Remote Work and the Psychology of Space

Environment influences your ability to focus and engage in complex tasks.

Posted Oct 16, 2020

A client recently lamented that he had spent more time at home over the past seven months than he had over the past fifteen years. Now, everywhere he turns, he sees an overdue home project. I assured him that he is not alone. I also noted that his desire to engage in home improvement projects is likely not just about a burning need to cover up chipped paint. 

With so many things out of our control, we’re increasingly turning to our homes to regain control. As evidence, consider the recent spike in home renovations and surge in home furniture sales.  Fortunately, this impulse is smart and healthy. 

Small tweaks in your home can affect your emotions and even your ability to focus. In fact, your space can be a powerful lever to drive your ability to thrive. 

Step 1: Clarify Where You’re at Your Best 

Where have you felt and been at your best? We’re so impacted by our environment, we generally fail to give this much thought, but we should. I suggest approaching this as a two-phase process. 

First, think about when and where you feel most productive, creative, and impactful. Where were you in the groove? Where did you experience flow

Once you’ve clarified where and when you were at your best, reflect on how you might bring some of that inspiration, joy, or calm to your current space. If you love being on an empty beach, is it just about being close to the water, or is there something else you love? Next, consider how you might recreate a small piece of that amazing space at home. Also, think about your daily workflow. Create a catalog of those things that make you tick and those things that actively disrupt your workflow.

Step 2: Challenge Assumptions

There are too many things we take for granted. While many kids rearrange their rooms weekly (even daily), adults’ furniture often becomes fixed in space. Look around your home. Think about every item of furniture. Do you need it? Does it need to be where it is? Are there too many things in a particular room? If you can’t get perspective, do a virtual walk-through with a close friend. Choose someone who won't be afraid to share frank advice on what should stay and go.

Step 3: Less is Always More

Harness your inner KonMari! Toss, donate, and when in doubt, deliberate (this applies to the stuff you don’t use but still love). If you’re not already doing this regularly, your failure to do so may also be symptomatic of a larger problem. A 2020 study published in Environment and Behavior found that workplace stress is frequently caused by excess clutter. However, clutter can also increase stress and decisional procrastination. Said another way, stress can cause clutter, and clutter can also increase stress and procrastination. It’s a vicious cycle and one that has a negative effect on wellness and workplace productivity

Step 4: Embrace Small Changes 

Revisit the insights you already arrived at in Steps 1 and 2 to start making changes that go beyond decluttering. Remember, you likely don’t need to bring in an architect or designer. Small changes can do just as good a job setting you up for success. To begin, consider two small and low-cost changes:

  • Turn Up the Sunlight: Shift your desk to a location with more sunlight. There is evidence that increasing sunlight has a positive impact on job satisfaction. It can also reduce one’s risk of depression and anxiety
  • Bring In the Plants: Bringing the outdoors in is one way to keep thriving during the pandemic. And, just like sunlight, there is evidence that plants are more than a nice-to-have feature. One 2014 study found that bringing plants into the workplace raised productivity by 15 percent. 

The Science Behind the Psychology of Space  

You may have only recently started to think about space, but many architects, designers, and organizational psychologists have dedicated their careers to researching space and its psychological effects. 

For example, much has been written about the so-called “cathedral effect.” As one highly circulated 2007 study found, high ceilings may have a measurable impact on one’s ability to process information. In a laboratory setting, researchers asked participants to categorize a series of dissimilar objects. Participants who completed the task in a high-ceiling room were able to more easily make connections and classify the objects. Building on this study, one might conclude that high ceilings aren’t just attractive and inspiring but also a feature that supports abstract thinking. Hence, their essential role in any workspace.

Of course, this raises an important question: What if you're currently living in a house or apartment with lower ceilings? Most of us don’t have 12-foot ceilings, let alone the 100-foot-plus ceilings found in actual cathedrals. Still, you can replicate the cathedral effect with the strategic use of color and design.

References

Roster, C. A., & Ferrari, J. R. (2020). Does Work Stress Lead to Office Clutter, and How? Mediating Influences of Emotional Exhaustion and Indecision. Environment and Behavior, 52(9), 923–944. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916518823041

An, M., Colarelli, S. M., O'Brien, K., & Boyajian, M. E. (2016). Why We Need More Nature at Work: Effects of Natural Elements and Sunlight on Employee Mental Health and Work Attitudes. PloS one, 11(5), e0155614. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155614

University of Exeter. (2014, September 1). Why plants in the office make us more productive. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 16, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140901090735.htm

Meyers‐Levy, J. and Zhu, R.J. (2007). The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use. Journal of Consumer Research 34 (2): 174-186. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/10.1086/519146.pdf