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Surprising Ways Your Workspace Affects Your Productivity 

By Emily Cogburn

Most of us don’t think very much about our workspaces. We go to our

offices or cubicles focused on what we need to do for the day. We hardly

notice the photos of our pets or relatives we positioned next to the

computer screen months or years earlier. The pencil cup made by a child

in our lives hardly merits a second glance. Research shows, however, that

where we work and how we set up our space is more important than we

might think. 

 

What does your workspace say about you? 

Lily Bernheimer, director of Space Works Consulting and an environmental psychology consultant, tells the BBC that her research links types of desks to different personalities. She identifies five main types of workers, typified by their unique personalization (or lack thereof) of their workspaces.  

  • Clutterers, with colorful desks full of knick-knacks and personal effects, tend to be extroverted and welcoming. They are so busy that they don’t have time for tidiness, and cleaning isn’t a priority for them.  

  • Minimalists with tidy and organized workspaces are planners and tend to be efficient and organized.  

  • Expanders aren’t necessarily disorganized, but they allow their personal effects to radiate outward, claiming more territory, according to Bernheimer. Like invading armies, they are dominating and aggressive. 

  • Personalizers, people who decorate their workspaces with art, travel photos, and other mementos, are creative, open, and satisfied with their jobs.  

  • Surveyors feel insecure if their desks are in high traffic areas. They tend to be introverted and like their personal space. At the same time, they are creative and productive as long as they are left alone.  

 

So now, maybe you have identified your desk types and what it says about you, but perhaps we can take this in another direction. What if changing your workspace could affect your work performance? 

 

How does your workspace affect your productivity? 

A number of studies have shown a connection between workers’ effectiveness in various tasks and the environment in which the work is completed. In one experiment, researchers at the University of Minnesota asked study participants to fill out questionnaires in a messy or a tidy office. Those who worked in the untidy office were less likely to agree to donate to charity on their way out and more often chose a candy bar over an apple for their snack. Researchers concluded that the neat room encouraged conformity to expectations.  

To test creativity, the same researchers put participants in tidy or messy rooms and asked them to come up with innovative uses for ping pong balls. The ideas from the participants in the disorganized room were deemed more creative by impartial judges. People working in the untidy room also chose new products over established ones, which the researchers thought showed more interest in innovation. 

One of the study’s authors, University of Minnesota Assistant Professor Joe Redden said, “We may want to tailor the environment for the behavior we want to encourage. If I’m a bank manager and I want my loan officer to be very careful, to follow the rules…you want those environments to be very neat, very organized, you want to encourage those behaviors that are really sticking to the norms. On the flip side, imagine you’re an advertising agency, you actually want to have, I think, more of disorganized, more of a free space to encourage the free thinking.” It all has to do with which “self” we want to turn on for a particular job or task, Redden concluded. 

Perhaps, if we must attend carefully to a tedious, yet mentally demanding task, we might benefit from working in a neater room. Backing up this idea, an article published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2011 argued that too much visual stimuli can interfere with focus. 

These kinds of studies seem to suggest that there are benefits and drawbacks to both messy and neat offices. The same holds true for other aspects of the working environment. While tasks that require more attention to detail are better performed in quieter settings, noise may foster creativity. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that around 70 decibels of noise, the equivalent to a coffee shop or television, actually enhanced the performance of people in a brainstorming session. Higher levels of noise were distracting, while too much quiet made for lower creativity.  

 

How do your coworkers affect your productivity? 

Steven Johnson, author of Where Ideas Come From, argues that

coffeeshops were crucial to the Enlightenment movement in

17-century England. Ideas don’t flourish in sterile, quiet rooms or even

in one person’s brilliant brain, he says. Instead, innovation is almost always

the result of creative people bringing together ideas from others.

Breakthroughs happen at the conference table, in the coffeeshop,

or anywhere people can share their thoughts. 

 

A study published in the Harvard Business Review takes this idea in a slightly different direction by suggesting that our desk neighbors are highly influential on our productivity. After analyzing data from 2,000 employees of an international company, the researchers concluded that ten percent of a worker’s performance “spills over” to those sitting nearby. If an average performer was replaced with one with twice the productivity,  neighboring workers’ performance increased around 10 percent. 

Furthermore, pairing workers with different strengths helped both improve. Placing productive workers (people who completed tasks quickly, but lacked quality in their work) next to quality performers (those who were slow, but excelled in their work), the result was a 13 percent gain in speed and 17 percent increase in effectiveness. Pairing workers with similar strengths resulted in fewer gains.  

The researchers also noticed negative effects when toxic employees were placed near other workers. Toxicity won, increasing the likelihood that employee near problematic people would become toxic. 

So, yes, your environment matters. If you want to be more creative, tack those art prints above your desk and maybe add homemade items from your collection. When you’re feeling too scattered, recycle or file the papers from your desk. Perhaps thinking about your workspace will even help you see those daily tasks and your own skills from a new point of view. 

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