Do you have a favorite place to work? A place where the ideas just flow, where distractions are diminished and concentration is enhanced? If so, consider yourself lucky. For many people in the workplace, however, if such a mentally stimulating location exists, it is usually not their assigned desk or cubicle. The good news is that there are ways to personalize workspace to enhance productivity.
My Space, Myself
Research by Katharine H. Greenaway (2016) found that we are more productive when working in spaces that signal identity.[i] They began by noting that people generally perform better within spaces that support important identities, and experience negative outcomes within identity-threatening spaces.
Investigating the impact of working within ingroup or outgroup space on organizational performance, they came to some interesting conclusions. They had research participants complete exercises in different offices, some that were identity affirming, some identity threatening, and some undecorated. They found that the performance of work teams was superior in both ingroup spaces and outgroup spaces than in spaces that were undecorated.
The research of Greenaway et al. begins by acknowledging prior research demonstrating the impact of surroundings on mood and performance. Regarding mood, they note that Christians are happier when they are in a room with a Christmas tree than one without, while Sikhs and Buddhists are less happy in a room with a Christmas tree—demonstrating the impact of space to either affirm or threaten identity.
They note that Christians experience better physiological health in a cathedral than in a mosque, while atheists experience worse mental health in a cathedral than they do in a museum. Interestingly, regarding specific areas of interest, they cite prior research that found that women report less interest in computer science when they are in a room with objects stereotypically associated with the topic, such as a Star Trek poster, than a poster portraying nature.
Regarding performance, they cite an example of a very practical phenomenon, the fact that sports teams perform better when they are playing games at home than away.
Broadly, the researchers sought to undertake a comparison between spaces within an organizational context in which people feel, to use their words, “at home,” versus spaces where they feel “out of place.”
Competition Prompts Productivity
The results of Greenaway et al. showed that people performed better in offices decorated both with “ingroup” and “outgroup” colored décor rather than undecorated spaces. Why would people perform better when working in an office with decorations reflecting a rival team? They explained that finding as consistent with social identity research, showing that “intergroup rivalry can sometimes lead to improved organizational performance because it serves to increase motivation and engagement.”
In conclusion, they note that regarding space management in the workplace, “meaning beats leaning—insofar as spaces that are rich in identity-laden information promote better performance.” They describe space as “not just a stage for performance, but a stimulus.”
Claiming Your Corner
Other research investigated the impact of intentionally personalizing workspace, and marking territory. Research by Graham Brown (2009) demonstrated how employees tend to claim their territory in the workplace.[ii] He notes that previous research established that 75 percent of people working in an office admittedly marked company products, including stationary, with their own names. Additionally, 29 percent of people always used the same mug. The research noted that personal preferences extended even to bathroom behavior, finding that 49 percent of people had a favorite stall, for which they would wait to become free if necessary.
This type of behavior was thought to provide a measure of control in the working world. Brown noted that over half of the people reporting such workplace behaviors believed that abandoning their territorial behavior would decrease their productivity and cause depression.
Brown's own research established a link between psychological ownership and identity-oriented marking that was higher than any of the other types of territorial behaviors. He noted this finding was consistent with previous research suggesting that the more we feel like we own something, the more likely we are to personalize it. Interestingly, he also noted that territorial behaviors are not spurred by a need for power or influence over others, a finding also consistent with previous research.
The takeaway appears to be: Choose your workspace carefully. It may determine your motivation, efficiency, sense of control, and well-being. Strategizing workspace to maximize productivity can enhance your ability to complete your work faster, leaving more time to enjoy the rest of your life.
[i]Katharine H. Greenaway, Hannibal A. Thai, S. Alexander Haslam, and Sean C. Murphy, "Spaces that signal identity improve workplace productivity," Journal Of Personnel Psychology 15, no. 1, 2016, 35-43.
[ii]Graham Brown, “Claiming a corner at work: Measuring employee territoriality,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 29, 2009, 44-52.