It’s a common belief that your workspace influences your mindset, but many disagree on exactly what direction this takes.
Is it better to have a minimalistic, clean and uncluttered desk, leading to a clean and uncluttered mind? Or a desk filled with decor and photos, which could make you feel more at home and, therefore, more productive?
Either way, opinions on this topic have shaped desk decor policies at modern workplaces.
The importance of personal preferences
According to University of Queensland School of Psychology Professor and Laureate Fellow Alex Haslam, there is not one desk design that will boost productivity for every person.
“The idea that people will work better without distractions has been championed by some researchers but there is little evidence that this works as a general policy to be imposed on everyone,” he said.
“What our research shows is that people’s preferences here vary as a function of aspects of their identity – and what matters is that the space you work in allows you to express your identity."
“Much the same as some people who like minimalist home decor while others like ornamentation.
“Just as it makes no sense to tell everybody how to decorate their homes to increase their wellbeing, so too does it not make sense to tell them how to decorate their office.”
In a 2010 study, Professor Haslam researched the idea that workers needed to be able to decorate as they saw fit.
“In a series of experimental studies, we found that allowing people to have a say about the design and decor of their workspace led to increases in both productivity and wellbeing, particularly in the form of reduced stress,” he said.
“This fits with additional data that we now have about people’s experiences of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Office workers generally found this experience to be positive, which is why most continued with at least some home working once the pandemic was over.
“This largely corroborates our theoretical analysis that productivity and wellbeing are enhanced the more control people are given over their use of space.”
Desk decor policies and trusting your employees
While some workplaces allow employees to decorate their workspaces and desks however they want to, others have rules and requirements about just how much decor they can have.
This can be a practical rule, especially in places that use strategies like hot desking, which makes having permanent decor a little difficult.
But, according to Professor Haslam, many organisations doing this are going about it the wrong way and these policies aren’t always as necessary as some may think.
Managers should think carefully about why desk decor policies are really in place and whether they are needed or not.
“There are still a lot of organisations that want to manage space very tightly to restrict people’s ability to express themselves in their workspace – unless, of course, they are senior managers who generally get to do this not just for themselves but for everyone else,” he said.
“In this sense, there is still a very tight connection between space and power.”
With different types and amounts of desk decor helping different people, Professor Haslam said it was important for managers to trust their employees to set up their space in the way that worked for them.
Tidy desks with little decor might help some people but not everyone – so while it can be hard to give up control, it can reap great benefits.
“Productivity and wellbeing are enhanced the more control people are given over their use of space,” Professor Haslam said.
“It’s clear, though that employers are split on how willing they are to give employees this freedom.
“Some have learnt the lessons of our research and have moved to give employees more control, while others have fought to regain control.
“A healthy workspace provides people with opportunities to express their identities, not one that imposes identity on them.”