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Management: A Place For My Stuff In The Space Where I Work
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Management: A Place For My Stuff In The Space Where I Work - Executive Leadership Articles

Management: A Place For My Stuff In The Space Where I Work

Executive Leadership Articles

Management: A Place For My Stuff In The Space Where I Work

The war between management and the rank-and-file over personal workspace is multifaceted and never-ending. Take the usual difficulties when many people with different personalities have to work together, and multiply it by a hundred when you add such concerns as who has to occupy the cubicle near the restroom, who’s eating what odd-smelling lunch, and whose desk looks like a file cabinet exploded all over it. To minimize these tensions, many workplaces attempt to standardize the look, some going as far as to prohibit more than one framed photo per workspace. Do such controls make for a more harmonious environment, or does restricting personal flair also constrict productivity and morale?

In his recent book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives, author Tim Harford suggests that it’s not the neatness or messiness of a workspace that makes the difference, but the freedom each employee has to personalize it. Harford cites a 2010 study by Alex Haslam and Craig Knight, in which subjects were placed in four different work environments and asked to work on administrative tasks, such as checking documents, for one hour. The first workspace was extremely tidy, offering only a bare desk, some paper, a pencil, and a swivel chair. The second was decorated with photos and plants. As one might expect, the workers in the second space got more done, were more accurate, and reported more positive feelings about their experience.

Where it gets interesting is in the third and fourth spaces, which were set up just like the second space, but workers were told they could arrange the items in whatever way pleased them. They could even ask to have everything removed, resulting in an environment like the first workspace. The key is that they were given the freedom to work in conditions that pleased them. However, in the fourth workspace, after workers arranged things to their liking, the experimenters put everything back where it was when they started, an exact replica of the second workspace. Workers in the third space, where decorations suited them, were 30% more productive than in the first space and 15% more productive than in the second space. Workers in the fourth space were the last productive, and they shared the most negative feelings about their experience, even complaining that they were physically uncomfortable, and that the temperature was unpleasant.

Although this is only one experiment, the takeaway seems clear: people like some amount of control over the spaces they work in. They feel mentally and emotionally better, and they get more done with fewer mistakes. This reintroduces the complications with varying personalities and clashing preferences, but even if some compromise is necessary, the removal of an authoritarian dictate about what the workspace should look like seems to be an obvious first step. When coworkers are forced to compromise, they are still exercising their agency, the critical piece of this puzzle. Most of us are willing to give up the reheated, aromatic fish lunches at our desks if we don’t have to deal with someone else’s preference for putting all their phone calls on the speaker: it’s not a ruling from on high, but a mutual consideration that comes down to choice.

The freedom to personalize space seems even more beneficial in open office settings, where people often expend extra energy fighting off distractions and dealing with the stress of always feeling monitored. Researchers have found that administrative and clerical workers in open offices have higher stress levels than those in offices with walls and doors, but that when they have personal decorations in open spaces, they “take comfort from the items with which they surround themselves at work, and these items may help employees to maintain emotional energy in the face of the stresses that come from their work and the distractions and difficulties inherent in working in a low privacy environment,” according to an article from the Association for Psychological Science.

Morale is a tricky concept, sometimes affected by conflicting ideals. Behavior in workspaces—including the way spaces are personalized—can create conflict among coworkers, but removing the freedom to personalize makes things even more unpleasant. There is always the temptation in organizations to put a ban on anything causing friction, but perhaps the answer is instead to allow those invested to work out compromises, so that the benefits can be reaped while the difficulties are negotiated, and maybe the Dilbert strip on cubicle walls about incompetent managers won’t sting quite as much.

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Management: A Place For My Stuff In The Space Where I Work - Executive Leadership Articles

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