When it comes to each individual’s space and desk area, is it best to back off and let people customize their immediate surrounds to fit their own tastes and needs or should a tidy desk policy and uniformity of approach be imposed to protect a specific look and standard? It’s a pendulum swing between aesthetics and wellbeing that’s fast gaining momentum, with many companies going back and forth in pursuit of the best approach.
A scientific study, conducted a few years ago by psychological scientist Professor Kathleen Vohs, along with a number of other researchers from the University of Minnesota, considered the behavior of people working on both messy and clean desks and found that the individuals working in messier spaces came up with more creative and interesting results in their work overall.
With these findings backed up by the habits of great minds such as Einstein, Roald Dahl and Steve Jobs, who all purportedly liked messy, free style desks and produced their best work from the same, it’s hard to produce an argument in favour of any sort of enforced, orderly approach. (That’s one nil to wellbeing, then !).
So, in this age where employee wellbeing is up there with health and safety and we’re all doing our best to promote staff retention, is now the time to stop policing individuals’ desk areas, once and for all, and allow team members a bit of free rein?
The ‘clear desk’ or ‘clean desk’ policy, a directive imposed by employers and managers, was initially introduced as a way of protecting a company from threats to its security, theft or fraud. However, it’s most common use is as a means of keeping offices tidy while securing a uniform look and standard. This ‘tidy’ look has come to be widely viewed as the most professional and, certainly, the most desirable for those offices frequented by clients and regular visitors. In short, it pleases the many and, for many businesses, it helps to uphold the image of the brand.
There is also something quite therapeutic about clearing your desk at the end of every working day, which balances the wellbeing argument, to an extent, and presents the ‘clean desk’ approach as in the workers’ best interests. Not to mention, it causes the least offence to co-workers, along with all others who pass through the vicinity…
Although we should be aware of boundaries and respect each other’s space, particularly in an open-plan environment where there are no obvious markers, members of a team shouldn’t expect to be regulated when it comes to personal items. As with everything, there has to be room for balance and workers need to be able to feel comfortable in, and able to identify with, their place of work.
As individual space continues to decrease in favour of shared space – communal areas, meeting rooms and shared hot-desking areas – what little that remains on and around the desk has become of even greater importance to the individual. The desk is the one solid block of space, the single physical aspect of office life, that can actually be rooted in the personal.
Google, typically, is a prime example of a business that has forged its way ahead in this area, going as far as to allow its software engineers the opportunity to design their own desks and write on the walls. The tech giant works from the theory that having a personal imprint on our own space allows us to operate at our best intellectually and to be at our most productive.
This is further born out by research completed by academics at Exeter University in the last couple of years which revealed that employees are up to 15 per cent more productive when they can engage with their surrounds. It makes perfect sense: By giving workers some freedom to own and manage their own space, you are also giving them the opportunity to be innovative, creative and most effective. You might not be able to give them their dream working environment but what you can do is allow the worker some say and some control over his or her workstation and the small piece of space that he or she inhabits. It’s their desk; they should ‘own’ it.
The current trend for office design is a clear indicator that comfort plays a significant role in staff wellbeing and so we should all be able to customize our desks and immediate working environment to afford ourselves this little luxury. It’s a bit like feeling at home in a space.
Allowing this sort of free rein advocates permanency. It’s the opposite of the notion of being a temp and it shows each individual that they matter and they’re valued. It shouts out: You’re here; you’re permanent; this is yours.
And, if you own the space, you’re far more likely to truly want to own the job, aren’t you?