyone would arrange their working conditions differently if allowed to.
Peter Methven, Edinburgh
Just come back from an extensive trip to Bangkok. Their office environment is relaxed, friendly and very personalised. It's very common to see people wandering around the office in pink fluffy slippers with toys, pictures, anything on their desks. Result? They are more productive. Much more. I know there's a cultural thing here to, but being in the office makes you feel like you've got a little bit of everyone's home - so you're relaxed and you make it like your home too. Wonderful!
For years I've been training people that there is always "one best way" to organise one's workspace. Sounds like I need a rethink!
Olivia Carlin, Brighton
Increasingly corporate America is moving toward a "clean desk policy" which means that NOTHING stays on your desk when you go home at night. This includes pens, paper etc, so would definitely cover anything personal you put up.
Kate, Houston, TX
I work for a large successful UK charity. We're allowed to personalise our desks as we like and almost everyone does. We have a very low employee sickness rate and its a really friendly, happy BUT productive place to work.
As a temp you cannot change your desk environment and this can make you feel an outsider and not part of the team. Many times the person you are covering for has left their desk very untidy, with an overflowing in-tray and documents strewn around. I think it's a question of keeping your desk tidy, not whether there are personal things on or around it.
Julie, NW London
I used to work at a company who had a no-clutter desk ruling. I was one of the few people who flaunted that rule, and, strangely, was also the longest serving member of my team. A year ago I moved to a new job, and now have a much more cluttered desk, along with knick-knacks and models that I have brought in from home to personalise my space a little more. I feel much more relaxed here - even thou I don't have a window to look out of anymore.
I own a small manufacturing business employing 12 people and like all staff to make their working area their own. Our business is not open to the public. I can't see anything wrong in bringing your own personality to work and your own stuff (within reason) gives you ownership of your space and therefore your job. Motto: 'Work to live not live to work'.
My workspace was changed about a year ago, so I was sitting next to a window and had a little space around me. A few months later we were all shoved down the office a little so now my window space is mere inches across and I have just enough room to move my chair in and out. At my back I have my colleague's massive cabinet towering above me. Everything I have on the walls is work-related, apart from two pictures of my brother with his new baby. The boss would love for me to take them down, he is constantly cracking jokes, or making stupid comments, but I've resisted. It is the only thing at my desk that reminds me that I'm more than a number-generating machine. I am writing this as I am off sick with a migraine. A proven point?
I cannot personalise my desk because I work in a library and part of the time am on the main issue desk, the rest at a shared desk with the other library assistant in the office. However we do have plants and other small decorative items around and even though they are not personal, I feel they improve the mood. But I feel that although it is good to have a few personal items, too much blurring of the boundaries between home and work is a bad thing. Some of these people have photos of their kids so they don't forget what they look like as they work so much they barely see them!
The next time my boss tells me to tidy the desk I'm going to flatly refuse and cite this study. I'll say my mental wellbeing is at risk and it's imperative that it remains a mess. I'm sure my boss will be very understanding.
I have brought in 2 houseplants to counter the very plastic plants my company have placed round the office. These have replaced a rapidly growing cheese plant. It is important to have real live plants in an office, it seems to me.
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